The Python returns

Terry Jones and John Cleese discuss the rerelease of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," ladies' underwear and that bastard Michael Palin.

Published June 16, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Python in stereo? Yes, believe it! But wait, there's more: an additional 23 seconds of never-before-seen footage! That's the pitch behind the "enhanced rerelease" of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," the 1975 comedy that pits a horseless King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table against bloodthirsty rabbits, castles full of willing young maidens, those nasty French and the enormously tall, shrubbery-obsessed "Knights who say 'Ni.'" Why now? Well, it seems the erstwhile bad boys of British humor scored some dough to put out an enhanced DVD this fall, so why not an enhanced theatrical rerelease while we're all waiting?

"The Holy Grail" was Monty Python's first narrative feature film, 1971's "And Now for Something Completely Different" being essentially a rehash of skits from the sextet's British TV show. And after more than a quarter-century, "The Holy Grail" is still the best spoof of medieval times since Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."

Recently, Terry Jones (who co-directed "Holy Grail" along with American Python Terry Gilliam) and the ubiquitous John Cleese teamed up for this, uh, conversation. They played off each other's wit like some old married couple -- Cleese doing his daft, upper-crust English bit and Jones sniveling and scraping like a snide underling. We open with Jones in the room sans Cleese, which is bad enough, but when Cleese arrives, things really go to pieces.

Did Monty Python's style emerge from the irreverence of the era?

Terry Jones: It seems like it. We were doing it in the late '60s, early '70s. So we were coming from a feeling that the world ought to change a bit. That the establishment had got away with it for too long.

How has your humor remained fresh after all these years?

It's a mystery. I remember a U.S. journalist explaining how he caught his first show while living in Dallas. He thought it was amazing because he couldn't imagine anyone else but him laughing at it. He felt like he was part of this private club. Maybe that's because it wasn't designed for a mass audience. If the six of us laughed at it, then that's what we did. That was always the keystone for us.

Why are you rereleasing "The Holy Grail" now?

I don't know -- maybe it's all a big mistake. Since someone's putting up money for a DVD, we thought we could put a stereo soundtrack on the film, because it was originally shot in mono. Figured we might as well see it up there on the big screen.

Are you planning to rerelease the other Python films?

I think so. This one mainly came about because of the DVD.

The story is "The Holy Grail" was a difficult film to make. What was the worst day of shooting?

The worst day was when we were filming in this Scottish gorge. We actually had to climb this mountain and carry all this bloody equipment up with us. We had only five weeks to shoot the film, and Terry Gilliam and I were very nervous, as it was the first time we'd actually directed. Then Graham Chapman couldn't stand by the edge of this mountain. He was shaking all over. He was our mountaineer, and we couldn't figure out what was the matter with him. Turned out he was actually having D.T.s, trying to get himself off alcohol. Then we were halfway through the take, and we couldn't shoot any sound for some reason. We thought, "We've got a mute camera, let's do some silent stuff." But the only silent shots were on the other side of the gorge via this rickety "Bridge of Death" we had. I kept running across it, saying, "Come on, it's perfectly safe." But no one wanted to cross it. We had to walk all the way around. That was the worst day. Or one of them, anyway.

On the flip side, what was the most enjoyable part of making the film?

Script conferences. We really looked forward to those. It was such a thrill going into one, knowing that you were going to hear things no one had ever heard before. Mike [Palin] and I would have a couple of sketches we wanted to read to the others. It was a thrill to make them laugh, and hear their stuff as well.

The press kit mentions 23 seconds of additional footage. What is that, exactly?

My answer's a bit roundabout here, but the very first showing of the film was in a theater in Soho for about 200 people. We had all our investors there: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and various other rock groups. They'd all put money in. Everybody laughed for about the first five minutes. Then suddenly the audience died. Nobody laughed. We sat through the whole film, and everyone was silent. We couldn't believe it. It was awful.

One of our producers said, "There must be something wrong." We had this very thick soundtrack full of winged birds, atmospheric fire crackles, that kind of stuff. So I remixed it, and took out [those sounds] when anyone starts speaking. That seemed to help.

Look out, it's the headmaster!

John Cleese: [Saunters into the room] Started without me, did you, Jones?

Jones: Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.

Cleese: [Sits down] Well, carry on.

Jones: I was just explaining the missing 23 seconds. It's Carol Cleveland in the Castle Anthrax -- she suddenly looks at the camera and says, "Are you enjoying this bit? We were sooo worried about it when the boys were writing it, but now it's one of our favorite bits." Then you have some of the characters saying, "Get on with it." Then you see Tim the Enchanter saying, "Get on with it." And then you have the army yelling, "Get on with it!" Then they get on with it. We were coming into Los Angeles for a film festival and wondering whether we should cut that bit or not, because it seemed to be begging for trouble to ask, "Are you enjoying it?" So we took it out, though they said if we did we couldn't put it back in. We went to Los Angeles, where for the first time ever we had a paying audience that laughed. And that bit in particular got a terrific laugh, so we were kicking ourselves that we had taken it out.

[To Cleese] Do you have any fond memories of the filming?

Cleese: Well, there was this restaurant I used to go to every night to recover from this horrendous experience of being in the damp forest. We started about 8 a.m. on the mountainside, didn't we?

Jones: The rest of us, yes. You'd turn up about 10 a.m.

Cleese: Because we were shooting out of doors, we finished when it got dark. I used to go back, shower, go into this restaurant and eat really well. It was run by a Frenchman married to a Scottish woman. I discovered this wine ...

Jones: While we were all huddled 'round the campfire with a few crusts of bread, trying to keep warm. Didn't know where you'd gone, actually.

Cleese: I never really understood why people went on about white wine. And this restaurant had white burgundy. In those days, of course, I could drink the best part of a bottle.

Jones: What about now?

Cleese: Two glasses.

Jones: What is "the best part of a bottle" -- the liquid stuff inside?

[To Cleese] You've mentioned this as your favorite film, calling the later "Meaning of Life" a mistake ...

Jones: [Interrupts] He's a miserable old bugger, isn't he?

Cleese: I like "The Life of Brian" best now. You change your mind over time. "The Meaning of Life" would not have existed were it not for Jonesie. We went on and on writing and reading stuff out, and some of it was funny. But whereas "The Holy Grail" had all been medieval, and "The Life of Brian" had been 30 A.D. or something, here people were writing things in different times. They didn't match up. So we all went on holiday together, and all we did was write. After three days, I said, "This isn't going to work. Let's take a 10-day holiday, go back to England and say how hard we worked but we never managed to get it together." I practically won the day; then Jonesie came down to breakfast and showed us this piece of paper on which he had figured out the timing.

Jones: I said, "What are we worrying about? There's 70 minutes of first-class material. We don't even have to write 20 minutes; we just have to get some of the framework. And I still think it's somebody's life." Then you or Eric [Idle] said it could be anyone's life story. Then someone said, "The Meaning of Life" ...

Cleese: And our holiday went straight out the window.

Jones: [To Cleese] So why do you think the Pythons stand up after all these years?

Cleese: I don't know. It's sort of extraordinary how it all caught on, and I can't explain it. We never thought it would happen. It had never even occurred to us.

The fights the Pythons had are legendary. Have things changed? You seem to get along well now, save for some teasing.

Jones: [Smiling] It's a bit of a façade, really.

Cleese: We hated each other sometimes. Any group is going to have the occasional tensions. We've done quite well when you think about it. But back to the other question, we seem to have come up as a group with certain archetypes that get recognized by the audience, and the stuff's funny. Well, not everyone thinks it's funny.

How much have you been offered for a Python reunion?

Cleese: $32, I think.

Jones: $36.

Cleese: See, we argue about everything. Let's say $40. Actually we did explore the possibilities for a stage show, but Michael Palin said he didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do another movie. I didn't understand how we were all supposed to get in the same room for six months to write the damn thing. We can't even get in the room for two days!

Cleese: [To Jones] Do you think it'll ever happen?

Jones: I don't think so. We nearly got it together for a stage show, but the rat was Michael Palin. And everybody thinks he's so nice.

Cleese: He's a bit of a bastard, really. Like Stalin was a bit mean.

[To Cleese] Just quickly, how many Bond films have you signed for? Are you going to play Q?

Jones: Not a Python question. Don't think we can allow it.

Cleese: We should have done a Python film about Bond.

Jones: Yes, it's a very stupid concept, really.

Cleese: Who would have played Bond?

Jones: It's obvious -- Graham Chapman.

Cleese: And he's dead. That's why we can't do it. What was the question?

Are you going to be Q?

Cleese: Yes, but only on account of Desmond Llewelyn's tragic death. So now I'm Q instead of R. I'm signed to do three. Every three years I do about four days' work.

Jones: Excuse me while I doze off a bit here.

[To Jones] Were you the only one who wanted to get dressed up as a woman for "The Holy Grail"?

Jones: I did like getting into ladies' underwear, but while it's on ladies, not on me.

Cleese: I see some things have changed.

Jones: The others didn't want to do it. John made me.

Cleese: I like taking my clothes off completely, especially once I discovered it was the best way to have a box-office hit.

Do you think your sense of humor's changed over time?

Cleese: I don't know, what do you think?

Jones: I don't think I've changed since being a kid, really. I laugh at the same things.

Cleese: He laughs at everything. We had dinner a month ago, and we decided that we laugh more when we're together than when we're apart. I think you've heard most of the jokes when you get to my age. He totally broke me up the other day during a television interview when they asked him about his comic influences. What did you say?

Jones: Clark Gable.

Cleese: I totally lost it. I had to leave the interview. That sort of thing happens from time to time. The other thing is that when we were doing all that comedy, we thought, "The world is so stupid and so mad that if we make fun of it, it'll improve." It didn't. It never, ever does.

What do you two think of the popularity of gross-out humor like Tom Green and "Scary Movie"?

Jones: [Sheepishly] Don't think I've seen them.

Cleese: I've seen a bit of Green, and while there are moments of humor, I find most of it not funny. But this is always the case. There were a lot of people in England who didn't think Python was funny. When writing comedy, once your story goes crazy, you can't go back to being more sensible. The craziness has to build. And once you're doing gross-out, how do you pull it back down? You start out gross, get grosser and grosser and somehow lose the energy that you got from the grossness in the first place. So I suspect that at some point, it'll fade, this gross-out humor.

Jones: In the end, what you want is something that's beautiful as well as funny, or something that emotionally engages you. That's why Woody Allen's my hero.

Cleese: The last movie I saw that I really, really liked was "When Harry Met Sally." It's not just having a laugh, because I laughed at "There's Something About Mary." But there was no attempt in that film to make it believable. "Dumb and Dumber" I liked. But no one attempts to make the thing believable anymore. The greatest achievement in comedy, I think, is to have it believable.

Jones: I know, I just saw "Kiss Me Kate" in 3-D, and it's the same thing; it's not believable at all.

Cleese: What are you talking about? Maybe I'm an old-timer but it's as though audiences don't expect the comedy to be believable. Maybe the psychology has changed. It's hard to say when you're 61.

Jones: 61? I thought you were 71?

Cleese: What do you mean 71? I'm 61. At least I'm not as fat as you.

Jones: [Sucking in his gut] Oh, well.

How much improvisation was there on the set of your films?

Jones: People always ask if we improvised on set, but the thing is, there was no improvisation at all in Python. We had five weeks to shoot the film, and we couldn't afford to shoot another word.

Cleese: Remember, we're writers. So what's on the paper is what we want on the screen.

[To Jones] How did you split the directing with Terry Gilliam?

Jones: I'd do one day, and Terry Gilliam would do the next day. Something like that. I think it scarred Terry for life, being the only American in this group of Brits. He certainly didn't like sharing the directing. When we did "The Life of Brian," there was one moment when I said something rather cross to Terry and he didn't speak to me for about a year.

Cleese: Oh, that's the trick, is it? You know, I must be off. I'm keeping someone waiting. I promised to have coffee with her. [Rises] Nice to see you after 20-odd years or so.

Jones: Likewise. [Aside] Now I can tell you all the dirt on John.

Cleese: [At the door] I heard that!

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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