Monday, November 25, 2013

Flogging a dead parrot?

"Comedy is the new rock and roll", much like "brown is the new black" and "70 is the new 50" is one of those pointless throwaways that media folk spit out like flavour-evaporated chewing gum. It might make sense at the time, but it just adds to the clutter of other people's discarded, not-for-digestion confection.

And thus, whenever it is announced that Britain's jester du jour is to headline their own rock venue show (and we go back as far The Mary Whitehouse Experience cast on this, not forgetting more recent inductees like Eddie Izzard, Michael McIntyre, John Bishop and Russell Brand), there is an audible rush to the typewriters to declare C is the new R and R.

The announcement, then, that the surviving members of the Monty Python team are to stage not one - as previously announced - but five shows next July at London's O2 Arena is about as rock and roll as it is possible to get in comedy. After all, Led Zeppelin only managed one reunion show at the O2, and yet the Pythons - somewhat validly described last week by Eddie Izzard as "The Beatles of comedy" - are to go four nights further, with a hint of more to come.

To their credit, they are mostly transparent as to the motivation: money. Terry Jones says he wants to pay off his mortgage, John Cleese wants to pay off his latest and most eye-wateringly savage divorce settlement. And why shouldn't they. If the schedules of rock's grand-papas can be bulging with coffer-stuffing greatest hits tours, why not the closest thing comedy has got to the expansive creativity that music went through in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

As their musical counterparts drew on the influences of '50s rock'n'roll, blues and R&B, so the Pythons drew upon The Goon Show, the still brilliantly surrealist and jaw-achingly funny radio show that turned Peter Sellers into a star, Harry Secombe into a British national institution, and came close to putting the genius Spike Milligan in a British national institution.

But, like the superannuated rock bands from the British invasion who are still minting it today, the Pythons face a similar dilemma of relevance. And if we stretch the musical comparison further, the benchmark they will have to meet will not be the arena-filling likes of Bishop, Brand or Gervais, but the stadium-packing Rolling Stones and the McCartneys of this world.

At least they won't be matching the Stones for hard currency, with tickets for the Pythons' O2 shows priced between £27.50 and £90 (or, as Eric Idle caustically put it, "only £300 less than the Stones"). But if Mick, Keef, Charlie and Ron can still turn a decent coin and maintain their justifiable status as the world's greatest rock band (with Mick now a great-grandfather, God help him), playing songs first recorded almost 50 years ago, the Pythons will have the unenviable task of trying to pull off comedy routines that were funny - though not always obviously so - in 1971.

I can, today, listen to a Goon Show and laugh like a drain for long after. But that's down to Spike Milligan's brilliance at writing for radio ("It's all in the mind, you know"). The Pythons face the struggle of overfamiliar material (there wasn't a sixth form common room in the early 1970s that couldn't do The Dead Parrot Sketch verbatim) and somewhat dated humour (Terry Jones in drag speaking in a high voice? A comedy staple from Dick Emery to Little Britain).

So why, then, have the Pythons' O2 shows sold out as fast as Led Zepp's one-off? For, presumably, much the same reason as the Led Zepp one-off: nostalgia. And there's nothing wrong with that. I would gladly hand over my hard-earned to see again any of the bands that were the foundation of my original love of music, even if they offer nothing more than a greatest hits show in the process. Why? Because it's what they do best.

But with comedians, and especially television comedians, I'm not so sure the vibe will be quite the same. What made Monty Python's Flying Circus so unique at the time (but somewhat patchy now, the "hits" not withstanding) was the use of television as a medium. The non-sequitur style, and studio sketches morphing into filmed sequences which morphed into Terry Gilliam's cock-eyed animations, was a virtue of the format...and the BBC's willingness to let it go out. Not involving ballroom dancing, naff singing, cooking, house buying or antique owning, I doubt the Pythons would get on to the BBC now.

So, more than 30 years after their last stage performance, the Pythons will get the chance to expand their television-dimensioned mirth in the huge space that is the O2. And it will be like a great band reforming. But before we get too hyperbolic about the O2 run, comedy has been there before. The Pythons themselves played at the 17,000-seat Hollywood Bowl, 33 years ago. And during his time as a breakthrough comedian, Steve Martin played many shows at arenas such as Colorado's Red Rocks Ampitheater with his "wild and crazy guy" routine and King Tut novelty hit.

When Genesis came out of retirement in 2007 to stage their Turn It On Again tour, it was deliberately an opportunity to say goodbye to as many people in as short a space of time. 47 shows in Europe and North America, starting in Helsinki and ending in Los Angeles, all at large outdoors stadia. The Pythons - who, incidentally, toured with Genesis in the 1970s on the famous Charisma Records package tours - may not be saying farewell yet, but the pack'em-in approach is understandable - 100,000 paying punters during the O2 run alone.

The one big difference between the Pythons and a rock band comeback is that with the latter, anything is possible as long as the lead singer can still sing and read an autocue, and the lead guitarist is suitably past need for rehab to get those classic licks right. The Monty Python five (minus the actually dead Graham Chapman, of course), who have a combined age of 357 years, plus their somewhat unreconstructed female stooge Carol Cleveland, will be reviving sketches written in the era of black and white TV, when Britain's currency was pounds, shillings and pence, when cross-dressing lumberjacks could be considered a source of joviality, rather than a lifestyle choice.

The last time I watched Monty Python's Flying Circus I was left somewhat underwhelmed. Even for a Goon Show fan like me, much of the Pythons' television work was dating badly, perennial gems like The Spanish Inquisition, The Four Yorkshiremen, The Argument Clinic and Silly Upper Class Twit Of The Year not withstanding.

Oddly, though, their films haven't. Monty Python & The Holy Grail and Life Of Brian should both be enshrined in even the most basic of movie collections, if only for the creatively derogative representation of the French in the first, and the fantastically infantile "Biggus Dickus" gag in the second (like the baked beans scene of Blazing Saddles, I defy anyone not to watch this bit of Brian and not want to have

The Pythons live at the O2 next summer will, naturally, be somewhere between the rock band reunion and the world's largest out-of-season pantomime. As you get at any arena gig, there will be the complete tool next to you reciting all the sketches along with the performers; but the biggest challenge will be the Arena itself.

As Bruce Dessau, The Guardian's respected comedy critic noted earlier this year: "Appearing at the O2 might be good for business, in other words, but it's not necessarily good for comedy. I'm not entirely against massive gigs, but they are simply not what stand-up should be about. Comedy should be all about communication and intimacy. At the O2 Arena it is more about bombast, hot dogs and those darn video screens."

The Monty Python gang are clearly not stand-up comedians, but comedy is an intimate medium. It won't provide the same groove as a rock concert, even if the scale of both the act and venue is. Standup is best when performed in a back-of-the-pub room, though it's not the worst entertainment you can stage in an arena. But, let's face it, you may as well stay at home with the comedian's latest DVD.

And so that might prove to be the case with the Pythons. A spectacular rock show at the O2 - as I witnessed last month with Peter Gabriel - works because of the sound, light and star power filling the hall. Five septuagenarians reviving comedy material devised for television more than four decades ago in a 20,000-seat cavern may stretch the sides of comedy, but might not split the sides of the audience.

But let's not dismiss the prospect too soon. Aristotle once said "The secret to humor is surprise", and as he was the philosopher who was "very much the man in form" in Monty Python's Greek Philosophers-versus-German Footballers sketch from 1972, we should take his word for it.

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