For many, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was, and still is, the gateway into the weird and wacky, partially animated and always insane world of Monty Python– it’s the most mainstream and beloved of all their works, helping to expose their often irreverent, random and ridiculous sense of humor to masses within and beyond the UK. And still, decades later, the film remains hilarious and singular– nothing before and nothing since has been quite like it, even though Monty Python themselves were influenced by comedians before them, and have since influenced comedians thereafter. And, it remains somehow out of time and out of place– it exhibits the kind of humor that works no matter what, relying on an innate silliness that can be easily awoken in each of us, while still approaching that awakening in a way that is undeniably brilliant. No one awakens that silliness more than Monty Python, and no work of theirs has awoken that silliness across generations like The Holy Grail has.
For me, personally, my gateway was a little different. My mother loves to tell people her story about sending homemade German almond-vanilla cookies to John Cleese back in the 1970s, when they were here doing live shows. They exchanged handwritten letters, even– it’s the stuff of dreams for celebrity idolizers of the current social media age, where security and paparazzi have effectively nipped any such interactions in the proverbial bud. She showed me And Now For Something Completely Different (1971) when I was about 9 years old or so. And I was enamored with these men, obsessed instantly with their silly faces and voices (and walks). I was giddy at the breakneck pace of it too, how one thing didn’t flow so much as crash into the next. It seemed to me to be a rebellious form of comedy and even more revolutionary as entertainment– the lack of coherence was liberating and exciting to me, I think. I used to change our answering machine’s message, quoting”my hovercraft is full of eels” and giggling– I think I always wanted life to be as spontaneous and insane as their sketches were, and quoting them was my way of mimicking that, ironically enough.
Anyway, back to Holy Grail, and my mom. She’s told me stories also about when the film opened in theaters here 40 years ago– they’d give you coconuts as you entered, without explanation. I wish I could have experienced that– I wonder if that giddy, free feeling happened to everyone as they were handed a coconut with no further instructions; I wonder if it took a while for American comedic sensibilities to adjust to this kind of confusion. Monty Python has always made absurdism seem appealing, somehow– why shouldn’t we be given coconuts, why not! And why should there be horses in King Arthur’s story, when a coconut makes just as good a sound effect. It’s aspects of the film like this one that make you wonder– is this silliness actually stupid or is it incredibly smart? I mean, think of the innocent sarcasm of “One day, all this will be yours” — ” The curtains?” or, better yet, “An African or European swallow?”
Besides, while this is a comedy that is woven together by intentionally random bits of nonsense all dressed in medieval finery, it is also a spoof of medieval folk history and of various other conventions; it’s coherent enough but without ever losing that spirit of randomness. And it doesn’t even matter whether things are in poor taste or not, because in most cases, there isn’t such a limiting binary to be found here: there’s a knight so eager to fight no matter how many limbs he loses (each one leaving a blood-spewing stub) and there are also knights who say Ni and require a shrubbery. There’s an insult-happy Frenchman and a killer bunny. None of it makes sense and yet it doesn’t need to. It kind of makes sense precisely because of the way it doesn’t make sense. It’s timeless and hilarious and perfect at being what it is, and what it is is… well, something that nothing else can ever be, I’d argue. And if that doesn’t make this film special by definition, then you just don’t get it, maybe.
Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam were masters of a particular kind of comedy that was bravely outlandish, brazenly preposterous, and creatively chaotic. Monty Python and the Holy Grail had a particular cultural impact and immense staying power. Maybe many fans in my generation haven’t seen Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The context was never necessary, but the enrichment that it provides is always nice, nonetheless. Because the one thing that I hope many realize is that The Holy Grail, though amazing as it is, was not an anomaly; perhaps it is the best example (the one that stood out and holds up the most) but certainly not the only example of who Monty Python were and why they will always be important: not just to me but to many, young and old, in America and in Britain, and of course to pop culture at large. This film may be the holy grail of their work, though– unparalleled and unprecedented, a zany, inherently funny and endlessly quotable romp that appeals to both the primal and intellectual recesses of our funny bones– and, as such, it is an iconic comedy that is still unrivaled, unmatched, and impossible to recreate.