The Hidden Gems Of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL
With comedy being subjective, there's no point in arguing what's the funniest movie of all time. But it's just a case of mathematics to argue what film is most densely populated with jokes. Contenders would be Airplane! and Woody Allen's Love and Death and maybe even something like Step Brothers (though those are predominantly performance vamps, not written gags). But pound-for-pound I'm making the case for what Tim the Enchanter refers to as “The Most Holy Grail.”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975's surrealist romp through Arthurian legend, is essentially a series of loosely related sketches with only a minimum of plot. In addition to having one of the highest profit ratios based on budget in all of cinema, it is positively stuffed with so many layers of humor that it's impossible to catch it all on the first go.
Some jokes are straightforward. “Message for you, sir!”, Sir Lancelot's servant Concorde says as an arrow with a note pierces him in the chest. That's a joke even a Python-hater can laugh at. (I saw my wife, who just doesn't see what's funny in the British troupe, chuckle at this the other night.) Then there are the scribbles in the corner -- the weird things that aren't jokes, per se, but oddities that become funny over time just because they are so bizarre.
I first came to Monty Python and the Holy Grail via VHS. I kept renting it, enough so that I finally bought a copy (which was a very big deal at the time). It got to the point where I could recite many of the bits by heart. (Yes, yes, I was one of those kids.) Part of Python's charm, especially to an American, is the musicality of the British accents and phrases. To be completely honest, there were blocks of text I had memorized that, I'll admit, I didn't even know what the words meant. “It's a fair cop?” I guess I know what that means? Do English people really say that?
But it wasn't only that I didn’t know the British idioms. There is so much insanity on display in Holy Grail that sometimes there'd be a joke right in front of your face that you didn't even realize was a joke. I don't just mean missing clever background things (Cowardly Sir Robin's shield bears the image of a chicken! I didn't notice that until at least the fifteenth viewing). I mean that if you watch this movie with an eye off the center, you'll find yourself asking, “Wait, why the hell is that happening? That makes no sense!”
Let's take that closer look.
During the “Bring Out Your Dead” bit, as you are meant to be laughing at the gallows' humor of the idea, you may see a woman banging on a cat in the same manner as banging on a rug to clean it. You can clearly hear the cat meowing, but for some reason I just thought this was part of the general soundtrack. It took me a while to catch that this was actually happening at the top of the frame.
During the “Constitutional Peasants” bit, one of the finest pieces of comic writing ever, Michael Palin's unlikely political zings are so quoteworthy that it took me a really long time to ask, wait, just what in the world are he and Terry Jones doing? They are on their knees collecting dirt, for some reason. There's even the stray line of “Dennis, there's some lovely filth down here . . .” Maybe this is just me, but even though I heard that line (and could recite it) it didn't dawn on me to take the step back and wonder why they were rooting around in the mud in the first place.
(Later in the film, a woman is seen bashing a log into a stream. Maybe she is trying to fish? Upon reflection, it's hard to say.)
The Socratic discussion between Terry Jones' Bedevere and the townsfolk in the “A Witch?” bit flies by at lighting pace, and has a lot of things going on. For starters, it is mocking the factoid about witch trials -- how the accused were tossed in water and if they didn't drown it would be an indicator of witchcraft, and then killed. Then there's just the silly logic path Bedevere leads them through (“ah, can you not also build bridges out of stone?”) Then there's weirdness like Bedevere's helmet having a hinge over the faceplate that he constantly has to tinker with. . .and an old man in the crowd having shaving cream on his face.
There's so much to take in that, when Bedevere asks “what else floats in water?” you laugh at strange but correct responses like “Very small rocks.” But if you listen closely, you'll hear an excited Michael Palin shout out “Lead! Lead!” Again, maybe I'm just a dunce, but it was years, decades even, of me loving this movie before I thought, “Hey, wait a minute -- lead is, like, the opposite of something that floats. W-why? W-what? Why would he say that? THAT MAKES NO SENSE!”
While on the “why”s, why is the hand that turns the pages of “The Book of the Film” snatched away by a gorilla? (In the old VHS crop you could barely see this.)
Another thing about VHS -- you couldn't hit a button to get subtitles. So concerning the “Camelot” song, there was no way you were getting all those lines. It wasn't until 1989 and the release of the “Monty Python Sings” album that I got my hands on a lyrics sheet. I immediately discovered two things: yes, that last line is “I have to push the pram a lot” (I had no idea what a pram was, but it sounded dirty) and, whoa, there are lines in here that are intentionally indecipherable. Specifically:
We're knights of the round table/our shows are formidable (pronounced for-mid-ABLE).
But many times/we're given rhymes/that are quite unsingable (pronounced un-sing-ABLE).
Finally learning this made my dweebish head explode.
As did realizing that a joke amongst the French taunters was an exercise in ridiculous illogic. When they see the “Trojan rabbit” one says to another “ah! Un cadeau!” By 9th grade I spoke enough French to know this meant “a present” But another taunter -- and mind you, this is blazing by very quickly, and all off-screen -- says “quoi?” So the first guy translates and says “a present!” which is received with an “oh, un cadeau.” But...but if they're both French...then why would...
I know, I know. That's the whole joke. But with the whole scenario of the taunters and the rabbit and trying to figure out what is happening, well, this ended up as a joke I didn't notice for over ten years. Also, one of the taunters has a hole in his pants and you can almost see his junk.
The funniest, strangest part of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is Arthur and Bedevere “saying 'Ni' to that old woman.” (PS -- the old woman is another one smacking a cat up against the wall.) The Knights of Ni are absurd on their own. The side-quest to find a shrubbery is preposterous and the way Graham Chapman says “very well!” when the old lady says “do your worst” is just hilarious beyond words.
Then Bedevere mispronounces Ni as Nu. The lunacy is at warp factor ten by now. Then, of all the people to show up, there's Roger the Shrubber. I swear to you, I think I nearly asphyxiated with laughter the first time I saw this. But as Eric Idle is introducing himself (and God knows how he said “I arrange, design and sell shrubberies” without laughing) there's a tiny little gag -- the strangest bit of phrasing -- that sums up just how vigilant Monty Python were about cramming in as many extra jokes wherever they could.
“There is a pestilence upon this land!” Roger the Shrubber sighs. “Nothing is sacred. Even those who arrange and design shrubberies are under considerable economic stress at this period in history.”
Even though there's the whole B-story of the murdered documentary historian and the cut to “Intermission” on the Bridge of Death, there isn't that much fourth-wall breaking with the Knights. By and large, they are living the story. (This helps sell the big finish at the end.) For audience winking, there's really only one biggie: a huge laugh when Arthur refers to Terry Gilliam's creepy troll as “the old man from Scene 24.” But this little extra zing thrown in, “at this period in history” is an additional jab while you are already getting your ass kicked by comedy.
How long did it take for me to finally hear this line? I noticed it for the first time this week.
This was originally published in the January edition of Birth.Movies.Death. See Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!