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Will Monty Python's humor fly in 2013?

By Gene Seymour
updated 11:31 AM EST, Thu November 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Monty Python's reunion will bring back its brand of unapologetic silliness
  • He says news is huge for fans of troupe's BBC show and popular films
  • He says anarchic, boundary-breaking humor wasn't always easy fit in social turmoil of '70s
  • Seymour: Pythons have found new fans on YouTube, but will humor fly for 2013 audience?

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Let's see how far this goes without making a dead parrot reference. Wish me luck.

Monty Python's Flying Circus cannot be stopped. And, apparently, not even contained. The five surviving members of the British-based renegade comedy troupe announced this week they were getting the band back together for live performances, their first together in more than a decade.

In the funny business world, this is equivalent to the Beatles getting back together. And the Rolling Stones, too. (Oh, wait. They've never broken up exactly, have they? Rewind.)

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

See what I just did? I broke the pattern, digressed from form -- and did so with unapologetic silliness. If you want to know why this Python get-together has aroused such good feeling from everyone, you have to begin by knowing that this is how Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin went about their business back when their BBC series began in 1969.

The Pythons stretched, tugged and bent the TV variety-revue format into shapes unimagined in the medium except by such American pioneers of surreal TV as Ernie Kovacs. Imagine, for instance, having three clueless and crass Spanish Inquisitors burst into an English drawing room for a routine and using them as a running gag through other routines on the same episode up to and including the closing credits. Monty Python did that bit and many more, using unlikely elements, like bicycle repairmen, hapless superheroes, dotty old ladies, bookshops with naughty dentists, cheese shops with dancing men in derby hats and lots and lots of Spam.

"Monty Python's Flying Circus" made landfall -- or, rather, pratfall -- on American public television stations in the early 1970s, and its unapologetic anarchy and snide surrealism triumphed here. Oh, there were some who didn't get the jokes, believing the blithe zaniness of the Pythons' humor to be irrelevant to the Vietnam War and on behalf of women's rights, black empowerment, gay pride and other white-hot issues of that polarized time. What these solemn spoilsports didn't, or couldn't understand at the time is that sociopolitical conflicts come and go, but a dirty fork and a sissy lumberjack are things of lasting consequence and sublimity.

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Those who weren't there at the time -- and you know who you are -- can see for yourselves what all the giggling was about thanks in large part to YouTube's Monty Python Channel, which the troupe initiated in 2008 as a site for showcasing its vintage BBC sketches as well as scenes from such classic Python films as 1975's "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," 1979's "Life of Brian" and 1983's "The Meaning of Life."

With Python-esque faux grouchiness, the channel urged its viewers to "click on the links, buy our movies and TV shows, and soften our pain from being ripped off all these years."

They're kidding, of course. At least, they seem to be. But I'm speculating that one of the reasons the band is getting back together (without Chapman, who died in 1989) is partly to take advantage of this fresh wave of digital fans who've never seen them act silly in public, but have likely wasted time at work or home watching the "Flying Lesson" routine in which Jones walks into an office seeking a pilot's license and is instead goaded by Chapman, suspended in midair, to flap his arms and jump off a desk?

Or to watch Palin walk into a formal office in search of an argument and find himself in a pointless series of contradictions with a stuffy Cleese? Or to watch those same two gentleman in riotous dispute over the sentience of a Norwegian blue parrot . ...

(Almost made it! Dang!)

The only question this week's news offers is whether these now-septuagenarian crazy men are still limber enough to bring fresh surprises to the table. I'm going to go with ... probably. Which is the best I can do until I see for myself whether Jones and Palin can still work their old-lady outfits.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

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