Monty Python and the Holy Grail has been cracking up audiences around the world for four decades now. So it’s no wonder the Tribeca Film Festival decided to celebrate the movie’s 40th anniversary with a Python tribute attended by the surviving members of the legendary comedy team — Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam. Tribeca’s “Monty Python Celebration” includes screenings Python’s three best-known features (Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life), plus the international premiere of The Meaning of Live, an all-new documentary inviting audiences behind the scenes of the group’s 2014 O2 reunion show. Yahoo Movies was in the audience when the Pythons met the press to reminisce about Holy Grail’s New York premiere in 1975 and why the film still endures today.
The First Python Movie Bombed in America
Monty Python and the Holy Grail may have won a devoted following in America upon its release in 1975, but the troupe’s initial foray into feature filmmaking — the 1971 anthology And Now for Something Completely Different — didn’t go over so well stateside. Cleese remembers that the idea for that film started with Playboy UK head Victor Lownes, whom the comedian met at the London branch of the Playboy Club. “He said, ‘It will never get on American television. Let’s make a film based on the most popular sketches.’ We did that and it was an absolute disaster over here! It didn’t make enough money to cover the prints and advertising cost.” Gilliam says he realized the movie was in trouble early on. “The signs were in the wind when the studio said, ‘You’ve got to remove the Twit of the Year sketch. If you don’t, we can’t guarantee the success of the film.’” We wouldn’t take it out and that guaranteed the failure of the film!“
The New York Opening of Holy Grail Was a Real Circus
On the heels of a successful run in England, Holy Grail was booked into New York cinemas by theatrical impresario Donald Rugoff, who owned many of the city’s now-vanished art houses, including the Beekman, the Paramount, and Cinema II, where he booked the Python’s film. "We came to New York and Don paid for two out-of-work actors to dress in Authurian robes and run up and down 5th Avenue, shouting, 'Free coconuts to the first 1,000 guests who come to the 11 a.m. screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Cinema II!’” Idle remembers. “The next day, we were woken at 8 a.m. and told, 'There are 2,000 people surrounding Cinema II waiting for free coconuts! We were trapped there all day, because after they saw the film, they wanted their coconuts and then we had to sign the coconuts. And it’s virtually impossible to sign a coconut.” Gilliam adds that John Belushi and Gilda Radner — who were preparing for the launch of Saturday Night Live — were among that opening-day crowd. “They were just starting SNL and came to see us that morning.”
Holy Grail Was Funded Almost Entirely by Rock Stars
During the '60s and '70s, the Python team were rock stars of the comedy world, which is perhaps why the wound up having pals who were actual rock stars — among them Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and Elton John. “We were the same generation,” Idle explains. “They went into rock, went into comedy.” When they decided to make Holy Grail, the team decided to bypass the traditional studio process and asked their pals to donate to their cause. “There were 10 groups, including Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Elton, and Genesis,” says Idle. “They put in $10,000 each and that was enough to make the film.” That saved the team from having to answer to any traditional producers or studio money men, which pleased Idle to no end. “It’s hard enough to be funny, but when people [from the studio] are giving you notes on comedy, the only possible response is 'F--k off.’ Because they’re not helping and often confuse you.” The team also used rock-star money to fund their follow-up feature, Life of Brian, although in that case, all the funds came from a single source. “The only reason we made Brian is because one person gave us money: George Harrison,” Cleese says. “EMI was going to [fund it] and then they went through the bother of reading the script and withdrew their money.”
They Probably Wouldn’t Be Able to Make Life of Brian Today
One of the funniest (and most controversial) comedies of all time, Life of Brian is arguably the Python’s finest cinematic achievement. And they all admit that the chances of making another one like it is virtually nil. “The problem is, you don’t mind people getting upset,” says Cleese. “We always upset people to some extent, and you just ride with the punches. But now it’s all changed — now if somebody gets upset, they might kill you.” Gilliam says that, if nothing else, Life of Brian at least gave people of all religious faiths a common enemy. “Life of Brian was actually a very ecumenical movie, because we united Protestants, Catholics, and Jews all against us. We only left Muslims out, which I think was a mistake."
Idle adds that the group might qualify for an as-of-yet untapped tax credit for making Brian. "I think we should apply for tax deductible status on the grounds that we’re funnier than Scientology.”
Holy Grail Endures Because It Appeals to the 10-Year-Old in All Of Us
Forty years young, Monty Python and the Holy Grail remains the most popular Python feature in America (Life of Brian holds that title in England, says Cleese), a status that Idle chalks up to its childlike enthusiasm. “Ten-year-olds love it because Arthur pretends he’s on a horse and people take it seriously,” he laughs. “There’s a certain innocence about it. It’s these young people who don’t know what they’re doing, but are doing it very positively.” Gilliam says that the secret ingredient to all the silliness is the movie’s realism. “The key for us was to ground the silly material in reality. That made it funnier. Like the line, 'Who’s that then?’ 'I dunno, must be a king.’ 'Why?’ 'He hasn’t got s--t all over him.’ You need the s--t to make the joke work.”