Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
In the seventies was a tumultuous time to come of age. The draft lottery was looming as we approached our nineteenth birthday, the war in Vietnam was raging and distrust of the government and the generation controlling it was rampart. It was also the time that Public broadcasting network introduced us to the television shows from across the pond on the BBC. While we tried to convince ourselves we watched for the intelligently made dramas and news programs not biased in the manner ours were infected but actually we wanted to watch the outrageous, frequently raunchy comedies that contained material that would never be permitted on American television. Many series ere including in this video British invasion but the one that made the most significant and lasting impact on our still nascent taste in entertainment was ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’. This troupe of comedians redefined absurdist humor to perfection elevating to an expression of satire and antiestablishment oriented comedy that fit perfectly with the sociopolitical ideals of our generation. Monty Python’s silliness and irreverent brand of comedy resonated with us and instantly became in intrinsic expression of out counter culture. So pervasive was the influence exerted that these six men made an impact that is still as relevant today as it was forty years ago. After the television show wrapped a string of films were releases that remain at the top of most lists of the best comedy movies ever. One of the later movies in that set was just released in high definition and is the subject of this consideration; ‘Monty Python’s meaning of Life’. The appreciation of the weird has been seen as a family trait that my daughter shared. I recently realized I watched this film in a little theater in Greenwich Village while my late wife was carrying here; it explains a lot including why I’m so close with her.
To categorize the humor of the Pythons such words as absurdist and surrealistic come readily into the discussion. So do descriptions like foolish, ridiculous and silly. While these adjectives are consider pejorative in most contexts the Pythons wear them as well earned badges of honor. They are masters of the technique known as reductio ad absurdum able to render any topic regardless of its degree of seriousness to something able readily elicits side splitting laughs. Among the favorite targets are bureaucracies, blindly obeyed tradition and the perennial scared cows of religion and politics. All of these themes are squarely and mercilessly lampooned in this feature film. There previous films were constructed, more or less, around a specific story line. With ‘Meaning of Life’ the troupe returns to the founding expression of their genius, sketch comedy. The film is focused on addressing the titular question by exploring various stages of life each presented in its own distinct segment. The Pythons accompanied by a larger than usual supporting cast and frequently outfitted in drag, present the topic of the segment accompanied in most cases by Busby Berkeley style overly elaborate dance numbers.
The Non Sequitur format is not a choice for these men; it is a way of life. In keeping with this philosophy the film begins with a seventeen minute supporting feature called ‘The Crimson Permanent Assurance’ which follows a group of elderly accountant types working in an office building run like a galley slave ship. They revolt fashioning crude weapons from office supply killer the managerial overlords, up root the building sailing it into the financial district to plunder the other firms. Watching a group of elderly office workers transformed into pirates plundering other buildings is a perfect geriatric parody of the swashbuckling flicks popular in the thirties right down to the accompanying music. This is just the beginning; tears of laughter are already pooling on your cheeks and the film hasn’t started yet. The actual movie depicts the faces of the Pythons on fish swimming in the tank at a restaurant watching as their friend, Howard, is being eating prompting them querying the meaning of life.
Part I – The Miracle of Birth
A woman in the final stages of labor is rushed through the corridors of a hospital crashing through a series of doors until she is placed in a nearly empty room. The attending physicians and John Cleese and Graham Chapman have only one concern; the room is too empty, and calls for more equipment. Just in case the hospital administrator drops by the must have the machine that goes ‘Ping’. The patient is located behind some machines, the baby is delivered, the device goes ‘ping’ and the administrator is pleased.
In Yorkshire a poor working class man, Michael Palin, has just lost his job when the mill closed. Going home he has his wife, Terry Jones to assemble their children. They come pouring our literally from the cupboards child after child until they are spilling out of their humble home into the streets. He can no longer provide fir them all and since they are Roman Catholics they have to have a child each time he has sex with their mother. The Church prohibits contraception so he has no recourse but to sell them off for medical research. They burst into the first of many big musical numbers; "Every Sperm is Sacred". It notes that if one is wasted God gets quite irate. Meanwhile across the street a protestant couple Graham Chapman and his wife Eric Idle look on noting they are free from ridiculous Papal edicts and can have sex without procreation anytime. It is obvious that this is a theoretical one since the Mrs. Is turned on by the discussion of sex.
Part II – Growth and Learning
A stern schoolmaster (Cleese) and Anglican Chaplin (Palin) conduct a Public school including a lecture of the etiquette of hanging up clothing and sex. This includes a demonstration by the headmaster and his wife.
Part III – Fighting Each Other
In World War I an officer (Jones) is attempting to conduct his men, (Chapman, Gilliam, Palin, Idle, and Cleese), out of the trench into battle but their elaborate birthday gifts, consisting of a cake and several clocks, interferes.
In 1879 the strict caste system of the English military is taken on during a Zulu attack, while the enlisted me are being hacked to pieces, the officers are concerned over a missing arm of one of them, Perkins (Idle). Despite being in Africa they go searching for the tiger believed responsible.
The Middle of the Film
Arguably one of the most surreal of the segments, a phony game show; "find the fish" featuring Chapman in bad drag, Jones in an unwieldy long arm costume and a butler with an elephant head mask cavort around.
Part IV – Middle Age
Idle and Palin are an American couple on vacation visiting a Hawaiian restaurant with a dungeon theme. In lieu of menus featuring food, the waiter, Cleese, offers cards with philosophical topics for discussion.
Part V – Live Organ Transplants
Grossness has always been a significant portion of the Python’s repertoire but rarely as explicit as in this segment. Pair of unseemly paramedics (Chapman and Cleese) arrives at the doorstep of Mr. Brown (Gilliam), a card carrying organ donor. Having foregone reading the fine print he hadn’t realized this included permission for perimortem donation, i.e. while alive. The extraction of the liver is bloodier than most flicks in the ‘Saw ‘franchise as it ridicules bureaucracy at its most absolute.
Part VI – The Autumn Years
Back in a fancy restaurant Idle is a lounge singer performing another musical number, ‘The Penis Song". An impossibly obese man Mr. Creosote (Jones), waddles in and as a preferred patron is fawned over by the maître d' (Cleese). This includes supplying buckets for his copious rivers of vomit spewing all over the restaurant. In one of the most disgusting scenes every filmed it ends with the patron exploding at his seat.
Part VI-B – The Meaning of Life
In the aftermath of the previous segment the restaurant staff engages in a philosophical exploration of the theme.
Part VII – Death
First Chapman is a condemned man permitted to choose his own method of execution, being chased off a cliff by a mob of topless women. Then a dinner party is interrupted by the Grim Reaper who informs them they all died from eating spoiled salmon mousse. They are taken to heaven were everyday is Christmas and there are entertained by Chapman as a toothy lounge singer performing the final number.
The End of the Film
The meaning of life is revealed to be simple; "Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."
Freed from even the liberal standards of the BBC and endowed with the largest budget they ever had to work with the troupe were free to let loose and go darker than ever before. This remains one of their best.
The Meaning Of Monty Python: 30th Anniversary Reunion