John Cleese of the legendary comedy troupe Monty Python is presenting the 1975 cult classic film Monty Python & the Holy Grail live at the Saenger Theatre on April 6, with a Q&A to follow.
This will be the second time in New Orleans in a little over a year for Cleese, who put on a show with fellow Monty Python member Eric Idle in December 2016. Even though that tour lasted for several months, Cleese was happy to hit the road again for a Holy Grail roadshow.
“The travel is the only tiring bit; the rest of it is fun,” Cleese said.
The 78-year-old Cleese still enjoys the feeling of performing live and interacting with an audience. He encourages attendees to ask silly and outlandish questions. His favorite fan query came at a show in Florida, when a woman asked him if the queen killed Princess Diana. The audience was horrified, but Cleese thought it was hilarious.
“That’s what I love about it,” Cleese said. “You don’t know what is going to happen.”
Monty Python & the Holy Grail was the first movie made by the Pythons after the group developed a devoted following in Great Britain and America for their sketch comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Switching from writing sketches to a feature film was a challenge for the Pythons.
“We didn’t really know how to tell a story,” Cleese said. “We stitched skits together.”
Cleese is fond of Holy Grail, and the film frequently appears on lists of the greatest comedies of all time, but he feels the movie’s first half is very good and the second half is uneven.
“I watch the ending and get progressively more annoyed because I don’t think it’s good enough,” Cleese said with a laugh.
Because of these frustrations, Cleese even re-edited the ending of the film. He sometimes shows the new version of the ending alongside the theatrical version to his live audiences and asks them what they think.
“Some of them prefer the old one, but an awful lot like the new one,” Cleese said.
While the Holy Grail viewings are mostly fun for Cleese, there’s also a bittersweet side to them: seeing himself and his friends and collaborators as young men. Fellow Pythons Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam are still alive and working in film and on stage, but Graham Chapman, who played King Arthur in Holy Grail, died in 1989 of throat cancer. Python member Terry Jones is currently battling dementia.
The late Chapman also played the lead in 1979’s religious and political satire Monty Python’s the Life of Brian, a film Cleese feels is the Pythons’ best movie. When asked what made them select Chapman for leading-man duties, Cleese said that the Pythons instinctively knew who was best for each role when writing their skits and films.
“We never even had to think about it,” Cleese said. “There was no debate. I don’t think any of us could have done it as well.”
Cleese has noted that Americans tend to prefer Holy Grail, while British fans prefer Life of Brian. He suspects that one of the reasons is that America is a more religious country than Great Britain. As a result, Americans are more likely to be offended by Brian, even though Cleese is quick to remind people that the film does not actually make fun of Jesus Christ or his teachings. He would one day like to do a screening of Life of Brian in front of a fundamentalist audience and hear their reactions to it. He also said childhood attachments might be part of the reason Americans love Holy Grail. While a few of its jokes might sail over a child’s head, young people can watch the film and still enjoy the slapstick and silliness. Life of Brian’s satire requires a little more life experience to fully appreciate.
The Pythons found financing for Holy Grail with a little help from the music industry. Cleese said that shortly before they shot the movie, Britain passed a law allowing film investors to write off the investment on their taxes. So, the accountants for bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Led Zeppelin told them investing in the film would be a good idea. For Life of Brian, George Harrison of the Beatles went even further and mortgaged his house to finance the movie, just because he wanted to see it.
Cleese, who was born in Somerset, England, has family ties to New Orleans. His grandson is in his last year at Tulane University. While Cleese hasn’t visited the city enough to have favorite restaurants, he said he loves not just the food, but the friendly, relaxed atmosphere in many local eateries.
“The cuisine is the most fattening in the world, but it is superb,” Cleese said before sending some love to the city as a whole. “New Orleans is absolutely one of the most interesting cities in America because of its culture.”
John Cleese and the live showing of Monty Python & the Holy Grail will be Friday, April 6, at 8 p.m. at the Saenger Theatre. For more information or to buy tickets, go to saengernola.com.