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Is the legacy of Monty Python being destroyed?

British surreal comedy troupe Monty Python are some of the most influential comedians of all time. Up there with the Marx Brothers, The Goon Show and Mel Brooks, the Python’s stream-of-consciousness and surreal style pushed the boundaries of what comedy could and should be, recreating it for the modern age. Without their iconic input, contemporary cinematic comedy would be a barren wasteland. 

It is a testament to their legacy that one of the modern era’s masters of literature, Neil Gaiman, wrote in 2019: “A strange combination of individuals gave us Python. And you needed those people, just in the same way that with the Beatles you had four talented people, but together you had the Beatles. And I think that’s so incredibly true when it comes to Python”.

The fact that Gaiman, one of our time’s most influential authors of fiction, had such a strong opinion on Python is reflective of how far-reaching their legacy is. As individuals, they’re ingenious, all adding something different to popular culture, but as a unit, they created a surreal potpourri that railed against the established, and in an ironic way, became part of that very same establishment. As is so often with anything of note, it began as a reaction to the establishment but then became consumed and a part of the thing it was railing against.

Any modern comedian worth their salt has been influenced to some extent by the Python. These include the likes of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Seth MacFarlane, Weird Al Yankovic, Vic and Bob, Sacha Baron Cohen and countless others. To give more insight yet, the most important comedy series of the last 30 years, The Simpsons, would not have come to fruition without the transformative impact Monty Python had on its creator, Matt Groening. The Simpsons has explicitly paid tribute to the Python at points over its extensive duration, and Groening has described how he was influenced by the troupe’s “high-velocity sense of the absurd and not stopping to explain yourself”.

In a Guardian op-ed in 2019, comedian John Oliver provided a clinical take on the legacy of Monty Python, stating: “Writing about the importance of Monty Python is basically pointless. Citing them as an influence is almost redundant. It’s assumed. This strange group of wildly talented, appropriately disrespectful, hugely imaginative and massively inspirational idiots changed what comedy could be for their generation and for those that followed”.

The motley crew of zany creatives have permeated popular culture to such a great extent that the term ‘Pythonesque’ is used as a byword for surreal humour, now even included in English dictionaries. Typically Pythonesque, the late Terry Jones revealed his disappointment at being included in the dictionary. In 1998, he said: “The fact that Pythonesque is now a word in the Oxford English Dictionary shows the extent to which we failed”.

Given that Monty Python has been so transformative on comedy, and influential in a multitude of ways, this has led to a constant reappraisal of their work. Considering we seem to live in the era of revisionism, a transitional period between cultural chapters, this is only natural, particularly given that two surviving Python members have made comments that are highly controversial.

George Harrison with Monty Python. (Credit: Alamy)

In reflection of their legacy, this has made me question notions such as the relevance of Python in the context of today’s culture, asking whether their heritage is being chipped away at by such opinions?

John Cleese, an ardent proponent of black comedy, has criticised political correctness frequently over the past decade. He said: “(It is) a sort of indulgence of the most over-sensitive people in your culture, the people who are most easily upset… if you have to keep thinking which words you can use and which you can’t, then that will stifle creativity”. 

Cleese expanded on this point by saying: “The main thing is to realise that words depend on their context… PC people simply don’t understand this business about context because they tend to be very literal-minded”.

Although this is divisive, Cleese does make a point about context, as context is key to everything, an obvious point, but something that often gets drowned out by people on their soapboxes. A traditional comedian, taking the first segment of his account of political correctness as a result of comedy used as a tool to ‘shock’, we can understand where Cleese is coming from, even if we don’t agree with his very boomer point about oversensitivity. If things were less “literal-minded”, maybe the most pertinent discussions of our time would actually get somewhere. 

However, it was other comments that Cleese made that were less than constructive and had people questioning what his relevance actually is in the modern era. In 2019, he reiterated a point he had made in the past that he felt London was no longer an ‘English’ city, claiming: “Virtually all my friends from abroad have confirmed my observation. So there must be some truth in it… I note also that London was the UK city that voted most strongly to remain in the EU”. 

Drawing the ire of many – and those with who we suspect that Cleese is ideologically at odds with – even London Mayor Sadiq Khan responded to the comments, stating that they made Cleese look as if he was in character as the misanthropic Basil Fawlty.

Cleese added, “I suspect I should apologise for my affection for the Englishness of my upbringing, but in some ways, I found it calmer, more polite, more humorous, less tabloid, and less money-oriented than the one that is replacing it”. The apology we can understand, Cleese seemed to be inferring that he does not recognise the country he grew up in, not just because of immigration, but also because of the societal and cultural shift that has happened since then. 

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Cleese is in his twilight years, and we can imagine that anybody in the same situation would be drowning in nostalgia for the heady days of their childhood. However, given Cleese’s past comments and interest in the political party UKIP, this argument only goes so far before falling flat on its face. 

Terry Gilliam has also had a good crack at trying to undermine the importance of his and Monty Python’s artistic legacy. The first of these came in 2009 when he signed a petition in support of film director Roman Polanski after he was arrested in Switzerland for a historical case dating back to 1977 of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl.

With that, another comment was made in 2018 that made a number of Monty Python fans shudder. Regarding the BBC’s diversity debate, Gilliam stated: “I tell the world now I’m a black lesbian”.

If the aforementioned anecdotes don’t leave a sour taste in the mouths of their most ardent followers, I’m not sure what will. Not only is the Polanski petition insane given the evidence, but the comments on diversity are crass and hollow, be it in the name of comedy or not. Gilliam is a white, older man who has benefitted from his position in society, reducing any importance of his comments to cinders. Of course, I’d like to offer our condolences to Gilliam, who lamented in 2020 that he was “tired, as a white male, of being blamed for everything that is wrong with the world”.

It’s not just the aforementioned quotes that Gilliam has made either, and his comments dwarf Cleese’s in terms of their ridiculous nature. His views on the #MeToo movement have been anything but tactful, labelling it a “witch hunt”. Discussing the multitude of allegations brought against the convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, he said: “These were ambitious adults… There are many victims in Harvey’s life, and I feel sympathy for them, but then, Hollywood is full of very ambitious people who are adults, and they make choices”.

As of late, Gilliam has made headlines by weighing in on the furore surrounding comedian Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix show ‘The Closer‘, where he argues that “gender is a fact”. Urging his fans to watch the show via his social media, Gilliam wrote: “To me, he’s the greatest standup comedian alive today: incredibly intelligent, socially aware, dangerously provocative, and gut-wrenchingly funny”.

So, after a brief discussion of Cleese and Gilliam’s controversial viewpoints, have they destroyed the legacy of Monty Python? Whilst you could argue that they have ruined it – or at least chipped away at it – the truth is that they haven’t. You have to remember, coming back to Gaiman’s comments, that Python was a unit, and not just Cleese and Gilliam. Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Graham Chapman also comprised the Python, and the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. 

Monty Python has already permeated popular culture in many great ways, and it cannot be undone; just think of the implications of their influence. These days, when John Cleese appears on TV, we might roll our eyes, or if a Terry Gilliam film comes on, we might now begrudgingly change channels, but with regards to Monty Python, to extend Gaiman’s likening of them to The Beatles, the legacy of the Liverpool icons wasn’t ruined by Paul McCartney’s Wild Life, and this sentiment should be used when thinking of Monty Python.

Listen to John Cleese in discussion below.