Will millennials ever learn to look on the bright side?
This week marks a big anniversary for absurdist comedians Monty Python. But can their wacky humour win over a new generation, asks Ed Power
Elusive fish, barfing gourmands, sex education with a difference... Throw it all together and you have one of the weirdest big screen comedies ever - 50pc end-of-pier romp, 50pc fever dream.
Thirty-five years ago this week, Monty Python, the surreal British comedy troupe to rule them all, released The Meaning of Life. As with predecessors Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, the film was hugely controversial - and was of course banned in Ireland.
But unlike Brian and Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life was a real slog for Python. A brainstorming session in Jamaica had led them to conclude that they didn't have much to brainstorm about. Which would have been fine had they not been contractually obliged to deliver a movie. "The writing process was quite cumbersome," recalled Python Michael Palin. "An awful lot of material didn't get used. Holy Grail had a structure, a loose one: the search for the grail.
"Same with Life of Brian. With this, it wasn't so clear. In the end, we just said: 'Well, what the heck. We have got lots of good material, let's give it the loosest structure, which will be the meaning of life.'"
It was a question with which the comics themselves may have wrestled with. At that point in their late 30s and early 40s, the troupe of Palin, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman had been working together for more than 14 years, beginning with the original Monthy Python's Flying Circus from 1969 to 1974.
They weren't quite fed up of one another yet - but all seemed to understand that their collaboration was reaching the end of its lifespan. This realisation cast a shadow over Meaning of Life as Palin acknowledged, saying "It's a darker film than the others."
The Meaning of Life consisted of a series of sketches, unconnected apart from the fact that they loosely pertained to life and… its meaning. In 'Every Sperm Is Sacred', a poor Yorkshireman (Idle) loses his job and returns home to tell his Catholic children he's going to have to sell them off.
There was also Find the Fish - a hallucinatory piece intended to mimic the sensibility of a dream. Another skit saw John Cleese playing a teacher giving a very literal sex education lesson.
It added up to a strange farewell - funny in places but deeply uneasy with itself. The Meaning of Life was also the last project on which all six Pythons collaborated and the final one to feature Graham Chapman, who would die of cancer aged 48 in 1989.
The anniversary has prompted an uptick in Python nostalgia. The original series comes to Netflix on April 15, alongside Holy Grail and LIfe of Brian. Ironically, The Meaning of Life won't be on the streaming service - meaning viewers will have to toast its anniversary in absentia.
But are modern audiences ready for Python and its full-throttle absurdity? Recall the Friends backlash when the beloved Nineties sitcom came to Netflix and many millennials were unimpressed by the fat gags and transphobic humour. What will that same demographic make of Python's irreverence - to say nothing of their penchant for cross-dressing and buxom blondes?
"I think that Pythons were probably a little unsophisticated so far as the fair sex was concerned - and I don't think that we would have felt very comfortable writing anything that approached a genuine love scene," John Cleese once said. "So what we wrote was caricatured stuff, and most of the time it was the sort of stuff you saw when you went to a pantomime."
Not that Cleese was offering a mea culpa. The funnyman, now 78, has railed against political correctness, believing it has sapped comedy of its vitality. "I've been warned recently, 'don't go to most university campuses', because the political correctness has been taken from being a good idea - which is, let's not be mean particularly to people who are not able to look after themselves very well, that's a good idea - to the point where any kind of criticism of any individual or group can be labelled cruel."
The best Python sketches are, without question, absolutely iconic: think of the Dead Parrot skit, or Cleese's Ministry of Silly Walks (repurposed by the New Yorker by way of illustrating the absurdity of Brexit). But the bawdiness - series regular Carol Cleveland recalled once being asks to run naked across a crowded beach - won't have aged well and may shock those who remember Monty Python as cuddly surrealists.
"The Pythons did have an influence on me and I do reference them in my courses but sadly I think they seem no longer relevant to the younger generations," says Neil Curran of Lower the Tone comedy improv school. "They haven't done anything bar occasional live shows in a long time. So they have long left popular culture."
"Lots of it is just plain bizarre and not necessarily funny," adds Seán McDonagh of the Ireland: A Survivor's Guide sketch ensemble. "But the best of it is as good as comedy gets. Defending yourself with different types of fruit, and the philosophers' football match where Karl Marx is claiming it was offside - all the classics."
The Monty Python series comes to Netflix on April 15