Beating a Dead Parrot

Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe Directed by Roger Gravet Now Playing at the Orson Welles

MONTY PYTHON'S BRAND of humor always seemed peculiarly suited to the ear, not the eye. The ridiculous inflections of the members' voices, the bizarre intellectual and literary allusions, the often crude, even downright scatological sounds captured on record--all these ingredients first sold me on Monty Python several years ago. Indeed, I credit the comedy troupe's Monty Python's Previous Record with having taught me the true, wrenched-gut meaning of a guffaw. The divine mission to convert friends to the joys of these whacked-out Britons soon followed this revelation; I had heard the true sound of comedy, and it had a funny accent.

Learning that the local Public Broadcasting Service station would begin airing old re-runs of the group's BBC television series came as very welcome news in those days, and the prospect of being disappointed or even failing to be amused never crossed my mind. Yet disappointment and the nervous giggle did mark my response to that first Monty Python re-run, and the process of a previously inconceivable disenchantment first set in right then and there. What had sounded on the stereo like an irrepressible source of path-breaking humor came off on the screen as just so many English misfits with a limited talent for slapstick antics and an occasional one-liner.

But at the time, the fault lay not with the players, but with the listener. The two sides of that one record had aroused expectations of unrelenting hilarity from these foreign jesters, and any sensation short of these unrealistic demands was bound to come off as a letdown. Looking back now, this onetime Monty Python groupie realizes what was wrong with that TV re-run; adding the visual dimension to the already warped dialogue of the troupe did not add much to the humor, but it did effectively shatter the mystique surrounding Monty Python stemming from my ignorance of the group's background and appearance. Had they but remained unseen, the Monty Python figures would have preserved their demigods-of-comedy status in my mind.

The group's subsequent invasion of the American media has exposed the Monty Python brand of humor to a large number of comedy consumers in the U.S. Gone is the thrill of belonging to a select cult based on its privileged initiation into the artistic pleasures of a little-known comedy troupe. Thanks to a deluge of Monty Python re-runs on the boob tube, the re-release of their many records at regular prices (as opposed to the exorbitant prices of imported discs), and three uneven movies, the Monty Python material has become an all-too-familiar sound to these ears. To use an old bluesman's phrase, the thrill is really gone.

ALL OF WHICH BRINGS us to the question of why Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe was ever conceived, much less actually released in U.S. cinemas. This movie is nothing more than a filmed recycling of some of the more famous skits staged by the Monty Python group and the lesser-known British group, Beyond the Fringe. If the former lent its name to the film for the sake of giving the latter greater exposure in a more commercial market, that's mighty big of the Monty Python people. But judging from the sloppy direction and arrangement of the skits, this latest Monty Python film--for it remains just that--appears to be the crassest exercise in exploitation yet dreamed up by the resourceful band of bawdy Britons.

Almost in the fashion of a disclaimer, Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe begins on an appropriately self-parodying note. The stentorian voice-over--a Python staple--introduces the film by touting the ensuing movie as an historic encounter in the annals of entertainment, accompanied by strains of Pomp and Circumstance in the background. After seeing the various members of the two comedy groups frolic about in the London streets outside of Her Majesty's Theatre for a few minutes, the movie cuts to the famous Monty Python dead parrot skit. This sequence reveals the fundamental problem with the movie at the very outset. The group's first full-length motion picture, And Now For Something Completely Different, included this skit, complete with props and the suitable atmosphere of a pet shop. Seeing this skit performed again on the bare stage of a London auditorium leaves you flat; watching a grown man repeatedly slam a stuffed parrot against a desk to prove its deceased state ceases to be funny after a while. The same can be said for the movie's closing sequence, featuring the transvestite lumberjack number. It is the sheer shock value of these skits that made them so hilarious the first time around, and the novelty of the Monty Python perversity wears off very quickly.

The troupe does not seem to be above replacing the humorous with the merely offensive. At one point, one of the male Monty Python members comes out on stage tackily dressed in a gold lame evening gown with cat's-eye spectacles. Adopting a feminine-sounding falsetto, he strikes up a paean to the virtues of Britishers: "The English have a quality/I'd like to sing about/It's not the sort of quality/That's bestowed on wog or kraut."

Ironically enough, the Beyond the Fringe troupe winds up stealing the show in this movie. Perhaps the high point of the film comes when a lanky, ill-dressed chap recounts the many reasons why he would rather be a judge than a coal miner. While in the midst of discussing the routine of a miner's life down in the pits, the deadpanning prole notes the boring conversations that go on in the mines:

--Hullo, I just found a lump of coal.

--Have you really?

--Oh yes, no doubt about it. This black substance is coal all right.

--Jolly good, just what we're looking for.

Attired in a poorly fitting trench coat and bright red sneakers, the glazy-eyed miner presents us with an object for our compassion as well as our amusement; his sphinx-like expression never once breaks into an unprofessional grin, unlike his colleagues in the Monty Python group during some of their other skits.

ONLY THOSE PEOPLE who have never heard of or listened to these two British comedy acts can hope to derive any kind of enjoyment from Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe. For the rest of us, sitting through this 90-minute waste of celluloid is akin to viewing a series of old Johnny Carson monologues strung together; you know exactly what's coming, and the pleasure lies exclusively in the anticipation, not in the misbegotten result. However, in all fairness to the individuals responsible for this film, they certainly knew what they were doing. Towards the end of Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe, an emcee walks onto the stage to deliver a few announcements and reflect on the performance. After thanking the London audience for "working so hard at enjoying tonight's entertainment," the emcee goes on to note, "I know how tempting it is to say, 'Let somebody else go out and get entertained."' Be forewarned, moviegoers; there's nothing wrong with giving in to that temptation every once in a while.