The premise is simple for the John Cleese and the Holy Grail live show at the Taft Theatre on Sunday: “They show the movie, then I go up onstage, normally with a local radio host, and he or she asks a few questions,” Cleese says. “Then we open it up to the audience and we get wonderfully silly questions from them.”
That’s the evening summed up, but don’t be fooled by the simplicity. “People love it,” Cleese says. “It’s the easiest money I’ve ever made. It’s like falling off a log.”
Cleese, of course, is a member of the highly revered comedy troupe Monty Python, who made, among other iconic comedy creations, the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975. The troupe had just finished its wildly successful TV series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and while the show had been a hit from its start in 1969 in the U.K., many wondered if American audiences would be as keen on the concept.
Cleese and the other Pythons were among the skeptics.
“I was invited into the Playboy Club in London by a fellow called Victor Lownes (head of Playboy UK),” Cleese says. “He said to me, ‘I love Monty Python. I’ve been watching it, but it will never get onto American television.’ ”
Cleese didn’t disagree. Before that meeting, a representative from Boston’s PBS affiliate, WGBH, went to London.
“He’d heard about the show, watched it with us and when the second show finished screening and the lights went on, he looked as though he’d seen a ghost,” Cleese says. “He was white as a sheet because he could see his career just ending overnight if he had anything to do with us. He muttered a few words, staggered out and disappeared forever. We never expected to get on American television.”
Ultimately, Americans took to Monty Python. The PBS station in Dallas picked up the series in 1974, and from there the troupe went on to become a TV comedy institution. But the initial exposure for most Americans was the Holy Grail movie. Cleese, of course, is quite proud of the film, but like any artist he’s not completely satisfied with it.
“I think the first 50 minutes is really wonderfully funny,” he says. “The best of our stuff. But I don’t think the second half is so good, and I’m beginning to sway people that I’m right.”
Indeed, Cleese has re-edited the ending and has been showing that to audiences on tour.
“I think my ending is better than the one we have in the film,” he says.
The audience can decide for themselves and give their input during the question-and-answer period after the screening.
“The conversation afterward gets very amusing, with the most extraordinary questions,” Cleese says.
Arecent audience member asked him if, should he be able to turn one of the other Pythons into a dessert, what would it be? “That’s a wonderful question,” he says.
Might other Monty Python films receive the same screening/Q&A treatment? Many hardcore fans over the years have insisted that Monty Python’s religious satire Life of Brian is the troupe’s best cinematic effort. However, Cleese isn’t sure he’d be able to do the same thing with that film.
“I would love to do that,” he says. “But I don’t think it would be as safe as it was in 1979, because there are people who blow up abortion clinics and kill doctors, and I wouldn’t want to die out on the road in one of these little theaters in the Midwest. That would be a sad way to go. I like life more and more as I get older.”
Life of Brian is certainly the Pythons’ most controversial work. “The whole film was condemned by the Catholics and the Calvinists; it was protested by Presbyterians, Orthodox Jews, liberal Jews,” Cleese says. “And I think at least seven groups said that the people who follow their religion should not see this film.”
At the time, the Pythons were asked if that response worried them. Cleese remembers his colleague Eric Idle’s response: “It doesn’t worry us; it means we’ve done a good job. It’s the first time in 2,000 years that they’ve been able to agree on anything.”
JOHN CLEESE AND THE HOLY GRAIL takes place 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth St., Downtown. Tickets/more info: tafttheatre.org.