And Now For Something Completely Deficient
Why Spamalot should never have won a Tony for Best Musical.
In the same ways that Trekkies are expected to speak a little Klingon and Lord of the Rings enthusiasts have to try (but usually fail) to grow lush, orc-fighting goatees, all Monty Python fans are required to memorize a mini-repertoire of their favorite routines. One of my staples comes from the end of The Holy Grail, when King Arthur's knights stumble onto a warlock perched on top of a mountain crag. He's wearing a leather skullcap with ram's horns curling out the sides and launching gratuitous displays of fiery destruction: explosions out of his fingers, a column of flame out of his wooden staff. After the first round of pyrotechnics, King Arthur asks, with regal gravity, "What manner of man are you that can summon up fire without flint or tinder?"
"I," says John Cleese in his throatiest brogue, his fake wispy beard blowing sideways, "am an enchanter."
"By what name are you known?"
"There are some who call me …" and his voice disappears into an otherworldly silence that gives you time to compile a mental list of appropriately Tolkienesque wizard names: Zandahar, Willinfartham, Gradmonkins. But he finally says, with an inflection that is simultaneously oracular and apologetic: "Tim?"
It's a minor Python moment, not one of the canonical super-classics—Spanish Inquisition, Dead Parrot Sketch, Knights Who Say Ni—but it's a good example of what makes the group so funny: a simple joke very precisely overplayed. (Eventually Tim launches what looks like a cruise missile out the end of his staff, and the knights clap politely when it detonates against the canyon wall.) So, when the scene came up in Spamalot, Broadway's hit adaptation of The Holy Grail and recent winner of the Tony for Best Musical, I was ready to shriek along with the packed house of Python idolaters (the guy in front of me was having violent spasms whenever a classic bit came up; he almost dislocated his girlfriend's shoulder when they brought the coconuts out). And I did, sort of: Hank Azaria does a nice impression of Cleese doing an impression of a Scottish enchanter. But then, after the "Tim" joke, Spamalot broke my comedic heart: King Arthur retorted, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, "Oh, Tim—what a scary name." The grumpy old comedy snob in me—the one who had been squirming with increasing discomfort throughout the show—was suddenly apoplectic. This was blasphemy.
Stating the punch line implicit in a Monty Python joke is like adding a slap bass solo to "Yesterday." Python made a career of not explaining jokes. For a productive decade, from 1969 (when they began confusing BBC audiences with Monty Python's Flying Circus) to 1979 (when The Life of Brian was released), the group maintained a rigorously high comic standard. They introduced surprising shifts at the first whiff of audience boredom (you never knew when they would cut, mid-sentence, to a shot of a Viking saying "the"), mixed low humor and intellectual references, and poured illogical content into painstakingly logical structures. Above all, they avoided comedic cliché—even, sometimes, at the expense of coherence.
Spamalot is the Anti-Python; it systematically reverses everything that made the original funny. It is one big revue of clichés. The laughs are easy and unearned. Where the original Python was legitimately absurd (clips from The Flying Circus would fit in at an exhibition of surrealism), Spamalot settles for the comfortably "zany." Lancelot turns out to be gay (get it?!), which leads to much stereotypically wacky prancing. Camelot becomes a glittering Las Vegas casino. This might have been original comedic territory around the time of King Arthur, but now it's just tedious. In retrospect, all of this blandness is signaled by the title: Over the last 30 years, Spam has become such an icon of ironic kitsch that even hipsters have abandoned those old blue T-shirts with the yellow letters. The real Python would be mocking the mocking of Spam, not building an expensive production in its name, coordinated with special tie-in packaging by Hormel.
Spamalot is the gaudy climax of a long, unfunny tradition of post-Python exploitation—books, actions figures, video games—that treats the old material as a series of slogans to be referenced without doing any of the work that made the lines so original in the first place. It is shorthand Python. Though Spamalot's creator, Eric Idle, has earned a spot in Comedy Heaven for his Python days (most memorably for his composition and chipper performance of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" in The Life of Brian), he is much less funny outside the group's strict system of checks and balances—even his jokey "exposure" of his own exploitation (he has called tours "Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python" and "The Greedy Bastard Tour") is more irritating than funny. With one exception (the very clever Andrew Lloyd Webber parody "The Song That Goes Like This"), the best material in Spamalot was written 30 years ago, and the show never rises above the kind of lovingly faithful impression you could get at any adolescent sleepover. Adolescent impressions, in fact, are closer to the spirit of the original. The Holy Grail was charmingly low-budget: The coconut-shell horses were as much a fiscal necessity as a comedic innovation. Spamalot could afford to train a team of thoroughbreds to knock coconuts together.
Python was formed in reaction to exactly the kind of lazy comedy represented by Spamalot—what Michael Palin once described as the "easy, catch-phrase reaction" the members had all been forced to pander in their previous writing jobs. John Cleese hated fans' constant requests for him to perform silly walks on demand, and he wanted to disband the group midway through the second season of Flying Circus because he felt they were repeating themselves (this was before most of the world had even figured out what they were doing). Their ambition was to create a new species of comedy; Spamalot's ambition is to extend the Python brand to a more lucrative and less demanding demographic. "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" was perfect as a last-minute singalong in The Life of Brian, where it juxtaposed the climactic tragedy of the Bible with glib self-help culture. In Spamalot it becomes a cloyingly repeated theme song. At one point, the Black Knight, with his extremities hacked off, sings the song as he's wheeled offstage. This is Python pastiche.
The original Python was a creative force that chewed up whatever medium tried to contain it—a Broadway show in that spirit could only exist off-off-off-Broadway, under an awning somewhere and would probably never find its way to the main stage. As a Python fan, I wanted to love Spamalot, but it wouldn't let me. It is choreographed, safe Broadway subversion, decked out in gaudy makeup, camping it up for the folks in the balcony. It replaces Python's subtlety with glitter and shouting. Even when it's making fun of Broadway, it's still only Broadway.
Sam Anderson is a writer living in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photograph by Evan Agostini/Getty.