Comedy is a theorem. You write it, and think, 'In theory if I say this like that, and I wear that, and I stand in that place, the result will be laughter.' So it's a theorem. And then you actually prove it. And that's the nice thing about comedy: They laugh or they don't. So I think of it as algebra. —Eric Idle
NEW YORK — Today they reign as elder statesman of cerebral silliness, these alumni of the Monty Python comedy troupe and, some would argue, the funniest men who ever lived.
This weekend, the surviving Pythons — John Cleese and fellow Brits Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, plus Yankee interloper Terry Gilliam (the sixth member, Graham Chapman, died in 1989) — reunited in New York for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, with a 40th anniversary screening of their masterpiece, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," and other Pythonalia.
During a session with reporters Friday afternoon, the Pythons recalled that, back in 1975, "Holy Grail" opened in New York with free coconuts (which comically figure into the film) presented to the first 2,000 ticketholders.
Idle: "We'd give them a coconut. Then we'd have to sign them. And it's virtually impossible to sign a coconut."
Gilliam: "John Belushi was in that crowd. Gilda Radner. Wasn't Bill Murray there? They were just starting out. They swwwwept past us in their careers and left us in the dust."
"Holy Grail" was a hit. But four years earlier, the Pythons' first film, "And Now for Something Completely Different," was a financial disaster in the U.S., perhaps partly due to producers' meddling.
Idle: "We had a note that said we had to lose the fart in the Hungarian phrasebook sketch. The producer said, 'If you keep the fart, we'll lose Disneyland.'" They did. And consequently did.
Once barely understood by the Establishment, the Pythons are today celebrated. They even appear on a Royal Mail stamp, "a big deal in England," said Idle. "It's nice to be on a stamp when no one sends mail anymore."
Asked if they could have foreseen their success and longevity when starting out, Jones erupted with, "No, no, no!"
"You don't ever, ever know if something is going to be successful or not," Cleese chimed in.
But Gilliam added that, with their BBC television series, they were indulged: "We got to do what we wanted to do. And there were six of us, so we were a big enough gang that we could beat up the execs" if one ever got in their way.
The series, "Monty Python's Flying Circus," had a very strange beginning, said Cleese, recounting how a BBC exec commissioned it: "He asked us in to the meeting and he said, 'What are you going to do?' And we didn't know and we couldn't tell him. And he said, 'Go away and make 13 programs.' Thank you, God!"
Although Python fans have long pondered how much this sometimes-fractious team might actually hate one another ("We LOVE each other," declared Jones), they insisted their fights centered on the material, not personalities.
Cleese: "Remember the candelabra in the sketch in the girls' dormitory? There were light bulbs in the feet of a farm animal, and there was a big argument about whether it should be a sheep or a goat. And it got quite nasty!"
Idle: "Comedy is a theorem. You write it, and think, 'In theory if I say this like that, and I wear that, and I stand in that place, the result will be laughter.' So it's a theorem. And then you actually prove it. And that's the nice thing about comedy: They laugh or they don't. So I think of it as algebra."
Palin: "But sometimes they giggle. That half-laugh: Then you're never quite sure."
Cleese: "If you're asking about comedy now, the answer is, I don't begin to understand contemporary society. Nobody yet has been able to explain Facebook to me. I just don't know why anybody would do it. And that's quite scary, because you've got to be in some sort of touch with your audience."
Not that they don't appreciate the current generation of comedians.
"There are a lot of funny comedians, a hundred of them," said Idle. "They came out of 'SNL,' the University of Comedy, for 40 years. It's the best training there can be, to be out there live every Saturday" — he chuckled — "doing rotten material."