I live above a fish market. Down in New York City's fabled Chinatown""on the fringe, I tell people I want to impress, or at very least, not depress""you will find countless fish markets and, on top of one of them, my apartment. And it smells. Bad. It's the type of stench that would prompt you to leave a room, or a house, except in this case the entire damn neighborhood smells that way.
The best someone can do when leaving our loft""which we have to do from time to time""is flash the repulsed scrunch-face, curse the owners of the market""they won't understand""and make a dash for the blissful, aromatic relief of the nearby subway platform. During the summer, when the warm air takes the smell on a field trip throughout our apartment and escape becomes impossible, my roommates and I can do nothing but sit and marinate in the stankness, trying to remember the last time a female stopped by.
I bring up my abode with good reason; a reason intrinsically linked to the Monty Python: Herring. I don't know what herring looks like, and I certainly can't read the character-festooned signs adorning each ice bed of fish, but every time I breathlessly sprint past that fish market, I look in, wonder if they have any herring and""though we all know it couldn't fell the mightiest tree in the forest""hope that a few hacks with a substantial slab of the fish could take out some of my odor-emitting neighbors.
Such is the way that Monty Python""a troupe from another country that entered its prime thirty years before I thought about trying to enter mine""has become a part of me. Our generation has seen an inspired run of Hollywood comedies""ranging from mid-nineties Jim Carrey vehicles through the Farrelly Brothers / American Pie shock-fests and into the current string of Frat Pack movies""and each has delivered on the laughs except American Wedding, which was the celluloid equivalent of a hippopotamus carcass inexplicably rotting in the Arizona desert with vultures eating, puking and crapping on top of it.
But while each of those movies was entertaining and rewatchable""again, except American Wedding, which really did blow for seriously hard""they also lack any distinct style. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson make fifty-seven major motion pictures a week, and each one is composed in a similar manner. The jokes are funny, but they're interchangeable. No one would notice if you slipped a situation from Old School into Wedding Crashers or Road Trip. But just you try to drop a castle full of nymphomaniac virgins into one of those flicks without raising a few eyebrows.
That's how Monty Python made their mark. By blending the randomness of improv comedy with the episodic feel of sketch, the Python fellas, both in short form and long, managed to create a brand of comedy impossible to find anywhere else. Thanks to the Python catalogue, I can no longer haggle, eat Spam, frivolously distribute sperm or perform a great number of other rarely-to-frequently performed tasks without a chuckle and an acknowledgement. They reached into the far corners of pop culture and academia with their references and left it up to viewers to make the connection. It's not hard for comedy writers to amuse audiences when they're riffing on dating, sex and booze. Killer medieval rabbits, lisp-afflicted Roman emperors and walking-based government ministries, however, are a slightly harder sell.
Best of all, they do it with style, sophistication and no small amount of satire""the holy trinity of comedy writing. A Monty Python production is driven as much by political or social relevance and wordplay as it is by the eclectic, gender-bending humor taking place on screen. These dudes are smart, and the result is a series of work that is abstract, absurd, referential . . . and yet, somehow eloquent. In other words, the Pythons thrive on the only entertainment formula that could possibly bring David Hyde Pierce back onto the pop culture radar.
Of course, Pierce does an admirable job in his Broadway turn as the Not-Quite-So-Brave Sir Robin, just as the rest of the Spamalot cast did justice to the source material in Holy Grail. It occurred to me at a recent viewing of the musical, as I laughed for the infinitieth time when the Knights Who Say Ni appeared with their legendary choice of cutlery, just how similar Spamalot is to the original flick""and how different it was from, say, American Wedding.
At first, this surprised me""for some reason, I had expected revolutionary updates. But the more I watched, the more I realized it didn't need any more than it had. There, on stage before me, I was watching the same Pythonian jokes that had been made thirty years prior, and yet I was just as inspired, and just as appreciative of their humor's breadth, as I had been the first time I saw the film. So why shouldn't the musical mimic the original? If something's that classic, that perfect, that timeless, there's no need to change it.
Unlike my address.
Watch Monty Python's personal best on PBS, Wednesday 9 pm EST, check your local listings or Check it out here
Neil's a struggling writer with an email address. He's also a knight, and has the certificate to prove it.