Of Coconuts and Unladen Swallows

andrew kruse-ross | john cleese | january 2017

John Cleese answers questions after Screening of Holy Grail

The Timeless Grail

I was in middle school the first time I saw “Monty Python and the Holy Grail." I was spending the weekend with my uncle Keith, who, until recently had lived much closer to the rest of the family. Being deemed old enough to spend the occasional weekend with him was a highlight of what was an otherwise awkward period of time.

Everyone idolized Keith, and I was no exception. His humor, which was boundless and unfettered, was generally the highlight of any family gathering and even capable of trumping your favorite Christmas gift during any given year. How or why he was so funny is difficult to say; he just was. But it was during these visits that my uncle began to indoctrinate me into the things that were a part of his world — the things that made him tick. Part of me understood this even then, so whenever he introduced me to something new (or at least new to me), whether it be Pink Floyd or George A. Romero's zombie films, I made it a point to pay attention. And so it was with another of his favorites: Monty Python, which I experienced for the first time in his rumpus room after a visit to the local video store.

I must admit I may not have been ready. In fact, my attitude going in was one of skepticism. If my uncle thought this to be a great film, surely it must be, I thought. But really, what could a comedy from 1975, set in 932 A.D. have to offer me in the glowing brilliance of 1990 Midwest America?

It turns out quite a lot.

It was nearly too much to take in. Coconut halves, French taunts, flesh wounds, cat swinging, Knights Who Say Ni, shrubberies, spankings, bridge keepers, killer bunnies, Tim the Enchanter? It was glorious.

The humor was silly and excessive but at times contrastingly clever and often unapologetically dark. Bring out your dead, witches? And were the peasants really harvesting dirt? All these things and more were served up at a breakneck pace (the jokes begin with the opening credits) encapsulated in a story of Arthurian legend.

There was simply too much to digest in one sitting. When was the VHS due back at the store? Surely there would indeed be late fees.

How wrong I had been and how narrow my point of view to think Monty Python had nothing to offer me. It was plain to see that they had a lot to offer, and in fact, had been doing so all along, even before I knew they existed.

There was a piece of Monty Python in seemingly everything that I had thought funny in 1990 and nothing was funnier to me than Canadian sketch comedy troupe Kids in the Hall. The similarities were obvious, both were sketch comedy groups, both had an all-male troupe that also played the roles of females, both, perhaps because they were not American, but rather British and Canadian, had license to delve into a darker shade of comedy than was customary in America.

Soon, I saw the influence of Monty Python everywhere. Whether in the comedy of Martin Short on SCTV, the skits on “Saturday Night Live" or in episodes of then-new “The Simpsons," it was clear: The influence of Monty Python was as boundless as their comedy, and I was the last to know.

Kid in the Hall Kevin MacDonald has said of Monty Python's influence: “We, at the very least subconsciously, stole things. We tried not to, but what can you do? It's like how every rock group sounds like the Beatles."

They certainly weren't the first to steal from Monty Python, nor would they be the last.

John Cleese comes to the Weidner Center on Jan. 23.And now for something completely different …

My first experience with Monty Python was indeed the Holy Grail, which most would agree is the troupe's most accessible effort and the best starting point for indoctrination into the absurdly silly world of Monty Python. But that experience came some 15 years after the film's release. I first saw it on VHS in a basement and have never seen it on the big screen, but that may soon change.

Whether you caught “Monty Python and the Holy Grail" on the big screen when it premiered nearly 42 years ago, or like me, have only had the pleasure of repeated viewings of VHS and DVD recordings on the small screen, it's likely you've never seen the Holy Grail quite like this: On Monday, January 23, 2017, the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts presents comedy legend and Monty Python co-founder John Cleese to the stage to answer questions live after a screening of this legendary film.

That's right, the Black Knight himself will be in Green Bay in what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to converse with a member of comedy royalty.

In keeping with Mr. Cleese's request for “absurd and/or ridiculous questions," after the screening, the following is a list of mostly factual tidbits of information assembled from varying sources that include repeated viewings of the film and DVD extras, foggy conversations had with other Monte Python enthusiasts and internet sources such as IMDB and Mental Floss, that we hope will help get the creative juices flowing and assist attendees in preparing the most absurdly interesting questions for Mr. Cleese to be found this side of the Gorge of Eternal Peril. I may not be able to attest to the validity of these factoids, but perhaps Mr. Cleese can.

Roll Credits

The film's opening credit sequence features quasi-Swedish subtitles that promote tourism to that country and its moose. “Wi nøt trei a høliday in Sweden this yër?"

Cost-Effective Coconuts

Perhaps one of the film's most enduring features is Arthur and his knights “riding" upon invisible horses as their squires create the sound of galloping horse hooves by banging coconut halves together like foley artists. If the internet is to be believed, this joke developed out of necessity as the film's budget could not cover the expense of real horses.

Other elements of the film are attributed to financial constraints as well, including the narrated book scenes and the film's abrupt ending.

Swinging Kitties

Several scenes in the film depict peasants swinging cats (cat puppets) by their tails. There seem to be several theories as to the origin of this joke, the most likely being: The 17th century idiom “not enough room to swing a cat," which some say refers to a cat-o'-nine-tails, while other believe a real cat is more likely true; in the 15th century, Edward, Duke of York, helped push the notion that cats were representative of evil and medieval Europe took to torturing and killing cats in a number of horrendous ways — this trend apparently was made into a game by children and a public event by some adults; some even claim that the film depicts nine such scenes of cat swinging to represent the nine lives cats are said to have, but perhaps Mr. Cleese knows the true origin of this joke. You might ask him about it.

History Buff

Two of the film's most enduring scenes — the French Taunter and the Black Knight — are credited as the products of Cleese and his nod, prod or interpretation of history. Perhaps he can tell you more.

Dressing Up

Monty Python often played the roles of females in their sketch comedy, but only one troupe member played the part of a female during the Holy Grail.

Of the many roles performed by the troupe during the film, Michael Palin is said to have played the most (12) while Graham Chapman is said to have played the fewest (4).

John Cleese wasn't the only actor in the film to don the tunic of the Black Knight; he had an interesting fill-in or stunt double during the duel. Apparently, hopping around on one leg isn't one of Cleese's strong suits.

Rockin' Investors

When seeking investors to contribute to the film's budget, several musical acts are said to have invested in the film (but sources vary). Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Pink Floyd and Genesis are all mentioned as having potentially invested in the film.

Bloody Bunny

The dye used as blood during the Killer Rabbit scene apparently did not come out, much to the dismay of the rabbit's owner.

Stop Graveling

During one of the film's animated sequences, God is represented by a photograph of W.G. Grace, a famous English cricketer. He was a Curly Lambeau of sorts to the game of cricket.

Then and Now

The film's original script had the action set to take place both in medieval and then-modern times. The grail itself was to be found at Harrods, an iconic London department store.

And … Action

The troupe's Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam (along with 40 special trained Ecuadorian mountain llamas, six Venezuelan red llamas, 142 Mexican whooping llamas, 14 North Chilean guanacos, Reg Llama of Brixton and 76,000 battery llamas from “Llama-Fresh" Farms Ltd.) served as the film's directors. The duo, in their first attempt at directing, suffered difficulty during the first day of shooting when their only camera broke.

Both men when on to direct other films. Gilliam, in particular, has made quite the name in the area, having directed films that include “Time Bandits" (1981), “Brazil" (1985), “The Fisher King" (1991) and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998).

A Simple Question of Weight Ratios

According to Jonathan Corum of Style.org, the estimated airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow is 11 meters per second or 24 miles per hour. It should be noted that this estimate concerns a European swallow, not an African swallow.

The capital of Assyria could refer to Ekallatum, Assur or Nineveh, but Assyria ceased to exist in 932 A.D. so, who knows?

Extra Credit

If your idea of a good time involves stumping Mr. Cleese and possibly having yourself removed from the premises, you might ask him how many times Tim the Enchanter has served as the unofficially licensed mascot of this author's fantasy football team … the answer is five. Or is it three?

Live Q&A with John Cleese and Screening of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail" takes place on Monday, Jan. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.

Tickets start at $59 and are available at ticketstaronline.com. A limited number of VIP tickets are available for a meet and greet with Mr. Cleese.

More info at weidnercenter.com.

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