Looking back at Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life

The Meaning Of Life may have been the Monty Python team’s last film, but it was a great one. Neil takes a look back at the group’s 1983 swansong...

“Why are we here? What’s life all about? Is God really real? Or is there some doubt? Well tonight, we’re going to sort it all out. For tonight is the Meaning of Life!”

It’s with this stirring opening musical number from Eric Idle, some classic Terry Gilliam animation, and a crackling thunderbolt that we’re quickly ushered into Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. It’s a film that’s so outrageous, so over the top, so… well, Monty Python. How could we not love it? But that’s the thing: for some reason or another, this Python swansong usually finds itself criticised as being the weakest of the five films.

If that’s the case, then why did it win the 1983 Cannes Grand Jury Prize? Why do the Pythons themselves, for all their criticisms of the movie, maintain that their very best work is found here? As the mundane fish in the aquarium put it so eloquently at the start of the film: “Makes you think doesn’t it? I mean, what’s it all about? Beats me…”

By 1979, the Monty Python boys (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin) were on a roll. Ten years after Monty Python’s Flying Circus, they premiered their masterpiece, The Life Of Brian. If religious controversy and box office results are strange bedfellows, then this film is right at home. So, where do six guys at the peak of their game go from there? According to John Cleese in the excellent 2009 documentary Monty Python: Almost The Truth, it didn’t take much arm twisting:

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“Just after Life Of Brian came out, Dennis O’Brien, who was our business manager very briefly, told us that if we made another film straight away we’d never have to work again. We all looked at each other and thought that is not a bad offer.”

But in life, just like in the making of The Meaning Of Life, things are rarely that easy. In fact, the group has widely maintained that the writing of this film was their most difficult. There was no strong linking theme to tie the whole thing together, and without it the group was nearly ready to call the film and the group a day. The film was very nearly called World War III. Or do you like The Seven Ages Of Man?

Regardless of what it could have been called, it was Eric Idle who allegedly released it from its birthing pains and declared it to be not just someone’s life but…

The Crimson Permanent Assurance!

Well, no, not exactly. But, I’m sure you know what theme was agreed on, or I doubt you’d be reading this article. However, the above title serves as a good starting point to any discussion about The Meaning Of Life, as it actually is the starting point for The Meaning Of Life. This preceding Short Feature Presentation is a classic mish-mash of Terry Gilliam’s fervent, chaotic, and undeniable imagination.

The thin but very rich plotline is one that shows up frequently in his work: the oppressiveness of The System. A group of old accountants are being fired from their jobs by a new regime of young, insensitive pencil pushers. Rather than accepting their fates, they fight back with full-on pirate zeal and viciousness. If that doesn’t do it for you, they pull up anchor on their monolithic and ancient office building; setting sail to lay waste on the ocean of big business before them. I wasn’t being figurative here, the building literally sails here, folks.

Gilliam’s quintessential creative flourishes are in full force: exceptional miniature work, precision lighting and cinematography, crusty looking old actors, and his usual heavy doses of dark humor. As preceding short features go, it’s a certainly unique, and some have argued unnecessary part of the film. However, whatever your thoughts on it are, you have to hand it to Gilliam. Never has one director had a more personalised and distinct style than this lone American Python.

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The actual film is presented in seven uniquely named segments that may or may not represent how you view your own life’s purpose: The Miracle of Birth, Growth and Learning, Fighting Each Other, Middle Age, Live Organ Transplants, The Autumn Years, and Death. These titles, and the ominous sounding narrator who announces each one, lend a solemn air to the proceedings.

But, we know better, don’t we? In fact, as the film moves from act to act, things are never quite as they seem. The tone and style of each sketch changes, but the comedy hits higher and higher speeds with such perennials as John Cleese’s Sex Education Class, Over-Appreciative World War I Soldiers and Fishy, Fishy, Fishy, Fish!

However, it’s the following three that are some of the choicest cuts of Python – or the most infamous, depending how you look at it. What better place to start than:

Part One: The Miracle of Birth

A working class father (Michael Palin) is forced to sell his children, who number in the hundreds, for scientific experiments. If only the Catholic Church had allowed him to wear “one of those little rubber things.” Times are tough, and if they’re going to “Remain one of the fastest growing religions in the world” there’s only one way to sing this dilemma to his children: Every Sperm Is Sacred!

Monty Python songs traditionally always have that extra kick of quality that a sketch needs. This one is no exception. It’s an Oliver inspired musical number that has you simultaneously tapping your feet one second, and questioning the logic of Catholicism the next. With lyrics like these, what more I can say?

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“Every sperm is sacred, every sperm is great! If a sperm is wasted God gets quite irate!”

Terry Jones’ direction, choreography, and art direction is spot on. The West Yorkshire setting serves as a cold framework for this insanely giddy, all-out musical extravaganza. It’s hard to describe what this sketch fully has to offer in words, so check it out for yourself. However, as with most Python religious sketches, just maybe keep it to yourself the next time you go to church. 

Hello, uh, can we have your liver?

It’s in Part Five: Live Organ Transplants that Python ventures into uncharted waters. Two organ donor representatives (John Cleese, Graham Chapman) knock on the door of a dreadlocked Mr Brown (Terry Gilliam). The following dialogue is so bland and dry that you have no indication of the train that’s about to hit you.

MR. BROWN: My what?

MAN: Your liver. It’s a large, ehh, glandular organ in your abdomen. You know, it’s, uh, reddish brown. It’s sort of, uhh…

MR. BROWN: Yeah, yeah I know what it is, but I’m using it, eh…

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They pin Mr Brown to the wall, discover his liver donor’s card, and get swiftly to work. By work I mean Chapman violently hacks the organ out of the poor soul’s abdomen with everything from a knife, a saw, to an obscenely gigantic set of pliers. The two men cheerfully banter back and forth as the man’s son and wife (Terry Jones) wander into the room mundanely making small talk. All the while everyone is seemingly unconcerned with the obvious elephant in the room: that their husband/father is being slaughtered in front of them.

Why is something so uncomfortable and horrifying also so jaw dropping funny? It just is. From the blood and gore of the initial scene to the capper with Eric Idle coming out a refrigerator with The Galaxy Song, the scene sizzles with a creative energy that’s rare in modern comedy. Normally I’d suggest watching it on an empty stomach, but this time, that recommendation is definitely reserved for the next sketch.

Better get a bucket, I’m gonna throw up!

Mr Creosote. If you ever see him coming into your restaurant, run as fast as you can. If not, then at the very least bring an umbrella. For it’s in Part VI: The Autumn Years when Mr Creosote (Terry Jones), an impossibly obese man, decides to visit his favourite restaurant. A French waiter (John Cleese) must cater to his gargantuan appetite as Creosote proceeds to projectile vomit on everything and everyone. The scene transcends comedy and reaches its zenith when, after eating enough food for a small army, Cleese offers Creosote a “waffeur-thin” mint. After a meek protestation, Cleese gingerly spoons it into the behemoth’s mouth, and runs – fast. Creosote proceeds to expand like a hot air balloon, and just when it couldn’t get any more wretched, he explodes, covering the patrons with a tidal wave of vomit.

Are you still hungry? Probably not. This scene stands as an example of what a lot of this film aims for: intellectual comedy that isn’t afraid to go as lowbrow as humanly possible. It dares you too look away, but knows you can’t. It clearly revels in this, and has since become the film’s most… beloved?… segment.

The film reaches its conclusion, as we all do, with Part VIII: Death. In this segment, we are treated to Graham Chapman sentenced to execution by being chased off a cliff by topless models, and The Grim Reaper rudely interrupting a dinner party between hopelessly clueless Americans and Brits. In the end, the film’s myriad characters show up in heaven to watch Tony Bennett’s (Graham Chapman) show-stopping closing number Christmas In Heaven at an ethereal Vegas style nightclub.

Does the movie ever truly answer the question of life’s meaning? Well, if you go by the End of the Film segment where Michael Palin reads out:

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“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

Then yes, I guess it does. But, is that really why we are drawn to this movie over and over again? No, of course not. We watch it for six reasons: Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones, and Palin. These are six men who, for whatever reason, fate conspired to bring together. To me, this film really is a grand celebration of what really made Python tick. From minute one to minute 90, it is the culmination of all their hallmarks: violence, cross dressing, animation, music, and most importantly, true comedy.

Ironically, this film also mirrors what was going on in the group at the time: life. After this, there were to be no more movies or projects, at least as a cohesive group.  They were growing up, and after this final film, went their separate ways. While Monty Python continues to forge ahead in new avenues such as Broadway, documentaries, and iPad apps, the final shot of the movie is oddly appropriate.

A television, playing the opening animated credits and musical theme from Flying Circus, slowly floats away into outer space. I have a sneaking suspicion that, hundreds of years from now, that television set will still be switched on.