Equal-opportunity mockers Cleese and Idle will be at the Moore Theatre in Seattle on Oct. 26-27, 2016.
Call it the art of sit-down comedy.
The show that Monty Python alumni John Cleese and Eric Idle bring to Seattle’s Moore Theatre on Wednesday-Thursday (Oct. 26-27) likely won’t have too much in the way of physical shtick or edgy, whip-smart interactions with the audience. That isn’t what the venerable British performers, now both in their 70s, are about. Instead, expect them to settle into a pair of comfy armchairs and treat us to an evening of loosely scripted reminiscences and commentary on the current political landscape, mixed in with a few classic Python-era sketches, and all topped off by some of Idle’s relentlessly catchy (and often cheerfully obscene) campfire singalongs on his guitar.
No live performance by these two could ever be entirely tame, even so, and this probably won’t be a night for the more politically correct. Among the targets of Cleese and Idle’s humor in past shows: the English, the French, the Irish, both U.S. presidential candidates, global terrorism, climate change and the modern-day funeral industry. They’re very much equal-opportunity mockers. They may even have something to say on their fellow Python veterans Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and the late Graham Chapman. Cleese in particular seems to have doubts about Palin and his hugely successful TV travel shows, which he’s described as “boring,” among a host of other more unappreciative (and unprintable) remarks.
John Cleese and Eric Idle
7:30 p.m. Oct. 26-27, Moore Theatre, Seattle (800-745-3000 or stgpresents.org).
That most or all of this comes across as funny rather than self-indulgent or offensive is surely down to Cleese and Idle’s brilliance at psychological manipulation. One moment, they’re warm and nostalgic, the next they’re shrill and antagonistic, and the next they’re offering some scholarly insights into the link between anxiety (when you hear the start of a tasteless joke, for example), and the release that comes from laughter. It’s a fine balancing-act: Act too nice and human, and you’ll devalue the performance; ridicule people’s sensibilities too much, and you’ll lose your audience. Cleese and Idle have been treading more or less this same narrow line since they started in the 1960s, and it’s a tribute to their enduring skill that they keep the laughs coming without ever pandering to dumbed-down vulgarity or focus-group mediocrity. Like a carefully preserved vintage hot rod, they’re still firing on all comedic cylinders.
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It’s easy to forget just how brilliantly innovative and subversive the Pythons were when they first burst onto British TV screens in October 1969. I was living in England that winter, and it was a pretty depressing experience. Much of the country’s road and rail network was immobilized by snow, and the cold caused milk — still delivered to many doorsteps by a horse and cart — to explode its bottles. The BBC news anchors still appeared on screen in formal eveningwear, and addressed us in impeccably upper-class accents. So when Cleese, Idle and their cohorts unleashed their brand of surrealist humor and sight-gags involving flying sheep or singing lumberjacks, it was as if Martians had somehow taken over the airwaves. The Pythons were as revolutionary in their way as The Beatles or the Rolling Stones in theirs, and surely just as influential in moving the guardrails that defined what was then considered “polite” behavior.
As with many such groups Monty Python’s creativity knew no bounds, but so did their descent into the mire of “artistic differences” and money squabbles. Even the comedy team’s closest friends eventually fell out when it came to “Spamalot,” the globally successful musical Idle adapted (or, as he puts it, “lovingly ripped off”) from the cult 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
In July 2014 all five surviving Pythons appeared on stage together for the first time in 34 years, in a series of sold-out live shows in London. But even this long-awaited reunion was only a mixed success. “In the few seconds before the spotlights were turned on me, when I could see the whole, huge, packed arena stretching in front of me … I found myself thinking: ‘How is it possible that I’m not the slightest bit excited’?” Cleese writes in his recent autobiography, adding: “Perhaps I should stick to writing from now on.”
At their best, Monty Python’s sketches were brilliantly innovative and well-crafted, but their joys, too, came in the complete unpredictability of their comic expression — the idea that there were six distinct minds at work behind the madcap routines, and that these same individuals were at odds with themselves as much as they were up in arms against institutional authority. If we’re lucky, there may be a spark of this electricity somewhere in the air at the upcoming performances. The second of the two shows in Seattle happens to be Cleese’s 77th birthday, and I wouldn’t be amazed if Idle takes the opportunity to bring out his guitar for a specially composed ditty to mark the occasion.