“It took God six days to create the Earth, and Monty Python just 90 minutes to screw it up.”
As the 1970s came to an end, and a new decade dawned, the Monty Python team seemed to have scaled new heights of success and popular acclaim. 1979 saw the release of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, which – although very controversial at the time – was well received, and has since gone on to be heralded as one of the greatest comedy movies of all time in many polls.
Hot on the heels of this, the Pythons did a four-day run of live shows in Hollywood in September 1980, the results of which were captured on videotape and released a couple of years later as Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl. The show opened with the song ‘Sit On My Face’, taken from 1980’s Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, the unreleased outtakes from which would later end up being on the bootleg release named Monty Python’s Hastily Cobbled Together For A Fast Buck Album.
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Ironically, that title would reflect the driving motivation and sentiment behind what was the Pythons’ cinematic follow-up to Life Of Brian, and – ultimately – their swan song as a performing troupe: Monty Python‘s The Meaning Of Life. It all came about primarily due to Denis O’Brien, the American lawyer who was the business manager of ex-Beatle George Harrison, with the pair having co-founded Handmade Films, the company which financed Life Of Brian after backing was pulled by EMI Films at the eleventh hour.
With O’Brien having then gone on to also manage the Python team’s financial affairs, he told them that if they went on to make another movie straight after Life Of Brian, they would not have to work ever again. The prospect was more enticing to some members of the group than others, and the process of making the film ultimately ended up being the unmaking of the Pythons as a unit. It also turned out not being the kind of ‘hastily cobbled together for a fast buck’ affair which they may have hoped for.
Over the previous few years, the Pythons had been working on their own projects, separate from the main group. John Cleese, for example, had seen Fawlty Towers become quite the smash hit. For Terry Jones and Michael Palin, the duo had been collaborating on both writing and performing in two series of comic anthology Ripping Yarns. In the case of Eric Idle, he had co-created spoof pop group The Rutles, as well as penning and starring in comedy programme Rutland Weekend Television. Graham Chapman had made a sketch comedy pilot, Out Of The Trees. And as for Terry Gilliam, he had solo directed his first live action film, Jabberwocky.
Despite the obvious financial lure, the impetus for them all to work together was perhaps not as strong as it once was, as they had already started to carve out their own career paths in the time they had spent apart. With work commitments also getting in the way, actually bringing them all together in one place to work on a new Python movie project was a major sticking point, as well as a lack of a story idea for the feature, unlike Life Of Brian and Monty Python And The Holy Grail, making it difficult to make all of the material which they had been writing fit together and connect.
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At one stage, it could have been ‘Monty Python’s World War III’, with the main idea of having the army wearing uniforms covered in company logos, like racing driver overalls, which would mean the Pythons could get advertising money from those businesses in order to fund the movie’s production. In spite of all their efforts to try and avoid the new project being just unrelated sketches, like And Now For Something Completely Different, a last ditch effort came in aiming to craft a structure for the film when the sextet all decamped to Jamaica and tried to thrash something out before calling it a day on the idea of a further feature film and just enjoying a lovely holiday.
Fortunately – or maybe unfortunately, depending upon your perspective, as well as how much you wanted that holiday – one of them came up with the notion of basing the storyline around the Meaning of Life, using the Seven Ages of Man as a loose framework which they could use to drape over most of the material they had already produced between them. After having parted ways with Denis O’Brien, the Pythons also had to look elsewhere for funding, as O’Brien’s close connection to Handmade Films precluded them from going back to the company.
As a result, they had to shop the project around, and pitched it – successfully – to Universal, as nothing more than just a budget and a four-line poem by Eric Idle:
“There’s everything in this movie
There’s everything that fits
From the meaning of life and the universe
To girls with great big tits.”
Regardless of your own view on the cohesiveness (or not) of the end product, the Pythons certainly managed to deliver something which was distinctly different from their last two theatrical outings. For one thing, The Meaning Of Life ended up being the Pythons’ first (but not the last, if you count the Eric Idle-driven Python-related productions Spamalot and Not The Messiah (He’s A Very Naughty Boy) in recent years) musical – the film has numerous songs throughout, such as ‘The Galaxy Song’, which was updated for greater scientific accuracy in 2015, and was covered by no less than Professor Stephen Hawking.
The film certainly contains some of the Pythons’ strongest and most memorable material, such as full-on production number ‘Every Sperm Is Sacred’, superbly choreographed with great gusto by Arlene Phillips, later to become a judge on Strictly Come Dancing (Phillips was also choreographer on the finale number ‘Christmas In Heaven’, with one of the dancers being a young Jane Leeves, later to appear in the US sitcom Frasier as Daphne Moon). Musical tracks aside, The Meaning Of Life also has the infamous, stomach-churning Mr. Creosote sketch, which – if nothing else – has made “a wafer-thin mint” a joyously quotable quote.
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Despite not being perhaps quite as well received as either of its predecessors, The Meaning Of Life (which, in its opening animated credits, featured a nod to Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s book The Meaning Of Liff, which hit bookshelves the same year) still went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at 1983’s Cannes Film Festival. There is still much to commend in the film, and some previously deleted material – including ‘The Adventures Of Martin Luther’ – has since been restored for the film’s home media release as a two-disc DVD set for The Meaning Of Life’s twentieth anniversary in 2003.
The feature unintentionally has the Pythons face the curtain with a bow, as The Meaning Of Life would be their last joint venture, due to Graham Chapman ceasing to be and going to meet his maker just six years later. Although the remaining members would subsequently reunite on several occasions, including the 2014 run of live shows at London’s O2 Arena (the ‘making of’ documentary of which was entitled Monty Python: The Meaning Of Live), the original team would not perform together again. Aptly, the end credits open with a television set floating in space playing the Monty Python’s Flying Circus titles, bringing things full circle.
Maybe that sense of closure for the full Python line-up, above all else, is the true meaning of The Meaning Of Life. Even if it is only wafer-thin.
The Meaning Of Life was released in the USA on 31st March 1983.