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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Monty Python Live!
Monty Python Live!
A&E Video // Unrated // October 23, 2001
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 23, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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A DVD set entitled Monty Python Live! would seem to require little setup or explanation. Though this packaging of two discs of material from A&E is essential viewing for Python devotees, referring to it as "live" is a bit of a misnomer. Monty Python Live! includes four distinct smatterings of humor from the legendary British comedy troupe and only one proper on-stage performance in the bunch. These sorts of shows weren't commonplace, with just two making their way to albums (1974's Live At Drury Lane and the 1976 release Live! At City Center) and only one, as far as I'm aware, trotting onto VHS. Though its unfortunate title might have unjustly raised the hopes of Python completists that some previously unreleased performances were in the wings, Monty Python Live! is another fine compilation of incomparable comedy whose biggest crime is duplicating content.

While The Meaning of Life was scarcely more than a germ in their minds, it dawned upon Monty Python that a performance at the Hollywood Bowl would be an excellent way to raise a little cash for the project as well as provide some always-welcome exposure. As an added bonus, the show was taped, dumped to film, and given a limited theatrical release during the summer of 1982, bringing the performance to a far wider audience than the 8,000 people crammed into a single venue. Despite the total lack of ornate sets and much of anything in the way of production values, the troupe's sketches translate remarkably well to a live setting, including the new material the group had cobbled together. Equally impressive is the turnout in the crowd, every single one of whom put me to shame with their boundless knowledge of all things Python.

Next up is the HBO special Live At Aspen, which celebrates the then-impending thirtieth anniversary of Monty Python and features the first significant on-camera reunion of all the surviving Pythons in eighteen years. Even Graham Chapman, who'd succumbed to cancer nearly a decade earlier, makes a posthumous appearance. Live At Aspen, hosted by comedian Robert Klein (who has been and will forever remain "Big Al" Barker to me), is a retrospective, alternating between clips of numerous Python works (minus Life of Brian) and a hilarious staged interview. There really aren't any live performances of classic sketches, though, unless you count a couple of minutes excerpted from Live At The Hollywood Bowl or Eric Idle whipping out an acoustic guitar for yet another rendition of Bright Side Of Life. I suppose that technically this would qualify as live, as they're on a stage in front of an audience, and the number of former Cheers cast members apparently doesn't hurt matters much.

The second disc kicks off with another retrospective, the Steve Martin-hosted Parrot Sketch Not Included: Twenty Years Of Python. As the title suggests, the Parrot Sketch is not included, though most of the other highlights are covered at greater length than in Live At Aspen. Filmed shortly before Chapman's death, Parrot Sketch Not Included is perhaps best known for its blink-or-you'll-miss-it reunion of the gang. Martin's bookend attempts at Pythonesque humor generally fall flat, but his very limited amount of screentime doesn't intrude too terribly much. Most hardcore fans won't be interested in this sort of lengthy 'best of' reel, and the lack of the group's most famous sketch makes for an imperfect introduction to Monty Python for the uninitiated. An acceptable companion piece for And Now For Something Completely Different, but little else.

Finally, there's the first of two episodes of 1972's Deutschland television effort, Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus. Some new material is intermingled with revamped versions of classic sketches, all performed entirely in German. To pass up the novelty value of hearing these same performers bellowing out familiar lines in an alternate language would be inconceivable, and the majority of the new bits are A-rate. For those curious about the origins of this aborted series, there's a fairly lengthy discussion about 'em on Live At Aspen, and for completists, an English version of the second episode is widely available on A&E's The Life Of Python.

I didn't keep a running tally, but the Lumberjack Sketch appears no fewer than four times throughout this two-disc set. We're told that an argument is an intellectual process whereas contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says at least thrice, and after a while, I'd come to expect the Spanish Inquisition. The amount of material that appears repeatedly throughout the set is a mild irritation, becoming nearly as repetitive as my rather unpolished style of reviewing. That doesn't mean fans should steer clear of Monty Python Live!...just that they shouldn't watch both discs in one fell swoop. This set, even if the title is a bit off, would seem to cover what remaining Python programs had yet to claw their way onto DVD. I suppose next we can look forward to the tangential material listed on the discs' filmographies?

Video: Live At The Hollywood Bowl was apparently shot on low grade video, transferred to some Z-level film stock, then made the transition back to video some twenty years later for this DVD release. Much like the shot-on-video portions of Kentucky Fried Movie, the combination brings out the worst in video and film. Live At The Hollywood Bowl is grainy, speckled, washed-out, and sorely lacking in detail. Aside from not being presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the image is oddly cropped. Much of the text that appears throughout the film is lopped off on the sides, and what's left is weighted away from the center of the screen. I'm not entirely certain that Live... could look much better without oodles of cash unnecessarily tossed at the project, but the unnatural cropping borders on unacceptable.

The far more recent Live At Aspen is an incremental improvement over cable airings, seeming just the slightest bit crisper than what I'm accustomed to seeing on analog HBO. Vintage clips from Parrot Sketch Not Included are comparable to other A&E presentations, though the portions with Steve Martin exhibit a small amount of grain that has almost certainly been present since the initial airings in 1989. The first episode of Fliegender Zirkus is not surprisingly battered, bearing a number of print flaws throughout, but not to any more of an extent than would be expected taken its obscurity into consideration. All four shows are presented at 1.37:1, the original aspect ratio for all save the reformatted Live At The Hollywood Bowl.

Audio: Live At Aspen is the only stereo material on this set, sounding strikingly similar to what one would likely expect from a 1998 HBO special. The remainder is entirely presented in mono, with mixed results. The underlying hiss throughout Parrot Sketch Not Included is a constant irritation, and the audio elements of both Fliegender Zirkus and Live At The Hollywood Bowl are in fairly wretched condition. Considering the programs' nature, there's little point in delving at length into topics like bass response and dynamic range. It's all passable, but I wouldn't have complained if more effort had gone into tightening up the Hollywood performance, at the very least.

Supplements: The first disc includes four minutes of random excerpts from the series, a filmography of the members' activities outside of the troupe, and a glossary of Python terms. Two sets of themed clips on the following disc total another four minutes or so.

Conclusion: Though its title is somewhat misleading, Monty Python Live! is indispensable for any faithful Pythonite. The $39.95 price tag may seem daunting, but the set is available online at obscenely low prices, even dipping well below the $20 mark at Deep Discount DVD. That's all of seven cents a minute for nearly four and a half hours of Pythontasticness. Given the amount of duplicate material, watching both discs in a single explosive burst would not be the preferred course of action. Recommended.
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