“It Was a Miserable Experience!” Monty Python on Making ‘Holy Grail’ and Whether They Really Do Hate Each Other

Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Roger Graef, and James Rogan at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of "Monty Python: The Meaning of Live"

After the Saturday premiere, Cleese offered up his own review of the new film. “Thought it was rotten!” he announced, to the roar of the festival crowd. “Very disappointing. It missed the essential spite and rivalry between us. It’s just been airbrushed out of history, and comes off as a lot of people who quite like each other.”

He was riffing on one of the longest-running whispers about the group, one particularly beloved by the British press: that they all hate each other. I asked about those rumors at Friday’s press conference; they laughed and joked about them. Terry Jones laid it on thick: “We looove each other.” Palin, however, countered, “I think they underestimate how much we hate each other.”

But Cleese shrugged it off as international click-bait. “You’ve got to understand the British press write this stuff about everyone, not just about us,” he told me. “I think it’s because something like the Daily Mail, which is my pet hate, operate by trying to make people anxious and slightly depressed.” Palin chimed in, “So you can see, we hate the Daily Mail slightly more than we hate each other.”

Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, John Cleese, and Michael Palin at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Oliver brought up the topic as well that night, noting, “People don’t understand how comedians talk to each other.” And while the boys noted that disagreements over material are common among that type of group, the other stuff is just “taking the piss,” topping each other and knocking out little jabs, making jokes about how dull Palin’s travelogue series are. Such moments are particularly likely between Cleese and Palin; when Cleese began a story, “After the first series, I was asked to go to the Playboy Club in London by Victor Lowe,” Palin pulled a face and mused, “He was forced to go to the Playboy Club.” Later, when referencing a story Cleese had told in his book, Palin mentioned “your marvelous biography — slightly overpriced…”

But overall — and maybe this is due to the passage of time, or maybe it’s the sentimentality that sometimes comes with old(er) age — they came away from the reunion experience feeling warm and grateful. “It was like no time had passed,” Idle said. “I’m changing with Mike, we’re getting in these fucking costumes, we’re doing the camp judges, we’ve got these little leotards and terrible garter belts and stockings, and it just seemed like we’d been doing this all our lives!”

Which is not to say that they want to keep doing it for the rest of their lives. The O2 shows — and Meaning of Live — end with a graphic for departed member Graham Chapman (1941-1989), and then a matching one for Monty Python (1969-2014). For Cleese, maintaining a comic voice and perspective is difficult for one simple reason: “I don’t begin to understand contemporary society. I mean, nobody’s yet been able to explain Facebook to me. I just don’t know why anybody would do it, and that’s quite scary because you’ve got to be in some sort of touch with your audience. And if you just don’t understand why they want to watch movies, where the director and cinematographer have spent ages setting up the beautiful shot, and then they watch it on these [gesturing to his phone], if you don’t understand your audience, the best thing you can do is to get out.”

Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and John Oliver at the Tribeca Film Festival screening of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

Idle agrees. “I think the thing that I really loved most was just watching it come to an end, and how it was dignified and touching and moving,” he said. “And not going on and on and on… I think that’s right, I think it’s lovely. I think you want to finish on a good moment, and it was a great moment.”

And for Cleese, part of the greatness of that moment was realizing, in a rather profound way, his place in the world. There’s a lovely moment near the end of The Meaning of Live when guest star Mike Myers stands backstage as Cleese performs the “Albatross!” sketch, and this man — a comedy icon in his own right — is nothing but a fan, a comedy-loving teenager, mouthing along the words to a Monty Python sketch. “I never thought that comedy was terribly important,” Cleese confessed Saturday. “I thought it was nice to make people laugh, and it’s good for the body chemistry, and it sort of sends you to bed happy. But during that period, I suddenly thought, no, we’re actually doing something quite useful! There’s 16,000 people there, and they’re all happy! And they’re all liking each other! And there’s warmth and cooperation between them! And I suddenly thought, this is really a useful thing to do.” To which Palin chimed in, “And they all paid!”

But even if they’d flopped, the shows were a chance for these old friends and partners to hang out again — as was the film festival last weekend. “I love these things where we get together, because it’s just fun,” Idle said. “I hate to say it, and I hope the Daily Mail isn’t here, but it’s really fun to see everybody. To go through your life and get together for weird reasons with people you’ve known for over 50 years is really just a lovely thing. It’s a delightful thing. We’re very lucky for it.”