I had the interesting experience this weekend of watching two comedy acts at the polar extremes of their careers. In Cradley Heath on Saturday I saw a brand new double act, Crumpkiss's Half Hour, doing their very first live performance. And the following night, via Gold, I saw Monty Python doing their last, live at the 02 Arena. The two had curious similarities.
Crump and Ipkiss, one of whom I'd taught comic art to as a teenager and both of whom have just turned 20, performed 30 minutes of ramshackle sketches including cross-dressing, near-nudity, and silly voices, in front of a delighted audience including a good few friends and actual family. They got by on the loving support of the crowd, to whom they mugged regularly, and four of whom joined them on stage for the various sketches. They corpsed frequently, which was always greeted warmly, and covered up their fluffed lines with asides to the audience, often in an exaggerated Brum accent - "Script? We amn't written one".
This is how many comedy acts start their career, by making their friends laugh. Some of their material is genuinely funny in its own right, most of it gets by with the support of a home crowd. Then, bolstered with the confidence engendered by this nurturing cocoon, the act goes out into the harsh world of audiences full of strangers, and they get better quick or they give up.
This, too, is how Monty Python began. Fifty years ago John Cleese was that awfully funny tall chap reading Law at Downing College and Palin & Jones were those terribly witty undergrads from Brasenose. Their first sketches were bound to be rough and ready but full of promise (Cleese famously approached the Footlights table at Freshers Fair in his first year and was so intimidated by their questions he panicked and fled and didn't join the group until 12 months later). Their first smoking concerts, amateur affairs performed in Junior Common Rooms to drunk friends, will have been met with riotous laughter, and included innumerable fluffs, asides and hilarious cockups. They then went out into the real world and became professionals.
Last night at the 02 Arena, the septagenarian Pythons had regressed to the level of their novice selves. They were, to all intents and purposes, performing in front of family and friends, and felt quite comfortable breaking character, corpsing, mugging and fluffing, secure in the knowledge that whatever they did would be well received. Though I have to say neither of Crumpkiss's Half Hour resorted to reading the other person's cue card for them because the other couldn't quite see it (as Cleese did to Terry Jones during the Crunchy Frog Chocolate sketch).
For me personally, the final Python performance was a return to the way in which I'd first encountered them, as my first real experience of the team was Monty Python Live At Drury Lane, the live album in 1975. As a teenager in the 1970s, I had been too young to see the Monty Python TV series when it first went out - I caught the 4th and final series, which was still on after my bedtime, and found it not nearly as funny as The Goodies, who were much bigger with kids my age.
So it was that I first got to know Monty Python by hearing them, not seeing them. Sketches like The Four Yorkshiremen (which pedants will point out was not originally a Python sketch, having appeared in 1967's At Last The 1948 Show), The Parrot Sketch, The Cheese Shop, The Lumberjack Song and Albatross were greeted with tears of laughter by we groups of schoolboys (I'm sure schoolgirls also listened to the album, but sadly not in my presence) sat around dansettes, filling the pictures in in our minds.
And a fascinating feature of Monty Python Live At Drury Lane was the familiarity the audience already had with those sketches. Unlike us, they weren't hearing them for the first time, as you can tell as their applause greets some sketches at the start, when they realise what they're about to see. This was, I believe, a first. A comedy team from the television, performing live on stage comedy sketches that the audience were already familiar with, and which got funnier on a second hearing.
Many years later, in the 80s when Monty Python was repeated on TV, I finally got to see the original versions of the sketches I'd got to know from the live album and was non-plussed to find that classics like The Parrot Sketch & the Travel Agent were met with almost silence from a baffled audience, and performed without much polish or gusto. Monty Python's best sketches were clearly at their best when performed live.
But there'e performing live when you're at the peak of your comedic career, when you've spent a few years polishing these performances and you've not yet tired of them, and when you're on the verge of springboarding into the next flourish of your career (Monty Python at Drury Lane was followed by the film Monty Python & the Holy Grail launching the directorial careers of Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam in 1975; the first series of Fawlty Towers in the same year; Eric Idle's Rutland Weekend Television the following year; and Palin & Jones Ripping Yarns the year after that). And there's performing when you're seventy.
The Broadway treatment that had been given to the final Monty Python live shows, at the hand of Eric Idle following his success with Spamalot, was the making of the event. Such set pieces as Every Sperm Is Sacred, I Like Chinese, Sit On My Face, The Spam Song and the Lumberjack Song deserve a West End show to themselves. And the filmed items, which gave an opportunity for set changes and a good share of screen time to the late Graham Chapman, stood the test of time well, though quite whether the audience in the 02 expected to be paying 50 quid to watch so many clips from a TV show from 1971 I can't say.
The live sketches were where the strains showed. They were greeted with the aforementioned loving familiarity and appreciation of doting friends, but were quite often a bit ropey. Cleese and Palin were, as always, the best actors of the troupe, making sketches like The Argument and The Parrot Sketch almost as good as they'd ever been. But Terry Jones, who hasn't trod the boards for some decades, seemed a little old for this kind of thing, Terry Gilliam looked like he was there under sufferance and was embarrassed throughout, and Eric Idle, though he sang and danced excellently, couldn't keep a straight face for more than 10 seconds. It was a shame that routines like Nudge Nudge and The Bruces were reduced to a collection of amateurish ad libs, corpsing, and some gags which were already old when the Pythons joined their first University revues.
And one of Python's unique selling points, the fact that their sketches very rarely had proper punchlines, proved to be a big problem in the live show. A very successful Spanish Inquisition performance crashed awkwardly into The Galaxy Song, and The Cheese Shop was cut-and-shut welded onto The Parrot Sketch, to the detriment of both. Maybe not much could have been done to bring the sketches together better than they were, but one can't help thinking it must have been possible. I don't remember Drury Lane's sketches fizzling out so disappointingly.
Of course I enjoyed watching the Pythons last show, and I'm delighted they did it. I would be pleased to see a version of that show go on tour, with new actors and comedians taking the roles. I think much of the material merits it, and it's a shame to see those costumes and choreography go to waste. And indeed I found it better than I had been (I think I can use the word) dreading. I should be so lucky as to be that entertaining when I'm in my seventies. (Pauses to realise how few years that is. Gulps. Moves on.)
I cannot imagine what a younger generation can possibly have made of that show. Comedy sketches that are from before even my time, from a TV show that ended 40 years ago this year, performed by men older than their own dads were at the time. Perhaps I'll get the opportunity to ask Crumpkiss when I see them next time. For them, I assume, there will be a next time.
The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre ...And So Am I is at the Edinburgh Fringe 2014. See you there.
July 11 - Beverley Puppet Festival
July 13 - Sheffield New Barrack Tavern 2pm
July 17 - Larmer Tree Festival, Wilts
July 18 - Leeds Carriageworks
July 19 - Cradley Heath Comedy Festival
July 22 - Comedy Den Cardiff
July 23 - Taurus Manchester
July 24 - Leicester Ship Of Fools
July 30 - Aug 25 Gilded Balloon, 10.30pm - Edinburgh Fringe 2014