Last night, I had the great pleasure of seeing one of my childhood idols, Michael Palin, live on stage at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney. My sister Jodie (also a fan) joined me for the show.
Palin was in town mainly to promote his latest project, Erebus, a book about the titular ship’s role in one of the British Empire’s most successful exploratory voyages. For the first half of the show, he brought the real, historical characters of Erebus to life with the perfect balance of wit and analysis. I had never heard of the ship’s voyage to Antarctica, which saw the discovery that it was, in fact, a continent. He then elaborated about the tragedy that befell the ship and its crew during its attempt to navigate the North-West Passage. The tale was incredibly fascinating and Palin’s passion for history, geography and real human stories was evident. He was incredibly thorough.
The second half of Palin’s show was more reflective and autobiographical, covering his time on programmes The Complete and Utter History of Britain and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, films like A Fish Called Wanda and his various documentary projects and series, including a recent trip to North Korea.
The humorous highlight of the evening was something that I never thought that I would witness in person: a live rendition of The Lumberjack Song. Ending the show, Palin performed the entire piece, with the audience joining in as his Mountie chorus. He even sang part of the song in German separately, as he recounted the time that he and the Pythons had to translate and learn many of their sketches for shows in the country. It was brilliant.
Having seen Cleese and Idle on stage in Sydney back in 2016, the chance to watch Palin on stage this time was a fantastic second Monty Python fix for me. As someone who grew up with their comedy—fortunately introduced by older family members—it was deeply satisfying and nostalgic. Many people my age whom I’ve met, if they’re at all aware of Monty Python, are often dismissive of their style and deliberate absurdity. They simply don’t get it. I have long considered Monty Python to have been an indispensable part of my development and life education. Like the somewhat different shows Seinfeld and The Simpsons, Monty Python’s productions taught me from a young age that nothing is off limits. Things that are taken for granted or never questioned in daily life, such as social customs, history or religion (especially) can be put under the microscope and mocked freely.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that Monty Python was the catalyst for my atheist awakening in primary school. It took things that I thought about religion from an early age and gave me the vocabulary to express myself effectively. Palin explained during his show that much of the group’s comedy came from their university education and love for history and literature. For viewers, Monty Python was as much a lesson in language as it was silly sketch comedy.
Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin used their combined talent and knowledge to give us a new way to look and laugh at the world. Certainly much of the satirical content that they produced back then would be deemed unacceptable if it were written today. This is fascinating to consider. We accept quite readily that humanity is on a path of linear progress. Is that the case with our sense of humour?
I’m not sure that we’ll ever see another comedy troupe like Monty Python again—certainly not with the same level of universal popularity and influence, given our fragmented media landscape. Opportunities such as Palin’s live show, however, let us relive that excellence.