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In search of comedy’s Holy Grail

Surprise is one of the essential elements of comedy – this we know. Monty Python, the revered British comedy troupe, began their BBC show Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969 as a conscious attempt to surprise viewers – doing away with recurring characters, catchphrases, narrative logic, and even punchlines. And yet, much of the appeal of Spamalot, the enormously popular Broadway musical based on their film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, is in its comforting familiarity.

“One of the first speeches I made to the entire cast on that first morning of rehearsals was, ‘This piece is so iconic that we really can’t stray too much from it,’” said Alex Mustakas, director of Drayton Entertainment’s production of Spamalot. “If people saw the movie, what they saw in the movie they’re going to see on stage.”

Scripted by troupe member Eric Idle and “lovingly ripped off” from Holy Grail, Spamalot combines the basic plot of the 1975 film (King Arthur and his knights search for the Holy Grail) with Broadway razzmatazz (Arthur realizes the only way to find the Grail is to stage a Broadway musical, and goes searching for Jews to fund it).

Much of the show sees familiar bits brought out in new forms – “I’m not dead yet!” is now the title of a song, and the sinister Black Knight is now disemboweled on a stage. Explained Mustakas, “In film, you can cut and paste, right? But the Black Knight – he gets both his arms cut off, and both his legs, and a knife goes through his stomach. Well, we actually do that onstage, with some magic and sleight of hand – no pun intended.”

For a comedy phenomenon founded on surprise, it is ironic that Monty Python is most vigorously appreciated by those who find it most familiar. Anyone who has ever lived in a university dorm room knows that Monty Python fans will watch and re-watch favourite films and TV episodes so often that they can recite entire scenes (often in appalling fake-British accents).

Consider Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, a concert film from late in the Pythons’ partnership, edited from four stage performances held in 1980. One by one, iconic Python sketches – the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Lumberjack Song, “Nudge Nudge,” et. al. – are revived, and the audience roars with laughter and applause at the opening line, even if the opening line (“Is this the right room for an argument?”) is not intrinsically funny. The sketches then consistently play to silence, until they are over, and are met with enormous and sincere applause.

“It’s so iconic that there are people that come that recite the entire show, so we can’t stray too far from it,” said Mustakas. “And I remember the movie [Holy Grail] – in my early years I would be reciting scenes from it with friends, so I’m very familiar with it.”

What to make of Spamalot’s unprecedented success? While most Python material (including the later films Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life) met with cult-sized popularity upon initial release, Spamalot has been a box office juggernaut since its debut in 2005. Why is this, exactly?

“I think it engages an entire audience, not just the Monty Python fans, because it’s a big, bold Broadway musical,” said Mustakas. “It’s a spoof on the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but also, it pokes fun at the whole genre of musical theatre, especially Broadway shows. In Grand Bend, our matinee audiences are quite elderly, and they really enjoyed this the most.

“I tried to analyze it, and I think it’s because Canadians have more of a sensibility to British humour and British history. So, this whole notion of Arthur singing and dancing, it’s funny.”

Could it also be that, where much of the classic Python material is savagely satirical – about politics, religion, sex, culture, and even the very mediums of television and film – Spamalot’s nostalgic glow makes it just a a little bit… what’s the word I’m looking for?… friendlier?

“It pokes fun at itself, which I find really funny myself,” said Mustakas. “We laughed so much in rehearsal, with the actors and the creative team, and we knew we had a hit. It has been accessible to those who aren’t really as familiar with Monty Python.

“But the ones that are, I’ll tell you, last Saturday we had a group of 20 people that showed up [at a Grand Bend performance] in costume, carrying coconuts …”

The Drayton Entertainment production of Spamalot runs July 17 to August 3 at the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse. Tickets are $40, available online at www.stjacobscountryplayhouse.com, at the venue’s box office or by calling 519-747-7788, toll free at 1-855-DRAYTON (372-9866).

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