Exhaustively splayed across six wonderfully messy parts, “Monty Python: The Awful Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut)” traces the group from pre-TV origins through its movies and eventual disbandment, coupling the members’ recollections with commentary from those influenced by them. There’s some fat here, to be sure, but producers Bill Jones and Ben Timlett have assembled so much juicy stuff as to make this destined DVD release indispensable for Pythons fans and a more-than-just-nostalgic introduction for anyone else. IFC is also bringing reruns of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” to its schedule, which ought to make people want to locate the channel on their cable/satellite box.
Cheekily divided into chapters with Python-esque titles like “The Not So Interesting Beginnings” and “The Much Funnier Second Episode,” the project recounts early models like Spike Milligan, how the six — Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin — came together and their early start on the BBC, abetted by none other than David Frost. It then detours into Chapman’s alcoholism and bouts of fractiousness among the troupe (Jones, Cleese notes, was “passionate about everything”), before devoting entire segments to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “The Life of Brian.”
Try as the producers might, they can’t make the process of deconstructing comedy as an intellectual exercise rise to the entertainment level of the comedy itself. There’s also something slightly arbitrary about enlisting the likes of Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Eddie Izzard and Dan Aykroyd to weigh in on what the sketch show and the movies meant to them.
That said, Python’s colorful assemblage of personalities — and their frank discussions about how they meshed (or didn’t) — offers an enlightening window into any sort of collaborative creative enterprise. Other highlights (beyond, say, seeing the “Spam” or dead parrot sketches) largely flow from the controversies that the sextet engendered, from Cleese and Palin debating religious scolds over “Life of Brian” to Idle saying in regard to “The Meaning of Life,” “I’m very proud that it’s still offensive.” There are genuinely moving clips, as well, from the memorial service for Chapman, who died at 48.
Frankly, six hours is a whole lot of time for any documentary, but the treasure trove of Python material ensures that “Almost the Truth” goes down smoothly, or at least almost so.
The Pythons weren’t perfect, either offscreen or on. But compared with much of the sketch comedy that’s followed, to paraphrase a favorite line, they run rings around it comically. And for now, anyway, the mixed bag that is IFC appears to have found its programming future in England’s merry old past.