When reading up on Spamalot the other night, mainly to find out what happened to the witch burning scene they had promotional materials for, I saw quite a bit of negative reactions to the play. Most of it leveled at Eric Idle for having the gall to tamper with such a classic bit of cinema comedy as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Much of the mudslinging came from two of his fellow Pythons. Terry Gilliam called it 'Python-lite' while Terry Jones called it 'utterly pointless' and said 'regurgitating Python is not high on my list of priorities.' John Cleese apparently had no problem with it, as he lends his voice to the play as God, and Michael Palin called it 'a great show.'
The negativity isn't really that surprising, really, but I do think it's a bit unfair. Eric Idle has always been, it should be admitted, the Python most eager to cash in on his status. He's spent the years since his time in Monty Python lobbying strongly for a reunion tour, and when that didn't come together he surrounded himself with unknowns and toured the country rehashing old Python routines. Of course, Idle will be the first to cheerfully admit he's shamelessly exploiting the Monty Python legacy(he did name the above-mentioned tour Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python), but that does nothing to calm his detractors.
To me, though, Eric Idle is the Python I would most like to hang out with(aside from, possibly, Michael Palin, who may just be the nicest man on the planet). John Cleese has been the most consistently funny throughout his career, but it also seems like that whole frustrated-anger-exploding-suddenly-and-violently is more than just an act. Terry Jones would be interesting, but would probably dominate all conversations with bits of medieval trivia. Fascinating, but it would probably get old. Terry Gilliam is the only Python I have followed closely since the group disbanded, but he seems like an often difficult person to be around. Graham Chapman would probably be boring, and a bit dirty.
Clearly I've spent too much time thinking about this.
Back to Idle; he has an infectiously cheerful persona that I'm always happy to see; he's one of the few elderly comedians who I don't feel is desperately trying(or not even bothering) to hide a deep, profound sadness. And his material offers an incredibly inspiring world-view. This is most evident in two particular songs; Always Look on the Bright Side of Life and The Galaxy Song. Those two songs are all about finding the joy, not just the humor, in the most sober, dry, or downright miserable topics. It's not about making a dirty or tasteless joke, but about turning unpleasant(crucifixion, death, the humdrum misery of every day life) into something joyous and inspirational. Think I'm reading too much into this? Go listen to the Galaxy Song and try to feel miserable. In that song Idle admits that life here may be horrible and yes, even pointless, but step way back and you'll see just how awe-inspiring and amazing this existence we're all part of really is.
This spirit carries over into Spamalot, which becomes something much different than it's detractors probably take it for. True, the show recycles many bits from The Holy Grail in a manner that isn't nearly as funny, and yes, it often panders shamelessly to the audience, but it comes across less as an exploitation than a gift to fans new and old. And come on, isn't it about time to admit that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a pretty bad movie? Oh sure, it's hilarious, but as a movie it's too slackly paced and written. Part of the charm of Monty Python has always been their random non-sequiters and the breakneck pace at which they switched scenes, but that doesn't translate very well to a movie, especially when you don't spend enough time on the story that is supposed to be the backbone for all this silliness. Spamalot rectifies this a bit, by tightening the loose ends, and tying many of the random go-nowhere bits into the main story. The result is, as I said, not as funny, but it is more dramatically satisfying(Idle doesn't always succeed, though, the Prince Herbert scene still rambles on interminably, even if it's payoff is better in the play).
Monty Python has always been, by design, a cult item. Sure, everyone knows who the Monty Python crew are, but only a select few really 'get it.' These are the people wearing Black Knight t-shirts, buying stuffed Rabbits with Sharp, Pointy Teeth and quoting their favorite lines at the slightest provocation. This cult has grown more rabid and more exclusive as the years go by, and the people watching from the outside only get more confused and, possibly, nervous. This hasn't been helped by the Pythons themselves, most of whom refuse to get together in the same room and often have negative things to say about each other. Their refusal to get together lends the short period of time where they all worked in unison a much more mythic, iconic feel.
What Idle has done with Spamalot is break down some of those walls a little. He's taken what was once an item cultishly adored by a few and turned it into a story designed to bring joy even to those who had never seen a Monty Python sketch before. It's also a chance for those lifelong fans, many of whom weren't even alive when Python was an officially performing troupe, to feel a part of their favorite cult items. It opens the door for them to experience this story in a new way, that quite literally includes them in the experience.
Perhaps this is why it's failed in some circles. Nerds are fueled by elitism and exclusivity, we hate it when our favorite things become popular among the masses. I'm just as guilty of this as the next guy, but in this case, it seems tastelessly opposed to the spirit in which this particular play was forged.