Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam, 1975
#6 of 28 in the 20th century series
In my article on the previous film in this series, 2001, I linked to my article on Stanley Kubrick’s previous film, Dr. Strangelove—and discovered that it began with a discussion of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which as coincidence would have it was the next movie in the queue. Here’s what it said:
One of the better lectures I heard in my film classes back in college was about, of all things, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This doesn’t seem like a film that would lend itself to academic analysis—it’s just a string of silly jokes, right?—but the speaker raised an obvious question that I hadn’t thought about in these terms before: Why is the movie funny? What do the jokes have in common? His answer was that the main wellspring of comedy in The Holy Grail is the way Arthur is continually frustrated in his quest—that, in a proper narrative, he would quickly gather his knights, defeat increasingly tough adversaries, and achieve some sort of fulfillment… but instead, he keeps getting sidetracked by people obsessed with coconuts and comparative government. Our narrative expectations are subverted, and so we laugh. I would take this a step further and say that the comedic theme is the mismatch of priorities: Arthur gallops around barking at people about his quest, but they seize on the wrong thing. He thinks they should say, “Tell me about your quest and how I should assist you!” but instead they ask, “Wait, where’d you get the coconuts from?” or “You’re king? Well, I didn’t vote for you.” It’s the same sort of joke as the one in Airplane! in which people in the tower are looking at newspaper headlines: “Passengers certain to die!” “Airline negligent!” “There’s a sale at Penney’s!” And yet—aren’t these alternate priorities the correct ones? Which is more important, Arthur’s silly quest or the fact that the king is gallivanting around the country on an imaginary horse?
Eleven‐plus years later, I don’t really have much to add to that. I hadn’t sat and watched The Holy Grail in the 21st century, but I saw it so many times as a teenager that I still had it memorized, and it’s hard to laugh at a joke the fiftieth time you hear it (especially when half those times were from nerds quoting it). But I could still evaluate it—I did standup for a while back when I lived in Washington state, and you quickly learn how to analyze how effective a joke is even when it’s the fiftieth time you’ve heard it—and I gotta say, the editing is perfectly timed and the line delivery is impeccable. And while the content does veer into “Katie the Random Penguin of Doom” territory a little too often… you really can’t beat “Where’d you get the coconut?” This one stays in the pantheon.
(Also, this is the first time I noticed that the sun on Arthur’s tunic has a mustache. Heh!)