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Monty Python at 40: Not dead yet

After four decades of dead parrots, transvestite lumberjacks, singing knights and Spam, the comedy group Monty Python got what they've in the past lampooned and satirized: a lifetime achievement award, or perhaps an award for just remaining alive.

On Thursday the five surviving members of the group whose series, "Monty Python's Flying Circus," debuted on the BBC in 1969 received a Special Award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts "to honor their outstanding contribution to film and television."

The ceremony also marked the premiere theatrical screening of a new six-part Independent Film Channel documentary on the group, "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers' Cut)." The series contains new interviews with the Pythons, their collaborators, and many comedians and actors who were inspired by their work. It premieres on IFC on Sunday, October 18.

"We're much more popular now," Eric idle said. "Forty years ago, nobody heard of us. Nobody gave a s---. And we were, you know unheard of."

That was before the television series became a cult favorite in England, the United States and around the world, followed by records, books and movies, including "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "Life of Brian" and "The Meaning of Life."

Thursday's reunion marked the first time the five were together since the debut of the theatrical musical "Monty Python's Spamalot," which won three Tony Awards.

Even though the group's members have gone off on their own solo projects, the work they did together as Python still has resonance today.

"I think we actually did some comedy that was genuinely original, and we did strange things that caught people's attention," said John Cleese. "In addition to that, we created characters that were some kind of comic archetypes - people seemed to recognize them, whether they were from Japan or Iceland."

Because Python humor was rarely topical it has remained fresh. And their own longevity? "We keep generally well," Michael Palin said proudly, pointing to a diet of fruits and cereals. "Actually the secret is probably humor. Making people laugh is a very nice thing to be able to do. And if you can make people laugh that are two generations younger than you, that's even better."

Following a 2-hour screening of the documentary at New York's Ziegfeld Theatre, Palin, Cleese, Idle, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones were on stage for a freewheeling Q&A.

Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gillian, Eric Idle and a cardboard cutout of the late Graham Chapman, attend the Monty Python 40th Anniversary with BAFTA and IFC special award presentation and premiere of the IFC Documentary "Monty Python:
Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gillian, Eric Idle and a cardboard cutout of the late Graham Chapman, attend the Monty Python 40th Anniversary with BAFTA and IFC special award presentation and premiere of the IFC Documentary "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut)" held at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City, Thursday, October 15, 2009. AP Photo/Jennifer Graylock

One audience member directed a question to Graham, who died of cancer in 1989 and who was represented by a life-size cardboard cutout (left). "Graham, as the dead one, how much creative influence did you have?"

After a telling silence, Cleese (who was Chapman's writing partner) answered for him: "Basically, there were two kinds of days: there were the days when I did 80 percent of the work and then there were days when Gray did five percent of the work."

"Anyway, he's dead now so you can say things like that!" retorted Palin.

Cleese read one question on how the members could tell who wrote which sketch just by watching them now, years after the fact: "'What traits give the members away?'"

"Well, laughter is one of them," Palin replied.

"There were three kinds of sketches," Cleese said. "Graham and I wrote sketches where people started out fairly calm and finished up shouting at each other. We also wrote sketches that involved the thesaurus.

"Mike and Terry wrote rather remarkable sketches that consisted always at the beginning of panning shot across countryside. And you can tell it was one of their sketches because it went on much too long."

"Eric used to write highly verbal stuff where people get caught and caught up and caught up in the logic of what they were saying and sort of disappeared up their own funnel," said Cleese.

Four! There were FOUR kinds of sketches.

"One of my favorite sketches was a thesaurus sketch, the Cheese Shoppe, and all you did really writing it was get the book on cheese," Palin said.

"But that's where Gray was so great," said Cleese, "because when we started to write that sketch, we wrote about the first minute of it and I said, 'Gray, this isn't funny.' And he just said, 'It is funny, go on, go on.' And we wrote about another minute and I said, 'It's not funny, Gray.'"

"He said 'It's funny, go on. It's funny.' And so if it hadn't been for that, I would have not had the great privilege of reading it out at a grim Python read-through when Michael became so hysterical with laughter he actually fell off his chair."

Python read-throughs, when prospective material would be offered up to the group, consisted of jockeying for position - when a sketch would be read out - in order to gain an advantage for one's material. Terry Jones sighed that acceptance of his Mr. Creosote sketch from "The Meaning of Life," which consists of extended episodes of projectile vomiting, was initially hampered by being read out right after lunch.

Some of the questions asked were somewhat Pythonesque (adj., "absurdly or surreally comical"). "How many Frenchmen can't be wrong?" was one.

"It's a Grouch Marx line," explained the audience member. "I always loved it."

"I think you're at the wrong reunion!" replied Idle.

Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, John Cleese and Eric Idle with 10-year-old Talia Lindner who performed the Monty Python "Spanish Inquisition" sketch on stage during the Q&A portion of the Monty Python 40th anniversary reunion, at New York's Zie
L-R: Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, John Cleese and Eric Idle with 10-year-old Talia Lindner who performed the Monty Python "Spanish Inquisition" sketch on stage during the Q&A portion of the Monty Python 40th anniversary reunion, at New York's Ziegfeld Theatre Thursday, October 15, 2009.(AP Photo/Jennifer Graylock) AP Photo/Jennifer Graylock

No one, it seemed, is too young to appreciate their humor. Ten-year-old Talia Lindner (left) asked if she could impersonate the Spanish Inquisition sketch. "Come on Talia, do it," said Gilliam, inviting her to the stage. Talia took several deep breaths before launching into the skit, acting out both Graham Chapman's and Michael Palin's lines:

"I didn't expect a sort of Spanish Inquisition."

"NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise. Surprise and fear! Fear and surprise! Our TWO main weapons are surprise, fear, and ruthless efficiency. . . Argh! Our THREE main weapons are surprise, fear, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope! Our FOUR . . . . uh, I'll come in again."

As Talia earned the applause of the living Pythons, Michael Palin seemed to express his feelings about Python reunions: "What we just need are four more like her and we can piss off! Beautiful!"

By CBS News.com producer David Morgan

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