When they graduated from television to film, they found ingenuous ways of adapting their style to long-format ideas. The Holy Grail and Life of Brian have reasonably coherent plotlines, on which the Pythons were able to hang dazzling comedy scenes which function as independent, high-concept sketches, while still advancing the story. Even the mighty Marxes never achieved this; they solved the same problems by working against the plotlines of their movies. Monty Python, eventually, used their comedy as a storytelling tool.
As remarkable as this achievement was, and as great as Holy Grail and Life of Brian are, my favorite Python film is the one that actually is just a series of sketches, loosely organized around a simple and eternal question. Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983) does contain a trough or two -- few comedies do not. But its best moments, which are plentiful, comprise a high-water mark for the art of sketch comedy. And the Pythons' ability to establish a premise, score, and move on, often with dizzying transitions, was never put to more effective use. Here are my favorite sections of one of my favorite comedies.
Early in The Meaning of Life comes the famous "Every Sperm is Sacred" sequence, one of the funniest and most pointed attacks on religious dogma ever committed to film. We start with a preposterous moment based on truth: A poor Catholic couple (Michael Palin and Terry Jones) tells their dozens of children that they can no longer afford to take care of them, and have decided to sell them for medical experiments. Calmly explaining that the use of birth control is no way to remain "the fastest-growing religion in the world," the father launches into song, which culminates in one of comedy's greatest production numbers. Then, the point having been made, we abruptly fly through a window across the street for a priceless counterpoint, a short scene between a Protestant husband and wife (Graham Chapman and Eric Idle).
(NOTE: For some reason, this clip contains a couple of jump-cuts which are not in the actual film. The first one occurs at 5:17 on the counter; a little piece of dialogue which is supposed to come after the song is inexplicably inserted here. It also occurs after the song, where it's supposed to. Then, at 8:44, a little piece of Graham Chapman's line is cut out. What he says is "designed not only to protect but to stimulate." These cuts are very minor and won't detract from your enjoyment of the scene.)
After establishing its theme with vignettes about birth, religion, and education, the film moves on to another key aspect of human existence, "Fighting Each Other." Military satire was always a specialty of the Pythons, and the hysterical "marching up and down the square" sequence from The Meaning of Life is a prime example. Again, note the deft transition from one idea to the next -- in this case, from Chapman's strident lecture to the regiment in training. More than anything, the scene is carried by Michael Palin's explosive performance as the Sergeant Major.
The freedom of film allowed Monty Python to venture into much sicker humor than they ever could have done on television. Occasionally, this freedom yielded unhappy results; the "Live Organ Transplants" segment in The Meaning of Life is too sickening to be really funny, and almost too sickening to watch. In other places, however, the Pythons managed to step over the line of good taste with delirious results. In the section of the film subtitled "The Autumn Years," they are so funny that you wouldn't want them to be any less disgusting. They begin by establishing the milieu, an upper-class restaurant, and throwing in a memorable Noel Coward parody. Then Terry Jones enters, playing the abundantly-conceived Mr. Creosote, and...well, watch this:
The comedy of this scene, notably, is less about a morbidly obese man spewing fountains of vomit, and more about the perversity of John Cleese's French waiter character. Apparently this has all happened before; Cleese's waiter seems to know exactly what's going to happen. Moreover, he seems to want it to happen; he urges it on. After Mr. Creosote has declared himself "absolutely stuffed," the waiter continues to insist on feeding him, tempting him with a "waffer-thin" after-dinner mint, then running for cover.