I was busy at my computer working on “Resting in Peace”—the last chapter of the next book I’m writing, Hotel Chemo: Learning to Laugh through Breast Cancer and Infidelity. Getting breast cancer for the second time had been a sharp reminder that I wasn’t a permanent resident on planet Earth. My rental lease here had an expiration date, and I had no way of knowing if it would be soon or decades away. So how would I plan for my death, and possibly the afterlife? As a Jew-Bu-Tao agnostic with a Protestant Ethic upbringing, my religious leanings were very confused.
People hate mentioning the word death. It’s so blunt, scary and final—almost like a rude sexual swear word. Both death and sex are surrounded by taboos. Because of this there are numerous euphemisms for both subjects. Sex probably wins in terms of quantity, but Wikipedia lists well over 100 expressions related to death.
Several of these euphemisms were immortalized in Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch. John Cleese re-worked some of the lines from it in his eulogy to fellow Python comedian Graham Chapman at Chapman’s memorial service in 1989. I decided that I would be very much in favor of my family members doing the same for me. Perhaps anyone speaking at my memorial would have to link their speech to the Monty Python skit of their choice.
I didn’t want money wasted on a fancy funeral, just that eulogy based on the Monty Python Dead Parrot Sketch and a jolly good party. Following the tradition of my Jewish ancestors incinerated in concentration camps, I opted for cremation, but faced bewildering choices for urns. Small in stature, I didn’t need a big one. I decided that my ashes could simply go in a plastic box and be spread over the ocean off Hawaii—a permanent tropical vacation. There’s only one thing I would miss by not having a traditional funeral with a casket carried off to be lowered into a grave. I would have loved pallbearers dressed as Monty Python Gumbys (not to be confused with the green clay character), complete with knotted handkerchiefs on their heads, round metal spectacles, mustaches, braces over white shirts with rolled up sleeves, knitted talk tops, rolled up trousers and gumboots. It’s…a helluva uniform!
As I was pondering my plans for a Dead Parrot funeral, I was distracted by a loud “Thwump!” Something had hit the patio door and I turned to look. A lovebird parrot had flown into the glass and lay feet upwards on the ground. One wing quivered for a second and then it was still. I’ve always been rather squeamish about dead animals, so I instructed my boyfriend to take a closer look. Without realizing that we were doing it, we began paraphrasing the Dead Parrot Sketch script. “Is it really dead?” I asked, “Or just stunned?” “Stone dead, no signs of life,” he replied, and unceremoniously scooped the bird up into a paper bag that he put into the trash. He was right—it was a stiff, bereft of life, but I still had visions of the poor thing regaining consciousness inside the trash can and flailing about trying to get out.
Lovebirds were not indigenous to the area, but I had seen a wild flock of them nearby. These small green African parrots had either escaped from a local aviary or had been released by owners who no longer wanted to take care of them. Even if I was a staunch Monty Python fan, I had no desire to find a genuinely dead parrot on the patio. I admit that I’m sexist—dead birds, dead mice, dead anything…dealing with them is a man’s job, not mine.
Later on I had an epiphany. My life was turning into the Dead Parrot Sketch. It didn’t matter that it was a dead lovebird rather than Monty Python’s fictitious Norwegian Blue. Interestingly, The Daily Telegraph reported in 2008 that British fossil expert and Python fan, Dr. David Waterhouse, had proved the existence of parrots in Scandinavia about 55 million years ago when the area was covered in tropical forests. His findings were based on a fossilized wing recovered from a mine in Denmark. There was no proof of the bird’s color, but nevertheless Waterhouse gave it the nickname “Danish Blue.”
At the very least, the irony of a dead parrot presenting itself to me just as I was writing about the Dead Parrot Sketch and my own memorial seemed a great subject for a blog. I told my boyfriend that I had missed the opportunity to take a photograph of the fallen lovebird. “I’m not taking it out of the trash for you!” was his blunt response, even though he was usually quite a helpful fellow. Not that I expected him to exhume the parrot. Perhaps a dead bird in glorious Technicolor would have been too unpleasant an image for my blog post anyway. Instead I found a perfect photograph on Wikimedia that had a lot of meaning for me—Michael Palin and John Cleese performing the Dead Parrot Sketch live at the 2014 “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” show at the O2 Arena in London. I should know because I was there. I had bought hugely expensive tickets more than six months earlier, as soon as they went on sale. It was the first time in more than thirty years that the five remaining Monty Python cast members were on stage together and the reunion had been billed as their farewell performance.
A few weeks before the Monty Python Reunion was to take place, I got my second diagnosis of breast cancer. So I had my surgery done right away and negotiated with my oncologist in California to postpone my chemotherapy long enough to give me time to go to England for the performance. I knew what my priorities were. I wouldn’t let cancer force me to give up Monty Python.
Despite the fact that I had heard almost all the material before—in some ways that was half the fun of it—I thoroughly enjoyed the show. I didn’t care that the surviving Pythons were all in their seventies. I didn’t care that John Cleese was no longer fit enough to do his Silly Walk or that Terry Jones kept forgetting his lines and had to be helped out by other cast members. The Daily Mail reported in September 2016 that Jones was suffering the onset of dementia. The reunion I attended was the last time he would ever be on stage performing Python sketches.
There was no question in my mind that it was the right decision to see the “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” show in London and make chemo wait. So far, my treatment appears to have been successful. At least at the time of writing this, I can quote that immortal line from Monty Python and the Holy Grailand proclaim, “I’m not dead yet! “
Graham Chapman (1941?–)—British comedian, scriptwriter, author, songwriter, and actor.
John Cleese (1939–)—British comedian, scriptwriter, and actor.
Terry Gilliam (1941?–)—American animator, comedian, actor, and director.
Eric Idle—British comedian, scriptwriter, songwriter, and actor.
Terry Jones (1942?–)—Welsh comedian, scriptwriter, song-writer, author, actor, and director.
Michael Palin (1943–)—British comedian, scriptwriter, songwriter, and director.
Collectively known as Monty Python and Monty Python's Flying Circus, the group attacks foolishness in contemporary behavior with the combination of literate, sophisticated satire and crude burlesques, gags, and slapstick that forms its popular brand of surrealism. Monty Python is unique among comedy groups, as they have gained a large, appreciative audience outside the United Kingdom for their very British brand of political and social satire. The group was influenced by the British comedy classic The Goon Show, a madcap postwar radio broadcast, and the satirical undergraduate revue Beyond the Fringe. Using such sketches and bits as "Hell's Grannies," "The Lumberjack Song," "The Ministry of Silly Walks," "The Dead Parrot," and "Upper Class Twit of the Year," the Pythons satirize the ridiculous postures of which we are all capable. Most critics feel that the combined sensibilities of the six men have produced a body of work that is admirable for its innovation, insight, and comic effectiveness.
A British comedy consultant formed the group in 1969 to fill a late night opening on BBC television. Cleese, Idle, and Chapman, all Cambridge University graduates, had been writing for David Frost's comedy show The Frost Report. Palin and Jones, both graduates of Oxford University, had worked with Idle on the British humor series Do Not Adjust Your Set. Terry Gilliam was enlisted to do the group's visuals and animation. The resultant series, Monty Python's Flying Circus, ran for four seasons on the Public Broadcasting System and developed a cult following both in Britain and the United States. Comprised of fast-moving, seemingly unconnected sketches with subjects ranging from pointed parodies of British culture and burlesques of everyday living to satires on some of the strong-holds of Western civilization, the show was hailed by most critics as hilarious and inventive.
The group's first feature film, And Now for Something Completely Different, consists mostly of sketches from their albums and television shows; critics unfamiliar with the group's material reacted to it with disdain. Their next film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, was successful both critically and commercially. A satirical attack on the Arthurian legend, the movie employs many of the comic devices that had been perfected on the television series. Although some critics find the humor sophomoric and distasteful, others believe the film witty and imaginative. The group's albums, which had initially been ignored, also began to achieve success. In 1979 the group released its controversial film Life of Brian, about a man who was continually mistaken for the Messiah because he was born in the manger next to Christ's. Many religious leaders were offended by the film; Idle explained, "We're laughing at man, not God." Most criticism has praised the film as being perhaps the best work the group has done.
Since Life of Brian, Python members have continued to come together for occasional live performances and for The Contractual Obligation Album, but have worked mainly on individual projects. In spite of the favorable critical response many of these projects received, most critics feel that the Python members are most successful as a team.