Throughout the influential British comedy series "Monty Python's Flying Circus," transitions from one riotous sketch to the next were often punctuated with the phrase, "And now for something completely different." But a new DVD collection, "The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus 16-Ton Megaset," does the exact opposite. It gives fans something completely . . . similar.
Similar, that is, to "The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus Megaset" released five years ago by A&E Home Video, the same studio responsible for the version that arrived in stores Tuesday. A repackaged rendering of the first box set, the "16-Ton" edition includes all 45 episodes of the offbeat, groundbreaking BBC show and adds "Monty Python Live!," a two-disc set that features the 1982 concert "Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl" and was previously released on DVD in 2001. Anyone who has a hard-core passion for Python and doesn't own either of these earlier collections should be happy to have this one. But any completist who buys this edition and expects to acquire a shred of new material may, like John Cleese's character in the famous "Dead Parrot" sketch, wish to register a complaint.
To be fair, this is hardly the first time a home video anthology has been repurposed and reintroduced to the marketplace. But at least some effort could have been made to update the material. For example, the extras -- which are respectable, if not outstanding -- remain exactly the same. And the DVD's bios of the troupe's six members -- Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Michael Palin -- haven't even been revised to reflect recent career milestones. Consequently, Idle is credited as co-creator of the Broadway flop "Seussical," but his Tony Award-winning musical "Spamalot" -- the smash hit based on the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" -- isn't even mentioned.
Ultimately, the main reason to watch the "Megaset" is to revisit or, potentially, discover the episodes themselves, which can be viewed in their entirety or navigated sketch by sketch. Although the show originally aired from 1969 to 1974, the comedy holds up remarkably well. As David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap pointed out, there's a fine line between stupid and clever. The Python chaps straddled it beautifully, whether in Abbott-and-Costello-like bits such as "The Argument Clinic" (Palin: "Look, this isn't an argument." Cleese: "Yes it is." Palin: "No, it isn't. It's just contradiction." Cleese: "No it isn't.") or flagrantly silly numbers like "The Lumberjack Song." The hairstyles and the quality of the film often look dated. The humor never does.
Given the cultural significance of Python -- in addition to "Spamalot," the TV show spawned several movies and inspired virtually every sketch comedy series that followed, including "Saturday Night Live" -- it would have been nice to see a documentary that provides a more detailed look at the group's members and its legacy. The closest this collection comes is on the first of the "Python Live!" discs, which includes the must-watch 1998 tribute from the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. During the hour-long program, the funnymen share a few anecdotes . . . until Gilliam accidentally knocks over the urn allegedly holding the late Chapman's ashes, a classic, purely Python moment.
The menu screen for each episode also features a so-called "Useless Tidbit" that provides the sort of behind-the-scenes trivia DVD buffs crave. Without those fascinating tips, one might spend the rest of his life unaware that John Cleese based the "Upperclass Twit of the Year" skit on unruly patrons at a neighborhood wine bar who often kept him up at night.
If you're thinking that after "16 Tons," there can't possibly be any more Python left to pawn off on the public, think again. Thanks to the success of "Spamalot," which has no doubt sparked renewed interest in capitalizing on the group's off-kilter comedy, A&E also plans to issue DVDs that highlight the best of each Python star's work on "Flying Circus." "Eric Idle's Personal Best" and "Michael Palin's Personal Best" debuted last month, while "Bests" from Cleese, Jones, Gilliam and Chapman are coming soon. And if that weren't enough, a touring version of "Spamalot" is slated to stop at the National Theatre in June.
Unlike Cleese's dead parrot, Monty Python refuses to cease to be.