When they were first casting Spamalot, the stage production of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Hank Azaria landed the role of Sir Lancelot, and most of the other parts played in the movie by John Cleese. He seemed to learn his lines almost immediately, which impressed producer Eric Idle to no end considering how much of the dialogue is barely coherent strings of nonsense. Azaria then noted that he had had the lines memorized decades earlier, as he and his friend sat in the back of class in high school hiding a copy of the Holy Grail script behind their textbooks. They would memorize the lines, reciting them to each other, because it was one of the most hilarious movies they had ever seen at that time and they wanted to be as immersed in that comedy as deeply as possible.
Other Monty Python cast members have relayed similar instances of discovering the impact of their work. Michael Palin noted on NPR that their infamous Parrot Sketch rarely gets any actual laughs when they perform it live. Not because it’s less funny than it used to be, but because everyone in the audience knows it by heart. Both Palin and Cleese have said that they’ve seen audience members mouthing the words along during the performance.
That wasn’t always the case, of course. Much of the comedic value of Monty Python stems from the bizarre surprises throughout their scripts. When it first aired, there was literally no one who expected the Spanish Inquisition! And that’s what was funny about it—it was so unexpected and made so little sense that viewers laughed at the absurdity of it.
And the initial repeat viewings also lend themselves to that surprise, as many people were struck by one joke while several more zipped by. While they were laughing at the line about the castle that “burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp” they may have missed the “huge tracts of land” gag, which a second viewing may allow them to catch. By the time a viewer catches all the jokes and comedy, though, they’ve got a good portion of it memorized. So the surprise is no longer the prime enjoyment factor, but something else. Perhaps an appreciation of the skill in which the scripts were written. Perhaps a more nuanced watching where you try to catch the brief moments where one of the Python players start to break character and laugh.
I point all this out to showcase that what draws someone in to become a fan may not be what keeps them one. I think most people who enjoy Monty Python have a very different view of the work now than when they first encountered it. They’re no longer laughing at the unexpected; they know the material often better than the Pythoners themselves! And nowhere along the spectrum of fandom does that make anyone’s enjoyment of their work any less potent. Whether you’re seeing the French taunting scene for the first time or spouting off the insults right along with Cleese, you’re just as entitled to enjoy the show as much as anybody else!