The movie ends with a visit from the Grim Reaper and a trip to heaven (where it's always Christmas), so it's fitting that Monty Python's The Meaning of Life should be this week's reminder of your own mortality. It opened on April 1, 1983 -- 30 years ago. Which means that if you remember it, You're Old™.
As a group Monty Python had been popular since the days of Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-'74), and especially since 1974, when episodes of that show had started airing in the U.S. The first two "real" Python movies (not counting 1971's And Now for Something Completely Different, which was just a collection of reshot TV sketches), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979), were hits. The group's albums, featuring studio recordings of both old and new material, sold well.
Individually, the Pythons were another story. John Cleese's Fawlty Towers was beloved, and Terry Gilliam was beginning to establish himself as a director (he made Time Bandits in 1981), and Eric Idle and Michael Palin had each hosted SNL a few times. But Terry Jones and Graham Chapman had almost no non-Python credits, and none of the six could claim a substantial solo career by the time The Meaning of Life came around. Since their first two films had been straightforward narratives, The Meaning of Life -- an assemblage of newly written sketches -- was going to be a return to the sort of thing that made them famous in the first place.
Part of what made them famous in the first place was the fact that they weren't afraid to do things that were deliberately off-putting and abrasive. And so The Meaning of Life begins with a separate 17-minute short called The Crimson Permanent Assurance, in which "corporate piracy" is turned into the literal, high-seas kind of piracy. Directed by Gilliam (and it is indeed very Gilliam-y), the film has only glimpses of the Pythons and would have no relation at all to The Meaning of Life were it not for one sketch that references it. The marketing department didn't count it at all: the tagline for The Meaning of Life was "It took God six days to create the heavens and the Earth, and Monty Python just 90 minutes to screw it up" -- the length of the feature, not including the short. (The tagline was changed for DVD release in 2003, by which time The Crimson Permanent Assurance was considered a permanent part of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.)
From there it's classic Python-style madness, only without the restrictions of television. The lads made full use of this creative freedom, judiciously employing nudity, gore, vomit, blasphemy and sex in ways they never could have done on the BBC. (The film was banned in Ireland, just as Life of Brian had been, for its slams on Catholicism.) Two particularly outré sequences became legendary: the "Every Sperm Is Sacred" musical number (staged like something out of Oliver!), and the infamous visit of obese Mr. Creosote to a restaurant where he eats everything on the menu, plus a mint, then explodes.
The reviews and box office were favorable, but not to the same degree as with Holy Grail and Life of Brian. Still, The Meaning of Life made just under $15 million in the U.S., placing it in the top 50 for 1983, and number four among limited-release films (under 600 screens). The fact that it wound up being the final Monty Python movie had little to do with its performance and more to do with the six Pythons going off in different directions. Gilliam directed Brazil next, while Cleese and Palin had A Fish Called Wanda in the not-too-distant future. Idle got busy in movies and TV. Chapman's death in 1989, just as the Pythons were preparing to celebrate Flying Circus' 20th anniversary, meant that a complete reunion would never happen.
How appropriate that the group's cinematic swan song would be the most Python of all their works: absurd, scathing, surreal, naughty, hilarious, occasionally not hilarious, and clearly made without any studio intervention. The gang must have had a great laugh when, six weeks after it opened theatrically, the film played at the Cannes Film Festival -- and won the Grand Jury prize.
When Monty Python's The Meaning of Life was released 30 years ago:
- It was the top new release at the box office, but still only managed sixth place. The top two films were both holdovers from the previous week: Spring Break and The Outsiders. The year's biggest hit, of course, was going to be Return of the Jedi, still eight weeks away.
- Michael Jackson, who was not creepy yet, had performed the moonwalk on a TV special a week earlier, giving the world its first glimpse of what would become his signature move. His Thriller album was in its fifth week at number one on the Billboard charts. People generally believed him about Billie Jean not being his lover.
- Speaking of music, you know who was huge? Puerto Rican boy band Menudo! They had recently performed six sold-out shows at the Felt Forum, and would be back for four more sellouts at Madison Square Garden later in the year. All of America had Menudomania!
- Compact discs were brand new to the market, having first been sold in the U.S. on March 2.
- Carrie Underwood, Kate Bosworth and Emily Blunt were all less than three months old, while Henry Cavill, Gabourey Sidibe and Adrianne Palicki were all about to pop out of their respective wombs.
- The episode of Diff'rent Strokes where Nancy Reagan shows up to teach kids to "Just Say No" to drugs had aired two weeks earlier. Oh, and the final episode of M*A*S*H a few weeks before that, but whatever. Nancy Reagan wasn't on that.
- The A-Team, Mama's Family and Fraggle Rock had all recently debuted on television, which means we must be due for a Mama's Family movie.