Following up on this, we watched Meaning of Life the other night. Myohmyohmy but I laughed. So let's play a high school game and rank the Python films. For me it's Holy Grail and Meaning of Life neck and neck for no. 1, with Life of Brian a rather distant third. Which may seem odd; I think most people would agree that Life of Brian is Python's best film qua film. Hell, I agree with that proposition.
But it's not quaness that I look to the Pythons for. It's not professionalism or craft (at least not any craft recognizable to me) that made me videotape as many episodes as I could from MTV and WETA back in 1986 and 1987, lovingly label, name, and decorate the tape boxes, and then keep the damn things for twenty years despite layers of original static and growing tape fuzz. It was sheer demented genius, and philosophy.
Holy Grail is the former. It has some deeper meaning, some intellectual subtext, but mostly it's just surreal humor, enough to make you weep with laughter. I never tire of it; I'm not alone in that. Meaning of Life is the latter: it's almost desperately open about its ideas, as if the Pythons figured they may never get another chance to say what they really think with at least a few people listening. I listened. When I was in eleventh grade it felt like Python were the only ones in the world really thinking about stuff. Okay, sure, I was pretty full of myself - but they meant a lot to me.
Thing is, neither Holy Grail nor Meaning of Life are all that great as movies qua movies. Holy Grail makes a point of it, flouting any rule it can divine, of course; and Meaning of Life is, as John Cleese objected at the time (according to the DVD commentary), just a collection of sketches that has trouble justifying its running time.
Life of Brian, meanwhile, is a good movie. A tight film, well-told, with enough jokes to keep you laughing, but not enough to distract from creating characters and telling their stories. It's the perfect balance - some classic Python absurdity, some very focused subtext, all in the service of the story. But you know how I feel about perfection. And Life of Brian does that: it doesn't make me laugh as hard as Holy Grail, or think as hard as Meaning of Life. I admire it; but the others I love.
Anyway, what I really wanted to say was this. That Meaning of Life is clearly the most philosophical of the three Python films, but then right in the middle of it (literally) they place what just might be their most inspired bit of surrealism ever. Completely meaningless, and utterly, eye-poppingly, gaspingly funny. And it went wherever I did go.