Netflixable? “Monty Python: Almost the Truth” docu-series, the definitive history

One of the benefits of the streaming era is that all these content platforms are so starved for something to show us that what might previously have been regarded as “disposable” still has value.

“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” premiered over 50 years ago, and the last movie the British troupe parked in theaters was their “Live in Aspen” old-men-performing-their-greatest-hits video in 2005. The stage hit “Spamalot,” the musical reimagination of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” dates from that same year.

Two of the writer/performers — Graham Chapman and more recently, Terry Jones — are dead. Ceased to be. Expired.

But before Jones’ death in January — long before it — there was this 2009 BBC2 series, repeated in the US on IFC. “Monty Python: Almost the Truth” does a wonderful job of telling their story, how Britain’s best and wittiest, alumni of Oxford and Cambridge, and an American animator remade comedy in their absurdist image.

“Almost the Truth,” now on Netflix, is six episodes of droll completism — an amusing gathering of the then five-old men for on-camera interviews to settle, once and for all, who did what and why and when, and who annoyed the living hell out of whom as they did it.

Some sketches are explained, the origins of “I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK. I sleep all night and I work all day” and “This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late parrot! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace!” are a mystery no longer.

And some secrets the old boys will apparently take to their graves — “It’s just gone eight o’clock and time for the penguin on top of your television set to explode.”

Even if you’ve read the many autobiographies that Palin, Cleese and Idle produced, there are admissions, revelations and old grudges bandied about for our viewing pleasure in this five-hours-over-six-episodes dissection.

David Frost, who first thought to put this entire braintrust on the payroll, is given his (mocking) due. But so too are stalwarts like Carol Cleveland, the bombshell who appeared in so many of their shows she’d have been properly named an “official” Python in a more enlightened, less sexist age, even though she isn’t credited with writing the material that made them famous.

Musician, writer and performer Neil Innes similarly earns a nice bit of belated acknowledgement.

Their pre-Python programs “And Now the 1948 Show” and “Do Not Adjust Your Set” are placed in the timeline, as is the show that beat them on the air with the same absurdist framework and style, Spike Milligan’s “The World of Beachcomber.”

The dynamics of the how the group worked — its three-on-three factions, the difficulties of Chapman’s alcoholism as the one “actor” in the lot with real leading man potential, as displayed in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” The “likability” of Palin and Gilliam’s perpetual odd-American-out status are dipped into.

As with the ’70s phenomenon, “The Muppet Show,” I’m not sure if this group, its daft, somewhat dated programs and films, is still generating new fans discovering their shtick. But the legions of fan-testimonials in this series — skewing, like the troupe itself, overwhelmingly white and male — makes clear their imprint on comedy on both sides of the Atlantic.

Eddie Izzard, Russell Brand and Simon Pegg to Lorne Michaels and Jimmy Fallon all marvel at their first encounters with “Oxbridge” humor — surreal, smart, wacky and lowbrow.

If you fondly remember any of them and any of it, from “And now for something completely different” to “a very naughty boy,” “Almost the Truth” is essential viewing.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: TV-MA, nudity, profanity, fake-blood

Cast: Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Connie Cleveland, Neil Innes, Steve Coogan, Simon Pegg, Russell Brand, Olivia Harrison and Jimmy Fallon.

Credits: Directed by Bill Jones and Ben Timlett. An Eagle Rock release, now on Netflix.

Running time: Six episodes @54 minutes each.

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