"They've found the 'Holy Grail': Monty Python's zany, 28-year-old film connects with a new generation of fans"
by Matt Soergel
published in the Florida Times-Union on 23 April 2003
reprinted with permission from the author
Monday, 14 July 2003

Illustration by Andrew Saeger and Bob Self/Times-Union staff

Here's a test. Walk up to someone and tell them this: "Your mother was a hamster."

If they reply correctly -- and the reply, of course, is "and your father smelt of elderberries," best said in an "outraaageous" French accent -- then you know that they have at least a passing acquaintance with Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Many fans, though, have much more than a passing acquaintance with the extremely silly film, the British comedy troupe's warped take on the Arthurian legend.

Now 28 years after it was released, Holy Grail still has a healthy cult following among each new crop of teenagers.

Take Ian Miller, 13, an eighth-grader at LaVilla School of the Arts. Last Halloween, he came to school dressed as Patsy, King Arthur's loyal servant, complete with coconuts. All day he went up and down the halls, clapping the coconuts together to mimic the clomping of a horse, just as the Pythons did.

Then there's Blake Harden, 14, an Episcopal High School freshman. He's seen the movie more than 20 times, he figures, and has seen parts of it many more times than that.

Favorite 'Grail'-isms

Here are the favorite characters and quotes of some local teenage Grail fanatics (depicted in the illustration from left to right), who seem to especially favor the taunting Frenchmen atop the castle, with all their colorful insults ("Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person"):

Brandy French, 15, Bishop Kenny: We like the French guys taunting, the hamster and the elderberries, brave Sir Robin, Launcelot saving the prince at the swamp castle. And the whole "I'm not dead yet thing" -- my mom and I do that all the time. And there's always a woman banging a cat against a wall somewhere. My mom doesn't like cats much, so she likes that part.

Mary Denman, 16, Mandarin High School: The French scene. My friends and I quote that a lot. "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries." And the Trojan Bunny was pretty funny.

Ian Miller, 13, La Villa School of the Arts: I really like the knights who say "Ni," and I really like the French guys in the castle. And the bridge keeper: "What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?"

Blake Harden, 14, Episcopal High School: "There are some who call me Tim." The knights who say "Ni." The end scene when it just kind of ends, with the police arresting the knights. Brave Sir Robin. Castle Anthrax.

Alex Schmitt, 16, Bishop Kenny: The coconuts. The debates over the air-speed velocity of African and European swallows. All the word play.

He even knows the new name of the Knights Who Say Ni: "We are now the Knights who say Ecky-ecky-ecky-ecky-pikang-zoop-boing-goodem-zoo-owli-zhiv," he said.

It's silly stuff, indeed.

But it's savored by its fans.

"It's sort of like a secret society with kids today. Even some grown-ups," said Kim "Howard" Johnson. He's the author of The First 280 Years of Monty Python and the personal assistant to John Cleese, the tallest of the group.

"For some reason or another, Python seems to be rediscovered by each generation that comes along," he said. "They all seem to make this discovery on their own, and it seems like Holy Grail is really the entry point for all of them."

The surviving Python members are a bit puzzled by the Grail mania, according to Johnson (Cleese himself prefers The Life of Brian). But they do like the money it brings in; they only recently began merchandising action figures from the movie, which have quickly sold out.

So who are these Grail lovers? Johnson has an idea.

"Python certainly has a nerdy following, but I don't think it's just restricted to just the nerds," he said. "Honestly, I think it tends to be the brighter kids who respond more, the kids who stand out of the crowd a little bit."

Episcopal's Blake agrees: "The people who find it kind of cool are my more intelligent friends. A lot of my friends, they think it's funny, but the more observant you are, you can pick up on a lot more of the humor."

We assembled some teenage Python fans recently to talk about their passion for a film that's twice as old as they are. Of course, any time you get Python fans together they'll start saying silly things in faux British accents. This group was no different.

LaVilla's Ian started them off: "Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government," he said.

Several joined in to finish: "Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony."

Then they were on to the next random quote.

Mandarin High sophomore Mary Denman, 16, said she's seen the film "at least 15 times." At school, she and her friends find it ripe material for humor.

"We take a couple of French classes, and we'll mock our teacher with Monty Python lines," she said. "And sometimes we'll just look at each other and start laughing, because we know they're thinking of lines."

Blake said that even teachers get in on the act: "Especially Mr. Todd. He'll go into that accent and say random bits from the movie."

Mr. Todd -- Allen Todd, 30, who teaches world history at Episcopal -- has kept his passion for Holy Grail intact over the years. He'll drop in quotes while talking about, say, the Knights Templars or the relationship between medieval England and France -- a relationship that no doubt did involve some taunting, as the Pythons speculated so colorfully.

"Seriously, any major part of the movie, I've used in class," he said. "It fits in, and I have a silly sense of humor. I'm surprised at the number of kids who've seen it and are familiar with it. It's probably the majority of each class."

For Brandy French, 15, a Bishop Kenny sophomore, her Grail mania is a mother-daughter thing. Her mother, Terri, first saw the movie as a Stetson University student in the '70s, and made sure her daughter saw it as soon as she was old enough to truly get it.

"At first I was like, 'What kind of movie is this, Mom?' But then I started catching it -- the second time I started catching all the subtler things," Brandy said.

"Now we always taunt each other back and forth, and my dad just rolls his eyes."