Whereas Shakespeare's Puck was a mischief-maker in long ago times, the Mony Python troupe (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin) are the pranksters for our age. They have poked fun at our foibles and lampooned our beliefs on their television series and in a number of very funny movies. The Meaning of Life is their most outrageious, accessible and zany work to date.
A short feature about some aged insurance clerks in revolt against their young bosses turns into a phantasmagorical pirate story. An ancient British office building is transformed into a ship that sails into Manhattan's financial district ready for battle. This imaginative bit sets the pace and the tone for what follows.
There are two clever sketches on "Birth." The first satirizes the medical establishment's adoration of technology instead of the miracle of new life. The second features a Catholic Yorkshire laborer who loses his job and contemplates selling his hundreds of children for medical experiments. It ends with a hilarious musical number entitled "Every Sperm is Sacred."
This broadside on the Catholic view of contraception won't win the Python troupe many friends in that audience. The Moral Majority will wince at the skit in which a no-nonsense teacher in a boy's school demonstrates the act of intercourse with his wife while the youths squirm nervously in their chairs. A sketch about an organ transplant and send-up of gluttony are gross-outs calculated to test the limits of our appreciation for slapstick. A Grim Reaper sequence is right on target with its apt insights into varied human responses to death.
The Monty Python troupe understands that comedy operates in a zone between the serious and the absurd. Although they tilt their satire more in the direction of the ludicrous, they are bright enough to ask the right questions about modern medicine, religion, business, sexuality, education, war and death. And in times when the so-called serious people are giving all the wrong answers that's quite funny indeed.