“This is Spam,” says Eric Idle to a room full of Japanese journalists, holding up a can of the precooked meat product that he and his fellow Monty Python cast members mocked to lasting effect in 1970 in their iconic BBC TV series.
That early “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch — set in a working-class cafe whose menu was composed almost entirely of this cheap filler food — led to the word “spam” being associated with junk email, and a reference to the original gag helped form the title of Idle’s comedy musical “Spamalot” when it opened on Broadway in 2005.
And now “Spamalot” is opening in Japan. And Spam is the unlikely headline sponsor.
“You shouldn’t eat it: It’s really for comedy,” warns Idle. He probably means it. He’s probably also aware that Spam is actually quite popular in Japan, and that mocking your own sponsors here is very much off the menu. And that’s what makes it funny.
“Spamalot” is based fairly closely on the story of the 1974 comedy film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” itself a parody of the sixth-century tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
“The Holy Grail” is Python’s second-most popular film (after “The Life of Brian,” which is often voted the funniest movie of all time), and the musical version was adapted by Idle and musician John Du Prez to great acclaim. As well as winning three Tony Awards, “Spamalot” has been performed around the United States, in London’s West End and around Britain, and in countries across Europe and Asia.
Yuichi Fukuda, a successful scriptwriter and a Python fan of more than 20 years, was the man responsible for bringing “Spamalot” to Japan; the musical will run for two weeks in Tokyo from Jan. 9, and then move to Osaka on Feb. 2 for four days.
“I’ve been to see ‘Spamalot’ in New York every year since it started, and would see it three times on each trip,” Fukuda admits. He eventually succeeded in finding producers willing to stage the production in his homeland.
“In Japan, musicals are considered highbrow entertainment,” he says. “But I hope to put on a musical that can also make people laugh.”
Actor Yusuke Santamaria, who stars as Arthur in the absurd musical, jokes, “I wonder whether anyone will recognize me in this costume and all this makeup.
“My first ever performance in a play was actually in a musical. I used to be a musician, but if you’d seen that musical, you’d have understood why I’d quit music in the first place! But being in a musical is about more than just whether you can sing well or not — I’m looking forward to opening my Pandora’s box and seeing what’s inside.”
“Monty Python” has a long history in Japan. Its original TV series, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” screened on Britain’s BBC from 1969 to 1974, and it was first dubbed into Japanese in 1976 for a six-month TV run.
Since the show was filled with eccentric, surrealist humor and cultural references that were alien to Japanese viewers, Tokyo 12 Channel (now TV Tokyo) hit upon an innovative idea: Rather than screen the 30-minute episodes cold, each one was preceded with 24 minutes of locally made content, collectively titled “Channeru Dorobo! Kaikan Gyagu Bangumi! Soratobu Monti Paison” (“Channel Thief! Pleasurable Gag Program! Monty Python’s Flying Circus”).
This included a “Monty Python Party,” where TV celebs of the day donned suits and frocks and sipped on cocktails as they discussed matters Pythonesque; meanwhile, Tamori (now one of Japan’s most famous TV personalities) made his broadcast debut with a “mini-corner” of Python-inspired sketches.
The show was a hit, topping the ratings and inspiring a generation of off-the-wall comedians. From comedy band The Drifters’ TV program “Hachijidayo, Zeninshugo!” (“It’s 8 p.m., Everyone Together!”) to “Beat” Takeshi Kitano and Sanma Akashiya’s “Oretachi Hyokin Zoku” (“We are Comedy Tribe”), right through to the early sketch shows of the still-massive duo Downtown and the insane children’s anime “Crayon Shin-chan,” Monty Python’s influence was to be felt.
Renowned actor Takashi Matsuo recalled in a recent book, “Sketches on Japanese TV shows always had to have a proper ending, so I was surprised by the way (Monty Python’s) sketches would suddenly change into another one or go into an animation. … All the young TV talents wanted to be like the Monty Python guys.”
The “Monty Python” movies all enjoyed local releases, generally managing to get the subversive British humor across — though sometimes it was necessary to tweak the script. After all, laughter is universal, but humor is not always.
For example, the centuries-long rivalry between the English and the French, invoked in that classic scene in “The Holy Grail” (“I fart in your general direction!”), would never have resonated with a Japanese audience, and so that part instead became a more generalized trading of insults. Meanwhile, the Holy Grail itself became a Holy Sake Cup, and the Knights Who Say Ni demanded not a shrubbery but a bonsai tree.
While the later subtitled episodes generally hewed closer to the originals, the original dubs had something of a cult following too, and they were revived in 2008 as part of a deluxe Japan-only seven-DVD box set.
The runup to the Tokyo “Spamalot” stint has seen a flurry of Python activity in Japan, some of it seemingly calculated to introduce a younger generation to the troupe’s legacy, and some simply coinciding with Python’s 40th anniversary in 2009. That year, yet another glut of “Flying Circus” and movie DVDs were released in Japan, complete with a special Silly Walk John Cleese figurine, as were reissues of works by various ex-Pythons — including Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ “Ripping Yarns” and Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”; Gilliam’s dark sci-fi comedy “Brazil” will be rereleased here next month.
In September 2010, several famous thespians, including Matsuo, Furuta Arata and Keralino Sandorovich, staged “Nihon Monti Paison Sengen” (“Japan Monty Python Declaration”) at a Tokyo theater, where they performed several Python sketches and ended with a rousing singalong of “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” from “The Life of Brian” (sample lyric: “Life’s a piece of sh-t / When you look at it / Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true”).
In September 2011, the Shitacome comedy festival held as part of Tokyo International Film Festival featured a seminar panel that included Matsuo and Python historian Yasunari Suda — who wrote the best-selling 1999 compendium “Monti Paison Taizen” (“Monty Python’s Complete Works”) and also oversaw the subtitling of the first “Flying Circus” DVD releases. The seminar was followed by a screening of — you guessed it — “The Holy Grail.”
Also that year, a self-titled book aimed at newcomers compiled 71 minutes of “Flying Circus” sketches onto a disc and dissected each of them in print, with a Pythonese-Japanese dictionary to help viewers understand such useful phrases as “Joke warfare was banned at a special session of the Geneva Convention” and “Spam, egg, Spam, Spam, bacon and Spam.”
“Japan had student rebellion and demonstrations in the 1960s and ’70s,” wrote Suda in an article in that book. “It was a period when the rules of society changed … Monty Python emerged from that scene with a brand new kind of comedy. Just as The Beatles’ music is in the DNA of all modern music, so Monty Python’s DNA runs through the veins of modern culture.”
‘I have a question,” says SMAP member and self-professed hardcore Python fan Shingo Katori. He stands alongside a gaggle of young Japanese TV personalities on old Python-hand Tamori’s long-running “Waratte Iitomo!” (“You Can Laugh!”) program in August 2011, where Eric Idle is the special studio guest. “You got away with so much on BBC TV that we could never do here,” he continues. “Didn’t they ever ask you to cut anything?” “No,” replies Idle, “we were never censored.” “Eeeeeeeeh?!” gasps the audience.
“Are the other Monty Python members well?” enquires Tamori, a glint of nostalgia in his trademark sunglasses. Deadpan, Idle replies: “They’re dead.”
Yes, Idle’s trip to Tokyo was short but productive. As well as filming some commercials for “Spamalot” and singing “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” on TV as a postdisaster condolence, he took the opportunity to greet the Japanese press at a press conference at the British Embassy. One journalist asked whether local audiences will need a decent grasp of medieval history to understand “Spamalot.”
“I think that Japanese medieval history and British medieval history are very similar, because the knights form a cult of honor,” he replied. “What is funny about ‘Spamalot’ is that it’s a send-up of ‘medieval-ness,’ but I think it’s very accessible to us. If we’ve ever been school children, it’s the same thing for King Arthur: He’s like a headmaster trying to get control of all these idiots running around.
“It will be easy for the audience to see what’s going on; it’s fairly obvious. You see people banging coconuts (to simulate the sound of hooves) when they clearly have no horses.
“And we sell the coconuts afterwards.”
“Spamalot” runs Jan. 9-22 at Akasaka ACT Theater, Tokyo ( 00-3337); and Feb. 2-5 at Morinomiya Piloti Hall, Osaka ( 7732-8888). Some dates feature multiple performances, and all are in Japanese only. For more information, visit www.spamalot.jp.