The first, as exemplified by this scene—which pyrotechnically blasted whole columns of the film's budget—is their use of archetypal figures...even historical figures...and use them as grist for comedy. Here, we have Merlin. But it's not Merlin. It's "Tim, the Enchanter." And Tim is only too happy to enchant by punctuating his spit-flying Scottish presentation with gasoline-fueled demonstrations of legerdemain. Because an Enchanter is only as good as his enchantments, and Hollywood and Historical Epics always needed to fit those in to "sell" their magicians.
Not that John Cleese needs any help. Cleese ran the extremes of Python performing—he could be the self-contained announcer of And Now for Something Completely Different... or he could be a screaming loon in danger of hemorrhaging, and both territories are heard from with Tim the Enchanter, which makes the tag-line especially funny because 1) it's what we're all thinking, but 2) it's breaking the wall between art and artifice, acknowledging that a) it's only a movie and b) it's just a performance. No respect. No respect at all.
The Set-Up: It has been a hard and cruel journey for King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his knights of the Round Table in their quest for the Holy Grail. Taunted by Frenchmen, disappointed by Camelot (it's just a model), mocked by God, delayed by the Knights who say "Ni!" and the hapless Black Knight, they have recently been forced to eat their minstrels (yay!), when they come across a being who might speed things up a bit.
[The scene is a rocky countryside. A thunderous boom is heard.]
ARTHUR: Knights! Forward!
[Cut to TIM atop an outcropping, throwing pyrotechnic spells at various rocky crags. The KNIGHTS halt.]
[Suddenly, TIM summons a ball of fire on the very spot he is standing. But he is gone! Just as suddenly, TIM reappears in a cloud of smoke just a few feet away from ARTHUR. He continues to toss a couple more fiery spells.]
ARTHUR: What manner of man are you that can summon up fire without flint or tinder?
TIM: I... am an enchanter.
ARTHUR: By what name are you known?
TIM: There are some who call me... Tim?
ARTHUR: Greetings, Tim the Enchanter.
TIM: Greetings, King Arthur!
ARTHUR: You know my name?
TIM: I do.
[Blows flames from his staff]
TIM: You seek the Holy Grrrail!
ARTHUR: That is our quest. You know much that is hidden, Oh Tim.
[Shoots a rocket from his staff at a tree, which explodes]
[KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE applaud politely.]
ARTHUR: Yes, we're, we're looking for the Grail. Our quest is to find the Holy Grail.
KNIGHTS: It is, yes, yup, yes, yeah.
ARTHUR: And so we're, we're, we're, we're looking for it.
KNIGHTS: Yes we are we are.
BEDEMIR: We have been for some time.
ARTHUR: Uh, so, uh, anything you can do to, uh, to help...
ARTHUR: ... would be... very...
GALAHAD[Stepping forward impatiently]: Look, can you tell us wh-
[TIM throws a fireball in front of him. He stumbles back, holding his leg.]
ARTHUR: Fine, um, I don't want to waste any more of your time, but, uh I don't suppose you could, uh, tell us where we might find a, um, find a, uh, a, um, a uh--
TIM: A what...?
ARTHUR: A g--, a g--
TIM: A Grrrrrail?!
ARTHUR: Yes, I think so.
KNIGHTS: Yes, that's it. Yes.
KNIGHTS: Oh, thank you, splendid, fine.
[TIM shoots fire from fingers at rocky slope.]
ARTHUR: Look, you're a busy man, uh--
TIM: Yes, I can help you find the Holy Grrrrail.
KNIGHTS: Oh, thank you.
TIM: To the north there lies a cave -- the cave of Caerbannog -- wherein, carved in mystic runes upon the very living rock, the last words of Olfin Bedwere of Rheged
TIM: ...make plain the last resting place of the most Holy Grail.
ARTHUR: Where could we find this cave, Oh Tim?
TIM: [he turns back] But!! Follow only if ye be men of valor...
TIM: ...for the entrance to this cave is guarded by a creature...
TIM: ...so foul, so cruel that no man yet has fought with it and lived!
TIM: Bones of full fifty men lie strewn about its lair! So, brave knights, if you do doubt your courage or your strength, come no further...
TIM: ...for death awaits you all with nasty big pointy teeth!
ARTHUR: What an eccentric performance.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Words by Graham Chapman, John Cleese , Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin
Pictures by Terry Bedford and Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
* Those three being their ability to take historical concepts and toy with them, their extremely comical use of violence, their satirical use of language, and their hap-hazard way of getting out of skits.
Right! Four! Those FOUR being their ability...