Python neophytes are best off starting with their Flying Circus television series or Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Life of Brian before tackling Monty Python's The Meaning of Life to give them a firm grip on their sarcastic, surreal, and often "nerdy" humor where the men play multiple roles and often don women's clothing and speak in squeaky falsetto to humorous effect. Even their 1982 Live at the Hollywood Bowl serves better as an introductory piece since the essentially concert recording has no pretensions of striving for a unifying theme.
Python fans have undoubtedly already seen The Meaning of Life before and committed the funny bits to memory (leaving out the pointless unfunny ones like the faux tiger scene) and will hail the special edition DVD release, complete with background, commentary, and deleted scenes. This is a film that plays better with DVD technology since it's the most disjointed of the Python films and follows the trademark sketch style comedy of their Flying Circus years. Thus, you can physically select only the scenes you want to see, as well as include a fine skit about Martin Luther as the Protestant promoter of "recreational sex" (contrasting with Catholic doctrine of dutiful “procreational sex”).
I remember theatrical screenings in 1983 where a number of patrons would invariably walk out disgustedly because the film made no sense. Those poor souls obviously had insufficient background for the more surrealistic and silly side of the Pythons since the film isn't meant to hold together for 90 minutes. The Python troupe are no dummies, and they already realize this—why else do they have their talking fish comment about the film not really talking about "the meaning of life" or insert a lady presenter with a "Middle of the Film" break.
Following the success of Life of Brian, the Pythons set to creating one last film project that would ensure that they'd never have to work again, and Monty Python's Meaning of Life took form, often over the objections of John Cleese, who still doesn't like the film despite delivering many of the best moments. The sketches scotch tape the "meaning of life" theme together by generally following a birth to middle-age to death structure, using occasional Terry Gilliam animations, and highlighting Eric Idle's best ever song compositions. As with any of the Python material, it's strictly hit and miss, but most of the film is full of creative play and sardonic wit.
Sight gags are plentiful (like Gilliam's Rastafarian Jewish liver donor character) and absurdities abound, but viewers must closely listen to the dialogue for hilarious subtleties. One of the best sketches follows the wonderful musical production of "Every Sperm is Sacred" describing a large Catholic family that must sell off 60 children for medical experiments. Sitting in their drab and tidy apartment across from the Catholics, a rigid Protestant couple (impeccably played by Graham Chapman and Eric Idle) discusses their philosophical differences with the Catholics about sex and birth control that gets into French Ticklers, Black Mambos, and Crocodile Ribs.
Most of the stronger skits come from the opening segments where "The Miracle of Birth" with the machine that goes "ping" contrasts with the "The Third World" overwhelmed Catholic family and typically bored students in "Growth and Learning" get live in-class demonstrations of sex from their instructor (Cleese) and his wife. Also memorable is Eric Idle's "Galaxy Song" to convince a woman to donate her liver since we are so "insignificant" in the grand scale of things, and the fish tank opening where a school of fish exchange routine “good morning's” until realizing that Howard is serving as entrée (a scene that Gary Larson's Far Side fans will also enjoy). Additionally, Terry Gilliam's opening prologue "The Crimson Permanent Assurance" contains some terrific moments with a brief homage to Ben Hur and an energetic swashbuckling sequence of octogenarians kicking the collective asses of corporate yuppies. Originally slated to be inserted into the film, Gilliam's little skit went overboard on budget and production and became its own entity. As a side benefit, it provides a first time action scene for numerous veteran actors in their final film appearance—so don't ever think the Pythons don't have a heart!
Although often cited, the vomit inducing Mr. Creosote (Terry Jones) restaurant scene is tough to watch, but even more puzzling are the DVD revelations that the extras were all begging to have the Russian vegetable soup dumped on them, even four days into the shoot after it had aged under the hot lights. Just goes to show what lengths some will endure to be in the movies!
For the most part, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life is worth sitting through, but long term will play much better with the DVD so you can skip to the good scenes. Just don't go expecting any profound answers to the film's provocative title unless you get all giddy over Gaston's (Idle) mother's banal advice: "The world is a beautiful place, and you must spread joy and contentment everywhere you go." Of course that is offered with typical Pythonesque satirical tone, as Eric Idle follows it with multiple profanities. Strictly for people with dark senses of humor, any Python film should be avoided by anyone that thinks Jay Leno is funny. The Meaning of Life should never be a first taste of Python, but after watching their previous work you'll know whether they serve your cup of tea.