Eric Idle Accuses Shrek The Third of Stealing Monty Python Joke

Where do you draw the line between homage and theft? This is something we’ve touched on before here at Film Junk (particularly in the case of one Mr. Quentin Tarantino) but here’s another unexpected case where the issue has reared its ugly head. As some of you may know, former Monty Python members Eric Idle and John Cleese contribute their voice talents to Shrek The Third. Now, although I haven’t seen the movie, apparently there is a joke at the beginning that references the coconut/horse galloping gag from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and most viewers who are in the know would probably assume it’s a nod to their involvement in the film. The thing is, the producers of Shrek The Third never told Eric Idle about it, and when he saw the joke during the film’s premiere he was outraged.

During a radio interview on Mix FM in Toronto, Idle had this to say: “Wait a minute, John and I are in this film and you steal our joke? Um, I don’t know how the others are going to take to this … I hope they [Dreamworks] cleared it with them. The first I saw it was in the premiere, and I was SHOCKED. My whole family went ‘WHAT! How dare you!’. So I walked out, calmed down, and walked back in, but I was shocked and I think if you steal people’s jokes, I don’t think that’s homage, I think that’s theft.” Now, coming from someone with a comedic background, and without hearing the original interview, it’s hard to say if this was meant to be taken seriously or not. But even if he was kidding around, I do think he actually brings up a valid point. Yes, this is Shrek The Third we’re talking about, and all of the Shrek movies riff on pop culture; in fact, that’s really the only kind of humour they use. But while I don’t necessarily think this is a capital offense, I do think that transplanting a joke into a new environment without changing it is still a form of theft. More importantly, though, it’s a great example of why the Shrek movies actually aren’t very funny at all and why I’m glad I didn’t waste my time seeing Shrek The Third!

  • Henrik

    I haven’t seen the movie so it’s hard to decide, but I think there is an inherent question of definition here. If they are copying the scene I think it’s an homage to a scene in a movie. If they are copying the joke I think it’s theft.

    I mean movie scenes get re-used, tributed and stolen all the time, but comedy in and off itself is pretty personal, and certainly comedians are very protective of their material.

  • Lee Inskip

    I would just like to point out that the coconut gag that Idle is so angry about was itself stolen from the old British radio show ‘The Goon Show’.

    This is a show that the Pythons themselves admit was an influence on their own humor. The forementioned coconut gag was originally performed around 20 years before Monty Python in a Goon Show episode entitled ‘The Lost Year’ (1955), the script goes:

    Coconut shells advancing, getting louder.

    Wait. Listen. Look. Here comes a man riding a pair of coconut shells.

    Coconut shells slowing down.

    Woah, woah back.

    Coconut shells to a stop.

    Although slightly different in format, it still gets the same gag from the fact that the horse is actually just coconut shells.


    The end.

  • Peter

    @Lee Inskip:

    You’re right, that was used on the goon show. However, the audience probably didn’t know those were coconut shells as it was a radio show- not visual (so what was being used to create certain effects wouldn’t matter). Python upped the joke by using the sound effect to *replace* horses (although they were being seen), thus creating a totally different joke on its own. :)

  • @Peter Please read the above extract again, you have not understood it. The audience are told the joke!!!! In the original sequence, one of the characters says “Look. Here comes a man riding a pair of coconut shells.” This breaks the fourth wall of the performance, letting the audience in on the trick and highlights the superficial nature of the scene. This is EXACTLY the same as the python joke – the pythons just did it visually, rather than in sound.

  • @Peter To go one step further, the original Goon Show scene is actually more advanced then the python rip off as it implies the character is literally riding the coconut shells, which is a rather surreal concept, and so adds another level to the basic joke of pointing out that they are using coconut shells rather than a real horse.

  • David Thomas

    Lee is correct, I have a copy of this episode and it is very clear to the audience. I was a lad in the 50’s when The Goon Show was first broadcast and even back then we would have known that coconuts were used to make the sound of galloping horses.