Do you have a movie that “made” you? One that changed the way you thought about something?
For Morning Shift‘s summer series “The Movie That Made Me,” we’ve been asking guests to talk about the film that had the biggest impact on their life.
Author Luvvie Ajayi talked about how she was influenced by the film The Color Purple. Health coach Rochelle Trotter shared the lessons she learned from the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. And comedian and Vocalo host Tribble talked about how the rom-com Coming To America pulled her into the world of comedy.
For our latest in the series, WBEZ Morning Shift’s Jenn White sat down with NPR’s host of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, Peter Sagal, for the movie that made him.
What is the movie that ‘made’ you?
Peter Sagal: I had to think about this. Which is weird, because I was born in 1965, so I was probably the first generation to grow up entirely in front of screens. Although let me tell you kids, in those days we only had three channels, and we liked it!
But when I had to think about “What was the movie that actually changed my life, out of the many movies that I saw — most of which I had forgotten — it ended up being Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
I am a nerdy white guy. And trust me on this, nerdy white guys of my generation — that was our document, that was our bible.
Jenn White: Do you remember the first time you saw it?
Sagal: Absolutely. I was in a theater — the Berkeley Cinema in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey where I grew up. And I remember having my mind blown by this because I had never seen anything like it. It’s a fairly family-friendly movie, in content if not in theme. There is some violence. But there’s one sexual reference pretty much in the entire movie. At one point someone refers to oral sex. And I remember sitting there and going “What’s that?” So that’s how young I was.
Monty Python is “insanity all the way down”
Sagal: You have to understand, this would’ve been mid-70s. And here’s the thing we old people tend not to stress when we get nostalgic about our youth and the TV and stuff we watched: it was mostly bad. Especially the comedies. I grew up watching The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island — all of which were in constant repeats. And none of them were very funny; all of them were very safe, to put it mildly. They were made for mass audiences at a time when there only was mass audiences, there was no niche broadcasting. They were all hyped up with laugh tracks and were supposed to be hilarious, and they just weren’t.
And then I got to see this movie, and it was funny, the funniest thing I’d ever seen. It was the kind of humor — it still is, I recently rewatched it — that’s anarchic, and bizarre, and totally sui generis that doesn’t reference anything but itself and this insane sense of madness. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is insanity all the way down. It’s just madness.
Why is this the movie that made him?
Sagal: I’ve had to think about why it’s meant and means so much to me. Part of the reason was encompassed in a line from another favorite movie of mine, which is the movie Diner. At one point in the movie Diner, a character played by Mickey Rourke turns to the character played by Kevin Bacon and says “You ever get the feeling there’s stuff going on that we don’t know about?” And that, to me, is one of the signifying lines for important moments in my life, when I realize “There’s stuff going on. There’s more to comedy and art and life than I am at this point capable of understanding.” And in a weird way, [Monty Python and the Holy Grail], with its anarchy and its fearlessness about what they thought was funny and what they were going to do was like that.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Click “play” to hear the full conversation.