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And now for something completely different? No, but Monty Python still packs in the laughs

Stephen Fry arriving for the first night performance of the Monty Python Show Live at the O2 Arena, London, Tuesday July 1, 2014. (AP Photo/PA, Ian West) UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE

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Stephen Fry arriving for the first night performance of the Monty Python Show Live at the O2 Arena, London, Tuesday July 1, 2014. (AP Photo/PA, Ian West) UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE

LONDON - Comedy is a bit like history. It repeats itself, and what started out as satire can mellow into farce.

The Monty Python troupe burst forth from Britain as the 1960s became the '70s, with a delirious blend of satire, surrealism and silliness. Almost 35 years after their last live performance, they have reunited for 10 farewell shows at London's O2 Arena.

Were they comic geniuses? The evidence of Tuesday's opening night says yes. Should geniuses stage affectionate send-off shows for their fans? Maybe not.

"Monty Python Live (Mostly)" features performances of many of their best skits, interspersed with saucy song-and-dance numbers and clips — both live-action and animated — from the classic TV series "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

Like aging rock bands, the Pythons have lost a member along life's highway — Graham Chapman, who died in 1989. The five surviving Pythons are now over 70. Like the Rolling Stones, they're more wrinkled than you remember, but still perform with gusto.

Each makes a distinct contribution. Eric Idle, who assembled this event with some of the Broadway pizazz of his hit musical "Spamalot," is a crowd-pleasing showman. John Cleese and Michael Palin still perform together with quick-fire comic timing, and crack each other up.

Terry Jones is an underrated, understated performer, while Terry Gilliam — the sole American in the group — is a master of grotesques. There's so much comic talent onstage that there is always something worth watching.

The only thing missing is surprise. It's inevitable — fans have waited decades for this — but the Pythons get a standing ovation before they open their mouths. Many fan-favourite sketches are here: the dead parrot, Spam, "The Lumberjack Song," the four Yorkshiremen, the Spanish Inquisition. Lesser-seen gems also get an airing, including the argument sketch and Anne Elk, with her theory on the brontosaurus.

Some of the new touches are clever. It's hard to resist a show that gets the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking to sing (in a filmed segment).

It ends — how could it not? — with the 15,000-strong audience joining in a jolly sing-along of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

It's just all ... so nice. The unpredictability and danger of Python sometimes seem far off, though there are hints of that edginess in Gilliam's surreal animation, and in some of the old TV routines.

These remind you that Monty Python came from a specific time, an era of Cold War nuclear fear and tacky patterned wallpaper. Their targets — bureaucracy, religion, sexual hypocrisy — stemmed from that society, too.

Still, many of those targets are still alive and kicking, and the best Python sketches remain snippets of absurdist bliss. The Silly Olympics, whose events include a steeplechase for people who think they're chickens, is sublime physical humour. The man who speaks in anagrams is a masterpiece of wordplay.

For Python fans, the show — whose final night on July 20 will be broadcast to 1,800 movie theatres around the world — is huge fun. Non-fans may feel trapped in a vast in-joke. But there are enough laughs that they may not mind.

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Follow Jill Lawless at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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