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Monty Python's Flying Circus

MAY 1987

And now for something completely Python: the complete (well, almost) history of the show that nearly began as Owl Stretching Time and A Horse, A Spoon, and a Bucket, yet went on to become one of the most successful, ground-breaking comedy programs in television history. Monty Python's Flying Circus, the half-hour series, ran on British TV from 1969 to 1974. On Python, anything went-a Minister of Silly Walks who goes off to work, a house that devours people and neighborhoods, a talk show host who blithely interviews a stuffed cat. 

"We always felt, 'we'll do what makes us laugh'," recalls Terry Jones, one of the six members of the group. And though some viewers don't agree, calling the team's work tasteless and unfunny, many more have joined in the fun, turning their 45 shows (just now coming out on tape), movies, records, and books into hits.

Monty Python's Flying Circus, influenced by British radio's seminal Goon Show (with Peter Sellers), snuck onto the U. K. scene in October 1969 as a late-night replacement for a religious talk show. Few were watching, and even fewer at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) knew what to expect. (The ambiguous title was meant to keep as many people as possible in the dark.) The series had been sold on the basis of previous work by the six Pythons-Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin-who had all worked on such popular programs as At Last the 1948 Show, The Complete and Utter History of Britain, and The Frost Report.

But Monty Python would be like no other series, and would change the nature of television humor. The Pythons were the first true video comedians, brilliantly using the medium to poke fun at TV, politicians, doctors, the military, the clergy, the upper classes, surrealism, documentaries, and life in general.

"When we decided to do Python, "recalls Terry Jones, "I was thinking, 'What kind of' shape are we going to give it?' And I remember looking at Spike Milligan's show, Q5, on TV and thinking he was doing outrageous things in comedy. He'd start a sketch and then it would suddenly turn into something else. Or someone would push a door onscreen and he'd walk through it. And he just didn't bother about finishing off everything. I suddenly realized we had all been writing cliches till then. "

The Pythons planned their comedic chaos very carefully. Sketches did not simply follow one another; they didn't have guest singers separate segments, as was the custom. Instead, there were routines, animations, non sequiturs, subtitles, voiceover narration, and general silliness, all tightly linked. Notes Terry Gilliam, "We tried to interrelate everything."

In one show, for instance, a sketch called "A Book at Bedtime" finds a man reading aloud a picturesque description of a castle, stumbling over words he can't pronounce. The scene shifts to the castle being described; a Scottish highlander falls from a turret. Next is a segment about "Kamikaze Highlanders" who jump from turrets. One man remarks to another, "We have no time to lose, " which segues into a sketch about the "No-Time-to-Lose Advice Center," where people are given advice on how to use the expression. This turns into a cartoon about "No-Time Toulouse," a French Impressionist gunslinger in the Old West, before a return to the Kamikaze Highlanders. More sketches follow; the show ends full circle with the "Book at Bedtime" sketch.

In their former lives as writers, the Pythons had constantly felt trapped by the "tyranny of the punchline," the requirement of concluding a funny sketch with a brilliant joke. "We kept seeing so much good work being weakened by a weak ending, " says Gilliam. "So we did the obvious thing: get rid of the weakest link."

Gilliam played an important role in that. A former magazine illustrator, the transplanted American had made a mark on British'television with a limited-animation cartoon short, Elephant. In the stream-of-consciousness exercise, a man is hit by a falling elephant, squashed, and then transformed into something else.

Eric Idle (left and Michael Palin in Life of Brian.Eric Idle (left) and Michael Palin in Life of Brian.

"Terry had been very worried about it, because he said, 'It doesn't really make sense'," notes Jones. "I felt, 'Why not amalgamate the freedom that Spike Milligan's got-not having punchlines-and use Terry's animations to flow in and out of sketches'?"

Besides giving the series a shape, Gilliam's wild animations (a TV set drilling holes in eyes, a man slicing off his head while shaving) gave the series a violent tone, which bled over into some of the sketches. "Sam Peckinpah's Salad Days," for example, opens with a tennis garden party. A ball is tossed to one of the picnickers, hitting him in the head-which suddenly explodes. Another man grabs the arm of a companion and it comes off, spurting a fountain of blood in slow motion. And so on.

Surprisingly, the BBC gave the Pythons little trouble until their third year. "They started to get more interested because it was more successful," observes Gilliam. "They had to show their involvement. We had one session where the BBC gave us this huge list of things that had to be dealt with. They were totally misinterpreting everything that was going on. In one of the sketches, John pushes a severed leg through the door and says, 'Sign here.' And that was referred to as the scene where the man pushes the giant penis through the door."

The Pythons both wrote and performed the material. Usually Idle and Gilliam would create alone; Chapman and Cleese and Palin and Jones would collaborate. Recalls Palin, "Terry and I would write together for a week, working quite closely in the same room, swapping ideas around. Then there'd be a reading session. You could tell , from the laughter around the table when something had worked and when it hadn't." The group would discuss the material for several days, followed by more rewriting. Idle soon became known for his wordplay, Chapman and Cleese for their logic and acerbity, and Palin and Jones for their flights of fancy and imagery.

Ideas suggested by one member were often developed by another. That process led to "The Pet Shop," a classic piece in which a customer has an incredibly hard time trying to return a parrot that was sold to him dead, nailed to its perch. "It's based on a guy I originally bought a car from," says Palin. "If anything went wrong with it, he would never admit it. There was always some excuse. You'd say, 'The brakes don't work' and he'd say, 'That's because it's new. It needs a bit of adjustment.' 'But I went down a hill and nearly killed myself. ' I remember telling John about this character and he thought it was very funny. Then he and Graham wrote something. It was Graham who had the idea that it should be a parrot." Similarly, Graham Chapman recalls trying to create a sketch with Cleese about a "Ministry of Anger," which Palin and Jones turned into a "Ministry of Silly Walks."

"In Python," notes Palin, "any loose· ends could lead to something that made a nice, surrealistic whole." says now.

Monty Python is back.Monty Python's Meaning of Life


Through it all, the deadlines-ten days to do a show-and a slim budget led to great creativity. "Necessity always makes us make leaps," remarks Gilliam. "That was the advantage in television. We did nothing but take chances to fill up that halfhour every week. I've always been convinced that with enough money we could really have been mediocre beyond be lief. Case in point-Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Had we the money, we would have had horses, not men pretending they were horses banging coconuts to make galloping noises."

In 1972, the group made its first tentative step into the film world with And Now for Something ComPletely Different, a remake of about 40 TV pieces. The idea was to introduce the troupe to America, but the movie--over which they had little control –pleased neither the Pythons nor their potential audience, and was a disappointing flop.

It wasn't until 1974 that the team made it in the U.S. in, of all places, Texas. A local public broadcasting station picked up the series-both commercial and public television had rejected it as "too British" -and the ratings were great. A cult developed, and the Pythons began turning up on other PBS channels around the country. By then, a second movie was in the works, and the series itself was on the wane. John Cleese had become bored ("I felt we were just repeating ourselves," he says) and refused to do any more TV. (Six episodes were made without him.) The group turned again to film, this time retaining creative control. The result was a parody of the Arthurian legend, directed by Jones and Gilliam: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

"We did feel we had exhausted Python on TV by then," recalls Palin. "But Terry Jones, myself, and Terry Gilliam were interested in cinema. We were going to set up a film anyhow and it seemed a shame not to get all the Pythons in." Holy Grail has all the best elements of the series, hung loosely on a quest plot.

The episodic narrative finds Arthur and his knights encountering a killer rabbit, a three-headed knight whose heads are always arguing among themselves, and socialist peasants debating the class system. The movie was a hit, helped perhaps by a Python stage show in America (a later tour was captured in the film Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl), records, and publicity surrounding a lawsuit the group brought against ABC-TV when the network aired heavily edited versions of the programs. The landmark court ruling that favored the Pythons' position and more generally strengthened artists' rights. Michael Palin

Michael Palin

By 1975, the troupe was in a paradoxical position: the components of this internationally successftll unit were all anxious to work as individuals. "What I hate most is repetition," observes Gilliam. "I hate the feeling that I know the answers to things. I like being constantly surprised." In Palin's view, "There's a certain desire within you to try and find out what you can do on your own. When I'm in a group, I tend to be more submissive so I'll blend in. There are certain times when I can only express what I want when I'm out on my own."

The six began to work apart, with varying initial results. John Cleese created the 12-episode sitcom, Fawlty Towers, a brilliant farce about a rude hotel owner. "It was my most successftll non-Python effort," he now notes. "It's about as funny as I can be." Eric Idle appeared on Saturday Night Live (as did Michael Palin), developing the creative alliances that led toa mock documentary on the "pre-fab four," the RutIes, a legendary singing group whose career very much resembles the BeatIes'. Michael Palin and Terry Jones collaborated on Ripping Yarns, a nine-episode TV satire of "boys' adventure" stories. Graham Chapman wrote a semi-factual book called A Liar's Autobiography, Volume VI,· and appeared in a film, The Odd Job. Terry Gilliam wrote and directed Jabberwocky –with Palin in the lead-a dark, vulgar story about a medieval peasant fighting a monster.

By 1978, the group had reconstituted itself to create its finest work, Monty Python's Life of Brian. The story of Brian Cohen, a contemporary of Jesus, roughly parallels the life of Christ. It had started as a title,]esus Christ: Lust for Glory, but the Pythons eventually decided that Christ's preachings were not a good subject for satire. The movie instead went after the followers of Jesus who distorted his message. Says Cleese, "I think Life of Brian was the most successful Python film. It was about important matters and had a good story."

That story involves a lisping Pontius Pilate, a group of revolutionaries who would rather argue than revolt, and wild crowds who keep mistaking Brian for the Messiah. "There's a fairly simple point to the film," observes Palin. "Don't believe everything because you're told it by somebody wearing some sort of outfit. Just have a little think."

The movie was strongly protested by religious groups who had never seen it; the controversy made it the Pythons' biggest money maker up to that time. As Palin notes, "It was our most successful because of an intelligent script, good performances, and a lot of help in the publicity from nuns, bishops, and Mrs. Strom Thurmond."

"After Life of Brian," recalls Gilliam, "there was great pressure on us to do another film quickly to take advantage of the success. We were all greedy enough to go along with that line of thinking and we tried it. It didn't work. The chemistry just wasn't right. We didn't need to make the film, so we stopped."

Gilliam then directed two critically and commercially well-received fantasies: Time Bandits, featuring Palin, Cleese, and Sean Connery, and Brazil, a 1984-type tale with Palin as a villain. The latter brought Gilliam into a bitter conflict with Universal Pictures, which initially refused to release it, claiming the story was too downbeat. After a year of acrimony, the movie appeared, to great acclaim. Idle wrote a play, Pass the Butler, for London's West End. Chapman starred with Idle and Cleese in a misconceived pirate spoof called Yellowbeard; Palin made two entertaining comedies, The Missionary and A Private Function. Cleese began a company to produce corporate training films; Jones wrote a children's book.

Terry Jones in The Meaning of Life.Terry Jones in The Meaning of Life.

The group came together in 1983, for what could be the last time, to do a sketch movie, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. "Getting six people together to try and make a narrative film is very difficult, " observes Gilliam. "Everybody had been going his own way. It was more difficult to get everybody to agree on things. We wanted to do a film as a group and the easiest way to do it was to find a backbone that we could string a lot of sketches on."

Jones directed, and the final result works on many levels, poking vicious fun at the church, snobs, Americans, and fools. Meaning of Life provides a fitting coda to the group's collective work. Monty Python ends as it began, with sketches that push the boundaries of taste as far as they can go. "I feel comedy ought to be about something, but I wouldn't be presumptuous enough to say that's the only purpose," Jones observes.

As for the future, "There is a ten percent chance we'll work together again," says Palin. "John's dead set against it, which is silly really, because nothing is absolute in this world. Everything changes."