Photo Courtesy: [Eduardo Unda-Sanzana/Flickr] via Wikimedia
Monty Python is one of the most influential comedy troupes of all time. Created in 1969 by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, the group’s schtick was to respect nothing. And it worked.
Their particular brand of irreverent, cheeky comedy was an instant hit with British and American audiences alike — people loved their absurd take on the normal. Between 1969 and 1973, the men made three TV seasons (with 13 episodes each) of Monty Python’s Flying Circus — which now seems like far too short a run, but we’re just happy that it existed at all.
The birth of Monty Python
In early 1969, Michael Palin and Terry Jones wrote and starred in The Complete and Utter History of Britain, a short-lived series about the various periods of British History. Though the show didn’t last, John Cleese was a fan and wanted to find a way to work with Michael. A meeting was arranged, and John brought along Graham Chapman, while Michael brought Terry and Eric Idle. The rest, as they say, is history.The men got on famously. They agreed to pool their writing and performing efforts and jointly seek production sponsorship. Cleese’s friend Terry Gilliam (the lone American in the troupe) was brought in for animation, and they immediately started theorizing a new sketch comedy for the BBC.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Initially, the troupe’s new show didn’t even have a name. Different monikers — “Owl Stretching-Time,” “A Horse, a Spoon, and a Basin,” “Bumwacket, Buzzard, Stubble, and Boot” — were tossed around until Monty Python’s Flying Circus finally stuck. It is said that they ended up using it only because it’s what the BBC printed on their programming schedules.
The first episode of Flying Circus was aired on October 5, 1969. The show was stuck in a late-night slot and often shuffled around to make room for other programs. Sometimes, it was dropped altogether. Despite this, it quickly gained a cult following, prompting executives to renew it for a second season. Audiences claimed that the free-form sketches (with no particular theme) were unlike anything they had ever seen before.
The full troupe stayed with Monty Python’s Flying Circus through 1973, but after just three seasons, Cleese decided he’d had enough. The rest of the gang came back for a fourth season (this time simply titled Monty Python), but it only lasted six episodes. Somewhere in there, they started making films. Their first, And Now For Something Completely Different, was a total flop.
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Luckily, they didn’t stop there — and John wasn’t gone for good. Between seasons three and four, the entire group filmed Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Despite their abysmally small budget, the team put together a highly successful film. Monty Python’s Life Of Brian quickly followed it, a recording of their 1980 stage performance at the Hollywood Bowl, and Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life.
In between filming the television series and movies, the Pythons (as they were sometimes called) worked on dozens of different projects. Among the ventures was the world’s first “three-sided” record, The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief, which boasted a second groove cut into side two of the album so that the sketches heard depended on where the needle fell — sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure on vinyl.
The men also released several other albums, along with countless books — many of them controversial. Of particular note is Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, which seemed to offend just about everyone. One piece, ‘Farewell to John Denver’, was totally removed from future versions of the record, and another, ‘Sit on My Face,’ was threatened with removal.
Although the troupe is no longer together, they remain friends. You can get your daily dose of Python on the official website Pythonline, which is run by Eric Idle (though other members have been known to contribute on occasion). And, of course, their legacy can be felt everywhere, from Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons. And remember: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
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