Fifty years ago five Englishmen and one American unleashed a new television show that shocked and startled audiences and forever changed the face of comedy. Individually they were: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, but collectively they were Monty Python.
The origin of the Pythons goes back to their college days. Jones (b.1942) and Palin (b.1943) met at Oxford University in a comedy troupe. Chapman (b.1941) and Cleese (b.1939) met at Cambridge, where Idle (b.1943) was a year behind them. All three were members of a comedy revue.
From 1964 until 1969 the quintet worked together in various combinations as writers and occasional actors on British television. All five first worked together in 1966 on The Frost Report a satirical news show hosted by English T.V. personality, David Frost. The Frost Report lasted for only one year, but they all continued working together in various combinations on other programs.
During the run of Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-1969) writers and cast members Idle, Jones and Plain met Gilliam (b.1940), the show’s animator. Gilliam was born in Minnesota and graduated from Occidental College. After college he became an animator. In the late 1960s he moved to England and was hired by Thames Television.
Thames offered Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin their own late-night comedy show. At the same time, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) offered Chapman and Cleese a show.
According to most sources, Cleese found his writing partner’s personality difficult to work with. Because he had enjoyed working with Palin, Cleese asked him to work with him and Chapman. Palin, agreed because Thames had no studio available at the time, but suggested that Gilliam, Idle and Jones come along too.
Cleese, however, claims that he and Chapman had great admiration for the work done on Do Not Adjust Your Set and arranged a meeting for all the future Pythons (save Gilliam) in which they all agreed to work together on a new show. According their official website, Monty Python was born at a Kashmir Tandoori restaurant in Hampstead in 1969.
The group went through several ideas for the show’s name. “Circus” was chosen, because of the group’s reputation at the BBC. “Flying” was added to make it sound like a World War I airplane squadron. (The term was also used for traveling barnstormers in the 1920s who did daredevil stunts in their airplanes.) The name stuck when the BBC told the group that it had already printed schedules with Flying Circus and would not change it.
They chose the name “Monty Python” because it sounded like the name of a bad theatrical agent. Most accounts say “Monty” came from Lord Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, England’s most famous World War II general. However, Idle claimed that “Monty” came from a regular patron at his favorite pub and the name got stuck in Idle’s head. “Python” was Cleese’s idea because it suggested something slimy and slithering. The name would cause confusion as people would ask them “which one is Monty?” or “who is Monty?”
The Pythons wanted their show to be different and original. Jones, inspired by Gilliam’s animations, suggested that the show should have a “stream of consciousness” style, an idea endorsed by Palin and Gilliam. Consequently, those three have been credited with look and feel of the show.
Surprisingly, the writing was rather regimented. The Pythons worked only 9-5 daily. Chapman and Cleese continued writing as a team, while Jones and Plain wrote together. Idle worked alone as did Gilliam, given the nature of his animation.
Everyone brought a different style of humor. Jones and Plain’s sketches tended to be visual and more “out there” in conception (“The Spanish Inquisition”). Cleese and Chapman were more verbal and confrontational (“The Argument Clinic”). Idle wrote alone and his sketches tended to be long and wordy. One Idle written episode, “The Bicycle Tour” was basically a 30 minute sketch. Idle also featured people with odd personality quirks. Gilliam’s animations ranged from fun to ferocious.
During the week the Pythons would meet, critique the scripts and exchange ideas. Many of the early scripts contained rejected ideas from shows they had previously written for. Then a majority vote was taken on every sketch to decide if it should or should not be used.
The voting was viscous, because, according to Idle, the Pythons, “were not the most un-egoistical of writers.” Often the voting went along the lines of Oxford vs. Cambridge. Idle’s ideas were rejected the most, because he worked by himself and had only one vote. Conversely, Chapman was regarded as having a strong talent for sensing which material was the funniest, and his views often swayed the group.
Interestingly, there was very little ad-libbing on the show or on any Python project. Coming from a writing background, the Pythons had great respect for the written word and followed their scripts with great care.
The show was produced by Ian MacNaughton. Most of it was shot in London with interior shots on video and exterior on film, with some location shooting on British beaches.
The Flying Circus was done on a shoestring budget of £5000 or $101,183 in today’s money with each Python receiving only £160 per episode or about $208.00 today. To save money the Pythons raided the BBC archives for public domain films, photos and music. One reoccurring bit would be a few seconds of black and white film footage of a group of middle-aged women applauding at a Woman’s institute meeting.
This economizing was blatantly visible in the opening credits, which used John Phillip Sousa’s 1893’s The Liberty Bell performed by the Band of the Grenadier Guards which is in the public domain, using Gilliam’s animation of public domain images. The giant foot which crushes the show’s title, which became the Flying Ciurcus’ de facto logo is the Cupid’s foot from the Renaissance painting Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time by Bronzino.
Contrary to the writing, the casting of roles was surprisingly ego free, because the Pythons saw themselves primarily as writers. However, over the course of the show the individual Pythons gravitated towards certain types of characters:
- Graham Chapman was considered the best actor in the group. He specialized in playing straight men, military and authority figures.
- John Cleese played absurd authority figures, irritating or irritated people often with heavy accents.
- Though not hired for his acting, Terry Gilliam initially played a number of bit parts and got more on-screen time as the show progressed. He often played parts no one wanted, which often required heavy costumes and/or grotesque make-up
- Eric Idle played “cheeky” characters, or ridiculous television personalities, and middle-aged women. An excellent guitar player, Idle was the Python’s best singer-songwriter.
- Terry Jones was regarded as the funniest Python in drag. He also played incompetent authority figures and upper class men
- Michael Palin had the most range as he could play a character straight or over the top, strong or weak willed. He was the original singer of The Lumberjack Song, arguably the group’s most famous musical number. He generally played the lame brain “Mr. Gumby” one of their most popular recurring characters.
The first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on Sunday, October 5, 1969. Those tuning into the show saw a beach scene in which a man with a long white hair and beard, wearing torn clothing (played by Palin) dashing through a field with trap doors, running up to the camera and saying “Its!” then a quick cut to the opening title sequence.
The first show aired was actually the second one recorded. Viewers that night saw Jones as a city gentleman, talking to a farmer (Chapman) about flying sheep. If that was not surreal enough, the episode featured a man hitting mice with a mallet like a xylophone, a man with three buttocks and men who go around dressed like mice, eat cheese and squeak. The show ended with the “Its” man running away from the camera. (For the first season, Palin’s “Its” man would be seen trying to escape from a different bizarre situation each episode)
The first show almost became the last. The ratings were low and the BBC brass did not know what to make of it. One BBC executive wrote an internal memo saying the Pythons went “over the edge of what was acceptable.” Another said they “wallowed in the sadism of their humor,” while a third commented the group had “some sort of death wish.”
Despite that the Pythons made thirteen episodes in their first season, with the last one airing on January 11, 1970. Later in 1970 Monty Python’s Flying Circus received three British Academy Television Awards (BATA-the English version of the Emmys) nominations for light entertainment production and the whole group for writing. Cleese received a solo nomination for his acting. Though it won none of those awards, the show did received a special award for production writing and graphics, while Gilliam received one for his graphics. The show would be nominated for best light entertainment every year it aired.
After the end of the first season the Pythons released an album simply titled Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the first of twelve records the group released between 1970 and 1988.
While the first album contained only recordings of skits from the first season of Flying Circus, future albums included alternate versions of television skits and original material that was deemed too risqué for television. (Battles with the censors were common during the run of the show. See Robert Hewison’s book, Monty Python: The Case Against for more information) Perhaps the most bizarre example is that on one show the Pythons had to replace “cancer” with “gangrene” for still unknown reasons.
In September 1970, Monty Python made their North American debut when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation started airing the first season. Also in 1970, the Pythons did their first live show in London. They would do live shows and/or tours every year from 1970 until 1974, including a Canadian tour in 1973. In 1976 they appeared in New York and did a show in Los Angles two years later.
The second season debuted September 15, 1970. The opening was changed. There would be a strange cold opening lasting a minute or two, upon which Cleese would appear out of nowhere, wearing a black tuxedo and saying “and now for something completely different” followed by Palin being on camera just long enough to say “Its.” Cleese’s catchphrase was commonly used by newscasters at the time, who soon quickly dropped it. The graphics in the opening were also altered by Gilliam. Thirteen episodes were made that season that ended on December 22, 1970.
The Pythons spent 1971 filming And Now For Something Completely Different, a 90 minute theatrical film in which the Pythons recreated some of the more popular sketches from the first two seasons, with an eye on American audiences who had not yet seen the show. Budgeted for £80,000, the film was a modest success in England, but did poorly in the U.S. initially, but later enjoyed success as a cult movie.
The Pythons began 1972 by working on a one-hour special of mostly new material filmed and shown in West Germany, with all the bits spoken in German. The special went over so well that the Pythons did another one in 1973, this time performed in English and dubbed in German.
The long awaited third season premiered on October 19, 1972 and ran for thirteen episodes, ending on January 18, 1973. The opening was shorten to a nude man at an organ, then Cleese behind a desk saying “And now” followed by Palin’s “Its” then the music and graphics. Proving that the third time is a charm, it finally won the BATA for best program in its category.
Also in 1972, Chapman became one of the first major celebrities to come out as gay. This was somewhat ironic as all of the Pythons, including Chapman, had at one time or another appeared in drag or played over the top stereotypical gay characters in skits.
During the third season, trouble started brewing at the circus. Cleese had wanted to leave the group at the end of the second season, feeling that he had run out of original ideas and the Pythons were recycling old material. Nonetheless he decided to stay on for season three.
However, Chapman’s old drinking problem became so bad that he was difficult to work with on and off camera. Consequently, Cleese and Chapman submitted only two original sketches for the third season. At season’s end, Cleese left the show and created the sitcom Fawlty Towers about a rude owner of a seaside hotel, played by Cleese, who won a BATA for his performance. That show has gone on to be a cult classic in its own right.
On June 28, 1973 the Pythons (minus Cleese) made their U.S. television debut on The Tonight Show on NBC. Unfortunately, Joey Bishop was guest hosting for Johnny Carson, he and introduced the group as “five lads from England. I’m told they’re very funny.” According to Gilliam the appearance was “a disaster. The audience just sat there with these wonderfully blank looks on their faces…complete silence.”
In the summer of 1974 the Flying Circus arrived on U.S. television when a PBS station in Dallas, Texas, started airing the show. When word got around How much the station’s ratings had improved thanks to the Pythons, over 100 PBS stations across America started airing the first three seasons.
The remaining Pythons continued on with a fourth season of six episodes. The opening was completely redone, with the title simply saying Monty Python. The shorten season debuted on October 31, 1974. Though Cleese was not in the show, he still received writing credit as some of his ideas were used during that season.
ABC bought the rights to the fourth season to air on late night television. Unbeknownst to the Pythons, the network reedited the first six thirty minute episodes into a single 66 minute episode and aired in October 3, 1975. The Pythons filed a lawsuit to try to stop ABC from “butchering” the three remaining episodes. While they were unable to prevent that from happening, they did eventually win a court battle against ABC which established a precedent for copyright laws.
Incredibly, Flying Circus was almost lost to history. In 1971 Jones was informed by the BBC that all of the original Python tapes were going to be erased in a cost saving move. Instead, Gilliam bought the tapes before they were erased. The Pythons obtained full ownership of the show in 1980.
Though the BBC pressured the five remaining Pythons for a fifth season, the group said no, realizing that the show was just not the same without Cleese. Consequently, the Flying Circus landed for good on December 5, 1974 after 45 thirty minute episodes.
That of course was not the end of the story. Monty Python went out and made four feature films:
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) Based on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the film reflected first time directors Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam’s love of medieval history. The film cost $400,000 with some of the financing coming from the rock groups Pink Floyd, Genesis and Led Zeppelin. It made $5,000,000, and is considered one of the funniest and most quotable films ever made.
- Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) The film was the unintended result of a joke by Eric Idle, that the next Python film would be called “Jesus Christ-Lust for Glory.” The Pythons decided they like the idea of a film set in Biblical times which mocked religion and politics. Work began on a script about a man named Brian who was mistaken for the Messiah. In terms of structure, it is arguably the most “traditional” film the Pythons ever made, though it contains possibly the cheeriest death scene in movie history.
The idea caused so much controversy that investors pulled their financial backing for the film. George Harrison, a Monty Python fan, stepped in anted up $3 million. When asked why, Harrison replied he “wanted to see the movie,” which led Jones to quip that the former Beatle bought “the world’s most expensive movie ticket.”
Though the film did not directly attack nor mock Jesus or Christianity, it was met with protests across the U.S. and U.K. Despite this it made over $20 million dollars and is also on a number of lists of the funniest films ever made.
- Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982) This 80 minute concert film taken from performances given in September 1980 featured new live versions of skits from the television show as well as songs from Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album which had just been released.
- Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (1983) The last major project to involve all six Pythons, returned to the Flying Circus’ stream of consciousness style of humor. With no coherent story line, the film looks at the various stages of life. Also included was a 17 minute short by Gilliam, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. It made $14.9 million on a $9 million budget. Despite mixed reviews, Meaning won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Pythons never performed together again after 1983. Because they never officially broke-up, there was constant speculation regarding a reunion. The pressure for a new Python project intensified when in the late 1980s when MTV started airing the Flying Circus unedited and commercial free, introducing the show to a new generation of fans who only knew Monty Python through their movies. In 1988 the Pythons were honored by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) for Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema.
When asked about a reunion, the stock answer was that all the Pythons were too busy working on solo projects. Though in 1989 Cleese admitted that he had not enjoyed making Meaning of Life and that “the idea of doing another Python film doesn’t set the adrenaline running.”
The last time all six Pythons were seen together was in a 1989 television special Parrot Sketch Not Included, a 20th anniversary tribute to the group hosted by Steve Martin. Originally all the Pythons were going to appear in a sketch with Martin, but Chapman, who was battling cancer, was unable to perform, so the idea was scratched in favor of a four second shot of the six Pythons tied up in a broom closet.
Chapman died on October 4, 1989, the day before the 20th anniversary of the Flying Circus’ debut, and with it almost all hope for a Monty Python reunion. (Jones called it “the worst case of party-pooping in history.”)
While not working as a group, most of the surviving Pythons remained in the public eye:
- John Cleese has been the most active of all the members. He appeared in Time Bandits, played Nearly Headless Nick in the first two Harry Potter films and Q in the James Bond Cleese’s biggest film success to date was Barrister Archie Leach 1988’s dark comedy A Fish Call Wanda, which he also wrote and executive produced. The film earned him a BAFTA award for Best Actor in a Movie and an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.
Cleese has also made numerous television appearances including Dr. Who, The Muppet Show, and Will& Grace. His guest appearance on Cheers won him an Emmy in 1987. He has also done voice work in film and video games, mostly notably King Harold in the Shrek series and “An Ape Named Ape” in1997’s George of the Jungle.
Cleese was offered a Commander in the British Empire in 1996 but declined because he thought the title was silly. Three years later he was offered a British peerage in 1999, but turned it down because it meant spending winters in London sitting in the House of Lords. However, he has accepted several honorary college degrees and academic honors.
- Terry Gilliam has become one of the world’s most respected film makers. He has received numerous international honors for his thirteen films, including 11 Oscar nominations. His credits include Tine Bandits, Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (with Idle in a starring role) (1988), 12 Monkeys (1995), and Fear and Loathing Las Vegas (1998).
- One of the first major solo Python projects was Eric Idle’s 1978 Beatle’s spoof, All You Need is Cash about the pre-fab four, The Rutles, that aired on NBC. The mockumentary featured appearances by Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, ex-Beatle George Harrison (a personal friend of Idle) and many of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live a show Idle has guest hosted four times.
Among his film credits are 1985’s National Lampoon’s European Vacation and the voice of Merlin in 2007’s Shrek the Third. He also performed during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
- Terry Jones co-created with Palin, Ripping Yarns, a British comedy/adventure anthology that ran from 1976 until 1977. He also wrote the original screenplay for 1986’s Labyrinth but the script went through so many re-writes that very little of Jones’ work remained in the finished film.
Though he majored in English at Oxford, Jones developed a life-long love of history and spent much of his post-Python career writing books, making documentaries, and lecturing on medieval and ancient history. In 2004 he was nominated for an Emmy for his writing on Terry Jones Medieval Lives.
- Michael Palin co-wrote Time Bandits with Gilliam, and appeared with Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda, winning a BAFTA award for his performance in the latter. He also guest hosted SNL four times. Though he has done some acting in dramatic and comedic roles, he has mostly done travelogues for the BBC, most recently, a 2018 look inside North Korea. In 2000 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and in 2019 he was knighted for his travel series.
The five surviving members appeared in 1998, along with an urn said to contain Chapman’s ashes, at the US Comedy Arts Festival to receive an award from the American Film Institute. Plans to do a US tour in 1999 fell through.
Idle brought the Pythons back into the spotlight in 2005 with a musical stage adaptation of Holy Grail called Spamalot. Aside from Cleese recording the voice of God, none of the other Pythons had a hand in the smash hit production, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical. In 2009 the surviving members shared their recollections, with archival footage of Chapman, in the six part documentary Monty Python: Almost the Truth (Lawyers Cut).
Ironically, it took lawyers to bring the surviving Pythons back to together. In 2013 the group lost a lawsuit filed by Mark Forstater, Holy Grail’s producer over unpaid royalties from Spamalot that came close to a million dollars. At the suggestion of South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, both Python fans, a reunion show in London was announced, with Idle producing.
Originally, the three and a half hour show, called Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go was to run for one night, but when the show sold out in 43 seconds, nine additional shows were added. They were held from July1-5 and 15-20, 2014. Besides the five surviving Pythons and archival material of Chapman, the show also featured cameo appearances from a number of celebrities. The last show was broadcast globally over satellite. It was a critical and commercial success that allowed the Pythons to pay off their creditors and personally pocket £2.2 million ($2.7 million). In addition, portions of the profits were donated to charity.
Prior to the shows, Idle waxed poetically about them:
“It is a world event and that’s really quite exciting. It means we’re actually going to say goodbye publicly on one show. Nobody ever has the chance to do that. The Beatles didn’t get a last goodnight.”
Because of the show’s success, there was speculation that the Pythons might take it to America. That idea was discarded when it was revealed that during rehearsals, Jones had trouble remembering his lines and cues, which had never happened before. In 2015 he was diagnosed with a form of dementia that impairs one’s ability to speak or communicate. In 2017 Palin revealed that Jones was no longer able to talk.
Fifty years after it began, Monty Python has become a British institution, whose influence on comedy has been compared to the Beatles’ influence on music. SNL’s creator, Lorne Michaels has freely admitted that his show was influenced by Monty Python. A who’s who list of comedic actors and filmmakers have cited the Pythons as one of their biggest influences.
The irony is that while Monty Python is now considered mainstream, fifty years ago that is exactly what they were trying not be. They were, indeed, something completely different, and for that we should all be grateful.
All Monty Python films, some documentaries and all episodes of the Flying Circus are available on DVD.
One of the best books on Monty Python is Kim “Howard” Johnson’s 1989’s “The First 20 Years of Monty Python. ISBN 0-312-03309-5
Staff Writer/Resident Historian
Nerd Nation Magazine