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Monty Python (sometimes known as The Pythons) were a Britishsurreal comedy group who created the sketch comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus, that first aired on the BBC on 5 October 1969. Forty-five episodes were made over four seasons. The Python phenomenon developed from the television series into something larger in scope and impact, spawning touring stage shows, films, numerous albums, several books, and a stage musical. The group's influence on comedy has been compared to The Beatles' influence on music.
Broadcast by the BBC between 1969 and 1974, Flying Circus was conceived, written, and performed by its members Graham Chapman,John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Loosely structured as a sketch show, but with an innovative stream-of-consciousness approach (aided by Gilliam's animation), it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in style and content. A self-contained comedy team responsible for both writing and performing their work, the Pythons had creative control which allowed them to experiment with form and content, discarding rules of television comedy. Their influence on British comedy has been apparent for years, while in North America, it has coloured the work of cult performers from the early editions of Saturday Night Live through to more recent absurdist trends in television comedy. "Pythonesque" has entered the English lexicon as a result.
In a 2005 UK poll to find "The Comedian's Comedian", three of the six Pythons members were voted by fellow comedians and comedy insiders to be among the top 50 greatest comedians ever: Cleese at No. 2, Idle at No. 21, and Palin at No. 30.
Jones and Palin met at Oxford University, where they performed together with the Oxford Revue. Chapman and Cleese met at Cambridge University. Idle was also at Cambridge, but started a year after Chapman and Cleese. Cleese met Gilliam in New York City while on tour with the Cambridge University Footlights revue Cambridge Circus (originally entitledA Clump of Plinths). Chapman, Cleese, and Idle were members of the Footlights, which at that time also included the future Goodies (Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, and Graeme Garden), and Jonathan Lynn (co-writer of Yes Minister andYes, Prime Minister). During Idle's presidency of the club, feminist writer Germaine Greer and broadcaster Clive Jameswere members. Recordings of Footlights' revues (called "Smokers") at Pembroke College include sketches and performances by Cleese and Idle, which, along with tapes of Idle's performances in some of the drama society's theatrical productions, are kept in the archives of the Pembroke Players.
All six Python members appeared in or wrote these shows before Flying Circus:
The Frost Report is credited as first uniting the British Pythons and providing an environment in which they could develop their particular styles.
Several other important British comedy writers or future performers who were featured included Marty Feldman, Jonathan Lynn, David Jason, and David Frost, as well as members of other future comedy teams such as Ronnie Corbett andRonnie Barker (the Two Ronnies), and Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, and Bill Oddie (the Goodies).
Following the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set, a tea-time children's programme, ITV offered Gilliam, Idle, Jones, and Palin their own late-night adult comedy series together. At the same time, Chapman and Cleese were offered a show by the BBC, which had been impressed by their work on The Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show. Cleese was reluctant to do a two-man show for various reasons, including Chapman's supposedly difficult and erratic personality. Cleese had fond memories of working with Palin on How To Irritate People and invited him to join the team. With no studio available at ITV until summer 1970 for the late-night show, Palin agreed to join Cleese and Chapman, and suggested the involvement of his writing partner Jones and colleague Idle—who in turn wanted Gilliam to provide animations for the projected series. Much has been made of the fact that the Monty Python troupe is the result of Cleese's desire to work with Palin and the chance circumstances that brought the other four members into the fold.
By contrast, according to John Cleese's autobiography, the origins of Monty Python lay in the admiration that writing partners Cleese and Chapman had for the new type of comedy being done on Do Not Adjust Your Set; as a result, a meeting was initiated by Cleese between Chapman, Idle, Jones, Palin, and himself at which it was agreed to pool their writing and performing efforts and jointly seek production sponsorship.
The Pythons had a definite idea about what they wanted to do with the series. They were admirers of the work of Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore on Beyond the Fringe, and had worked on Frost, which was similar in style. They enjoyed Cook and Moore's sketch show Not Only... But Also. One problem the Pythons perceived with these programmes was that though the body of the sketch would be strong, the writers would often struggle to then find a punchline funny enough to end on, and this would detract from the overall sketch quality. They decided that they would simply not bother to "cap" their sketches in the traditional manner, and early episodes of the Flying Circus series make great play of this abandonment of the punchline (one scene has Cleese turn to Idle, as the sketch descends into chaos, and remark that "This is the silliest sketch I've ever been in"—they all resolve not to carry on and simply walk off the set). However, as they began assembling material for the show, the Pythons watched one of their collective heroes,Spike Milligan, recording his groundbreaking series Q5 (1969). Not only was the programme more irreverent and anarchic than any previous television comedy, but Milligan also would often "give up" on sketches halfway through and wander off set (often muttering "Did I write this?"). It was clear that their new series would now seem less original, and Jones in particular became determined the Pythons should innovate.
After much debate, Jones remembered an animation Gilliam had created for Do Not Adjust Your Set called "Beware of the Elephants", which had intrigued him with its stream-of-consciousness style. Jones felt it would be a good concept to apply to the series: allowing sketches to blend into one another. Palin had been equally fascinated by another of Gilliam's efforts, entitled "Christmas Cards", and agreed that it represented "a way of doing things differently". Since Cleese, Chapman, and Idle were less concerned with the overall flow of the programme, Jones, Palin, and Gilliam became largely responsible for the presentation style of the Flying Circus series, in which disparate sketches are linked to give each episode the appearance of a single stream-of-consciousness (often using a Gilliam animation to move from the closing image of one sketch to the opening scene of another).
Writing started at 9 am and finished at 5 pm. Typically, Cleese and Chapman worked as one pair isolated from the others, as did Jones and Palin, while Idle wrote alone. After a few days, they would join together with Gilliam, critique their scripts, and exchange ideas. Their approach to writing was democratic. If the majority found an idea humorous, it was included in the show. The casting of roles for the sketches was a similarly unselfish process, since each member viewed himself primarily as a "writer", rather than an actor eager for screen time. When the themes for sketches were chosen, Gilliam had a free hand in bridging them with animations, using a camera, scissors, and airbrush.
While the show was a collaborative process, different factions within Python were responsible for elements of the team's humour. In general, the work of the Oxford-educated members (Jones and Palin) was more visual, and more fanciful conceptually (e.g., the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition in a suburban front room), while the Cambridge graduates' sketches tended to be more verbal and more aggressive (for example, Cleese and Chapman's many "confrontation" sketches, where one character intimidates or hurls abuse, or Idle's characters with bizarre verbal quirks, such as "The Man Who Speaks In Anagrams"). Cleese confirmed that "most of the sketches with heavy abuse were Graham's and mine, anything that started with a slow pan across countryside and impressive music was Mike and Terry's, and anything that got utterly involved with words and disappeared up any personal orifice was Eric's". Gilliam's animations, meanwhile, ranged from the whimsical to the savage (the cartoon format allowing him to create some astonishingly violent scenes without fear of censorship).
Several names for the show were considered before Monty Python's Flying Circus was settled upon. Some were Owl Stretching Time, The Toad Elevating Moment, A Horse, a Spoon and a Bucket, Vaseline Review, and Bun, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot. Flying Circus stuck when the BBC explained it had printed that name in its schedules and was not prepared to amend it. Many variations on the name in front of this title then came and went (popular legend holds that the BBC considered Monty Python's Flying Circus to be a ridiculous name, at which point the group threatened to change their name every week until the BBC relented). Gwen Dibley's Flying Circus was named after a woman Palin had read about in the newspaper, thinking it would be amusing if she were to discover she had her own TV show. Baron Von Took's Flying Circus was considered as an affectionate tribute to Barry Took, the man who had brought them together.Arthur Megapode's Flying Circus was suggested, then discarded. The name Baron Von Took's Flying Circus had the form of Baron Manfred von Richthofen's Flying Circus of WWI fame, and the new group was forming in a time when the Royal Guardsmen's 1966 song "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" had peaked. The term 'flying circus' was also another name for the popular entertainment of the 1920s known as barnstorming, where multiple performers collaborated with their stunts to perform a combined set of acts.
Differing, somewhat confusing accounts are given of the origins of the Python name, although the members agree that its only "significance" was that they thought it sounded funny. In the 1998 documentary Live At Aspen during the US Comedy Arts Festival, where the troupe was awarded the AFI Star Award by the American Film Institute, the group implied that "Monty" was selected (Eric Idle's idea) as a gently mocking tribute to Field Marshal Lord Montgomery, a legendary British general of World War II; requiring a "slippery-sounding" surname, they settled on "Python". On other occasions, Idle has claimed that the name "Monty" was that of a popular and rotund fellow who drank in his local pub; people would often walk in and ask the barman, "Has Monty been in yet?", forcing the name to become stuck in his mind. The name Monty Python was later described by the BBC as being "envisaged by the team as the perfect name for a sleazy entertainment agent".
Flying Circus popularised innovative formal techniques, such as the cold open, in which an episode began without the traditional opening titles or announcements. An example of this is the "It's" man: Palin, outfitted in Robinson Crusoegarb, making a tortuous journey across various terrains, before finally approaching the camera to state, "It's ...", only to be then cut off by the title sequence and theme music.
On several occasions, the cold open lasted until mid-show, after which the regular opening titles ran. Occasionally, the Pythons tricked viewers by rolling the closing credits halfway through the show, usually continuing the joke by fading to the familiar globe logo used for BBC continuity, over which Cleese would parody the clipped tones of a BBC announcer. On one occasion, the credits ran directly after the opening titles.
Because of their dislike of finishing with punchlines, they experimented with ending the sketches by cutting abruptly to another scene or animation, walking offstage, addressing the camera (breaking the fourth wall), or introducing a totally unrelated event or character. A classic example of this approach was the use of Chapman's "anti-silliness" character of "the Colonel", who walked into several sketches and ordered them to be stopped because things were becoming "far too silly".
Another favourite way of ending sketches was to drop a cartoonish "16-ton weight" prop on one of the characters when the sketch seemed to be losing momentum, or a knight in full armour (played by Terry Gilliam) would wander on-set and hit characters over the head with a rubber chicken, before cutting to the next scene. Yet another way of changing scenes was when John Cleese, usually outfitted in a dinner suit, would come in as a radio commentator and, in a rather pompous manner, make the formal and determined announcement "And now for something completely different.", which later became the title of the first Monty Python film.
The use of Gilliam's surreal, collage stop motion animations was another innovative intertextual element of the Python style. Many of the images Gilliam used were lifted from famous works of art, and from Victorian illustrations and engravings. The giant foot which crushes the show's title at the end of the opening credits is in fact the foot of Cupid, cut from a reproduction of the Renaissance masterpiece Venus, Cupid, Folly and Timeby Bronzino. This foot, and Gilliam's style in general, are visual trademarks of the programme.
The Pythons used the British tradition of cross-dressing comedy by donning frocks and makeup and playing female roles themselves while speaking in falsetto. Jones specialised in playing the working-class housewife, with Palin and Idle in being generally more posh. The other members played female roles more sparsely. Generally speaking, female roles were played by women only when the scene specifically required that the character be sexually attractive (although sometimes they used Idle for this). The troupe later turned to Carol Cleveland, who co-starred in numerous episodes after 1970. In some episodes and later in Monty Python's Life of Brian, they took the idea one step further by playing women who impersonated men (in the stoning scene).
Many sketches are well-known and widely quoted. "Dead Parrot sketch", "The Lumberjack Song", "Spam" (which led to the coining of the term email spam), "Nudge Nudge", "The Spanish Inquisition", "Upper Class Twit of the Year", "Cheese Shop", and "The Ministry of Silly Walks" are just a few examples.