Monday, October 5, 2009

The 40th Anniversary of Monty Python's Flying Circus

(Warning: Monty Python's Flying Circus at times dealt with subject matter that some might find objectionable.If you are sensitive about such things, then proceed at your own risk. If you are a child, then please move onto a more suitable site....).

Tonight it will have been 40 years since the TV show Monty Python's Flying Circus debuted. It was a comedy show like no other before it and like no other since. Its brand of humour was so unique that the term Pythonesque had to be invented just to describe it.

While Monty Python's Flying Circus was starkly original when it debuted on Sunday night, 5 October, 1969, there had been a few forerunners to the show. Its style was influenced to some degree by the humour of Spike Milligan, veteran of The Goon Show. Milligan's series Q, which debuted in March 1969,  possessed a similar style of surreal, freeform humour, to the point that the Pythons worried that their show (which was in development at the time) might be too similar. It was also preceded by television programmes featuring members of the Python troupe itself. Do Not Adjust Your Set was an ITV children's show which featured Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, and still later animation by Terry Gilliam. It aired from 1967 to 1969. At Last the 1948 Show was a satirical show which was made for ITV in 1967. It featured John Cleese and Graham Chapman. It was also preceded by the radio shows The Goon Show and Round the Home, which was the creation of comedian and writer Barry Took. It was in many ways the radio equivalent to Monty Python's Flying Circus.

It was Barry Took who would be largely responsible forMonty Python's Flying Circus coming into being. He suggested to the BBC a new comedy series that would team writers Michael Palin and Terry Jones, alongside Graham Chapman and John Cleese. Many names were considered before Monty Python's Flying Circus was settled upon. Among those names were Owl-Stretching Time, Bun, Whackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot, A Toad Elevating Moment, A Toad Elevating Moment, A Horse, a Bucket and a Spoon, and It's.... It was Michael Mills, BBC's Head of Comedy, that insisted that the title must have the word circus in it, as the show's troupe was referred to as a "circus" by BBC employees. It was then that such names as Baron Von Took's Flying Circus (after another remark from Mills regarding Barry Took) and Gwen Dibley's Flying Circus were considered. Monty Python's Flying Circus was finally chosen, as "Monty Python" sounded like the name of a bad theatrical agent.

When Monty Python's Flying Circus debuted, it was not quite like any comedy show before it. Not only was the show done in a freeform style marked by equal parts sarcasm and satire, but it was often blatantly absurdist.  Examples of the show's absurdist bent were the sketches "Spam (featuring a restaurant which serves nothing but spam, resulting in complaints from customers and a Greek chorus of Vikings singing of "spam"),"  "The Ministry of Silly Walks" (in which a British government agency develops silly walks)," and "The Spanish Inquisition (in which three members of the Spanish Inquisition consistently interrupt other sketches with the words "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!").  Monty Python's Flying Circus was also known for its satire, often spoofing two things in the same sketch, as in "Sam Peckinpah's Salad Days (which portrays the British musical Salad Days as directed by Peckinpah)," "The Piranha Brothers (parodying both documentary news programmes and the British underworld)," and "The Lumberjack Song (parodying lumberjacks, the RCMP, and letters from outraged viewers)." In between the sketches was Terry Gilliam's often surreal animation. The humour was also often intellectual tone.

That Monty Python's Flying Circus was intellectual in bent should not be surprising, as the Monty Python troupe was all very educated. Terry Jones and Michael Palin had attended Oxford. John Cleese and Eric Idle had attended Cambridge. Terry Gilliam had attended Occidental College in Los Angeles. Contrary to popular belief, the Pythons were not all English. The troupe was composed of four Englishmen (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin), and one American (Terry Gilliam). Carol Cleveland, the woman who most frequently performed on the show, had been born in England, but was raised in Philadelphia.

In its first seasons Monty Python's Flying Circus was not subject to much in the way of censorship. The BBC simply requested that the Pythons do whatever they liked, as long as it was within the bounds of the law. Given the content of the show, however, it was inevitable that more conservative groups would start voicing their taste for the series. As a result, the BBC began to watch the Pythons more closely. They tried to cut certain words from sketches, including bugger and masturbation. A sketch called "Wee-Wee Wine Tasting (in which wine sampled was actually urine) was censored after both John Cleese  (who disliked scatological humour on the show) and BBC objected. The sketch "Travel Agent," in which Eric Idle played a man with a speech impediment where by he pronounced his "Cs" as "Bs" was also cut. At least two references to cancer were cut, one during a Terry Gilliam animation and another during the sketch "Conquistador Coffee Campaign." Other sketches were cut after they had aired. The sketch "Political Choreographer," which featured John Cleese, as a Conservative Party spokesman, is coached by Eric Idle, as a choreographer, in dancing. The sketch was long feared lost until a tape from a Buffalo, New York TV station was found containing it. An animation of "Satan" that aired "Cartoon Religion" and "How Not To Be Seen" was cut and was feared missing until a 16 mm film print of it was found.

Aside from censorship, Monty Python's Flying Circus also had to suffer through very poor scheduling for much of its run. In its first season it aired at 11:00 PM on Sunday, where it was sometimes pre-empted by local programming. For its second season it aired at 10:15 PM on Tuesday. For its third season it was scheduled at the same time, but on Thursday. It was not until its fourth season that it received a decent time slot, 9 PM on Thursday night. From the beginning the BBC had been very uncomfortable about the show, to the point that it was placed in bad time slots. Amazingly, the viewership for the show continued to grow throughout its run despite poor scheduling.

Monty Python's Flying Circus would run four seasons, ending primarily because it was running out of steam. John Cleese left at the end of the third season. His departure was due in part to his weariness in dealing with partner Graham Chapman's alcoholism and in part to his thought that the show's scripts had declined in quality. Without John Cleese, the Pythons went onto do a fourth season (the only one which featured Terry Gilliam on screen), although it would only be six episodes long. The last original episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus aired on 5 December, 1974.

Of course, Monty Python's Flying Circus would eventually make it to North America. In 1970 sketches from the series aired in Canada on the CBC. It was in 1974 that Dallas PBS station KERA first aired the show. It later appeared on New York PBS station WNET that same year. By 1975 around 131 different American stations were airing Monty Python's Flying Circus. It was that same year that the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) aired episodes of the show in an edited form on their umbrella series Wide World of Entertainment. The Pythons themselves objected, but ABC refused to stop airing the episodes in edited form. As a result the Pythons sued ABC. First the court admitted that their creative rights had been violated, but refused to prohibit ABC from continuing to air edited versions of the episodes. On appeal the Pythons gained control over all broadcasts of the series in the United States from that time forward.

Monty Python would eventually move into other media. In 1970 the troupe released the album Monty Python's Flying Circus, which included such sketches as "Nudge, Nudge" and "The Lumberjack Song." It would be followed by several more albums. Of course, Monty Python's biggest impact would be on film. In 1971 the movie And Now For Something Complete Different was released, compiling several sketches from the show. It would be followed by the movies Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975, Monty Python's Life of Brian in 1979, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl in 1982, and Monty Python's Meaning of Life in 1983. Between 1974 and 1980 Monty Python appeared on stage in shows that used many of the sketches form the TV series. There have also been books and even games.

After the series had ended, the Pythons would go onto their own successful solo careers. Graham Chapman guest starred on several American television shows, and wrote and appeared in the movie Yellowbeard. John Cleese created and starred in the classic sitcom Fawlty Towers, guest starred on several shows on both sides of the Pond, and wrote in starred in such films as A Fish Called Wanda. After co-directing the Monty Python film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam went onto direct such films as Brazil, The Fisher King, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and others. Eric Idle created another sketch show, Rutland Weekend Television, the mockumentary All You Need is Cash (featuring The Rutles, a parody of The Beatles, which had originated on Rutland Weekend Television), and has appeared in several different films and TV shows. After co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Jones went onto direct the films Monty Python's Life of Brian, Monty Python's Meaning of Life, Erik the Viking, and The Wind in the Willows. He has also written books on medieval history and appeared in various shows and movies. Michael Palin went onto work on the series Ripping Yarns, and has appeared in the films The Missionary (which he also wrote), Time Bandits, Brazil, A Fish Called Wanda, and All You Need is Cash.

Aside from the movies, records, and stage shows which would be spun off from the series, Monty Python's Flying Circus would have an enormous impact on pop culture. Indeed, the term Pythonesque was coined to describe humour similar to that of Monty Python. In the world of computing, Guido van Rossum's Python programming language is named for the comedy troupe. The use of the word "spam" for junk email is drawn from the sketch "Spam," in reference to the Vikings in the restaurant drowning everything out with their song about Spam. A previously unknown species of giant snake dating to the Miocene Era was given the taxonomic name  Montypythonoides riversleighensis by the palaeontologist who had discovered it. Both the comic strip Monty and its lead character, created by Jim Meddick, are named for Monty Python. Sketches from Monty Python's Flying Circus are referenced to this day. Monty Python's legacy to pop culture is even greater when one includes the films that the troupe made. Monty Python and the Holy Grail may be one of the most quoted films of all time. 

In 2000 the British Film Institute included Monty Python's Flying Circus in the "100 Greatest British Television Programmes," where it ranked fifth. Time included it in its "100 Best TV Shows of All Time" in 2007. If not the most famous British series in the world, it would definitely rank in the top five. After forty years it continues to have an impact on pop culture. In the end, it may be the most famous sketch comedy show of all time.


Holte Ender said...

The Goon Show (extremely silly) led the way for Monty Python, also, in the early 60s a show called That Was The Week That Was (TWTWTW) inspired satirical writing, although it was more political than absurd. Another off the wall show was "The Goodies," Tim-Brooke Taylor, Graham Gardner and Bill Oddie, they worked with Cleese from time to time. The Pythons were the first crew to be known all over the world.

Happy birthday MPFC

Terence Towles Canote said...

You are quite right, Holte. The Good Show also led the way for Python. I should've mentioned it--I was always a huge fan of Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. I didn't mention That Was The Week That Was simply because I see it more as a political satire, not quite a forerunner of Monty Python's Circus. Still, it was brilliant. It's a shame that neither it nor its American counterpart lasted long!