Python's Flying Circus first appeared on the British Broadcasting
Corporation's BBC-1 on 5 October 1969. It was a new type of program
for the national channel and its appearance at the end of the decade
seemed fitting. The show was created by six young men (Graham Chapman,
John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin)
whose ideas of comedy and television were clearly non-traditional.
Monty Python's style--free-form, non-linear, deeply sarcastic,
satirical, and anarchic--seemed somehow to reflect the times. It
mocked all conventions which proceeded it, particularly the conventions
last episode aired on the BBC on 5 December 1974 after the production
of 45 installments. The first 39 were titled Monty Python's Flying
Circus. The final six episodes, all created without Cleese who
had tired of the show, were called Monty Python. In addition,
the team produced two shows for German television, each running
50 minutes. The second of these two shows, which consisted mostly
of new material, was shown in England on BBC-2 in 1973. The Pythons
expanded into other media as the result of their TV success. They
created four Python movies (And Now For Something Completely
Different, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python's Life
of Brian and Monty Python's Meaning of Life), several
audio recordings and several books relating to the programs and
films. In England and America the group also performed several live
stage shows comprised of various sketches and songs from the television
the cast, all but Gilliam were English and developed their interest
in comedy while students at university (Palin and Jones at Oxford;
Chapman, Cleese and Idle at Cambridge). Gilliam was an American
from California via Minnesota. Although he did appear on camera
occasionally, Gilliam's primary contribution to the TV shows was
his eclectic animation which usually served, in various ways, to
link the sketches.
Each of the British members of the troupe had previous television
and stage experience as writers and performers. Their pre-Python
credits included the satirical That Was the Week That Was, The
Frost Report (with David Frost, a regular target of the group's
arrows), Do Not Adjust Your Set and The Complete and Utter
History of Britain. The cross-pollination of talent during these
days eventually brought the future Pythons together. They approached
the BBC with a program idea and it was accepted, not without some
trepidation by the network. When Gilliam was brought into the group
to provide animation, Monty Python was formed.
programs reflect the influence of several British radio programs
from the 1950s, most notably The Goon Show which featured,
among others, Peter Sellers. The energy and disregard for rules
which hallmarked The Goon Show are clearly evident in the
Python TV show. In turn, Monty Python's Flying Circus has
exercised its own influence on such television programs as Saturday
Night Live, SCTV, Kids in the Hall and The Young Ones.
The essential disrespect for authority which links each of these
programs can ultimately be traced through the Pythons back to The
content of Monty Python's Flying Circus was designed to be
disconcerting to viewers who expected to see typical television
fare. This was obvious from the very first episode. The opening
"discussion" features a farmer who believes his sheep are birds
and that they nest in trees. This bit is followed by a conversation
between two Frenchmen who consider the commercial potential of flying
sheep. Just as viewers thought they were beginning to understand
the flow of the show, it cut to a shot of a man behind a news desk
announcing, "And now for something completely different," and the
scene shifted to a totally unrelated topic. The thread might return
to a previous sketch but, more often, there was no closure, only
more fragmented scenes. Interspersed throughout were Gilliam's animations,
often stop-action collages in which skulls opened to reveal dancing
women or various body parts were severed. The macabre and disorienting
were basic elements of the show.
title sequences were not always found at the beginning of the program,
frequently appearing instead midway through the show or even later.
In one installment, there were no opening titles. Another element
of the opening sequence was the "It's" man, a scruffy old sort who
would be seen running, eventually reaching the camera. As he breathlessly
croaks "It's . . .", the scene would shift dramatically. The theme
music (Sousa's Liberty Bell March) was chosen because, among other
reasons, it was free from copyright fees.
of the sketches from the series became favorites of fans but not
necessarily of the performers. "The Ministry of Silly Walks" virtually
became Cleese's signature much to his displeasure, and "The Dead
Parrot Sketch" had to be repeated anytime Cleese and Palin appeared
together. The group's portrayal of middle-aged women (known as Pepperpots
among the group) was a popular recurring theme as well. "Mr. Nudge,"
"The Spanish Inquisition," "The Upper-Class Twit of the Year," "The
Lumberjack Song" and "Scott of the Antarctic" are among the bits
which have remained fan favorites.
Monty Python's Flying Circus
Photo courtesy of BBC
Python's Flying Circus began appearing in the United States
on Public Broadcasting Service stations in 1974. Its popularity
grew and it quickly became a cult favorite. Several commercial stations,
having noticed it on the public stations, also began to air the
program. ABC purchased the rights to the six-episode fourth year
of Monty Python, but when the show was aired the episodes had been
censored and edited to fit the restrictions of American commercial
TV. The group went to court to prevent further cuts but ABC was
able to air the second show with only a minor disclaimer. As a result
of the case, the Pythons gained ownership of the copyright outside
Great Britain. Individual members of the group have gone on to acclaim
in film and television. As writers, producers, directors and performers,
all carry with them residual elements of Monty Python. Graham
Chapman died in 1989.
Chapman...................................... John Cleese Terry
Eric Idle Terry Jones..............................................
John Howard Davies
HISTORY 45 30-minute episodes
5 October 1969-11 January 1970
15 September 1970-22 December 1970
19 October 1972-18 January 1973
31 October 1974-5 December 1974
"And Now for Something Completely Different...." The Economist
(London), 20 October 1990.
Andrew. "Caught in the Act." New Statesman and Society (London),
29 September 1989.
Hewison, Robert. Monty Python: The Case Against Irreverence,
Scurrility, Profanity, Vilification, and Licentious Abuse. New
York: Grove, 1981.
Kim. Life (Before and) After Monty Python: The Solo Flights of
the Flying Circus. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.
The First 20 Years of Monty Python. New York: St. Martin's,
Douglas L. Monty Python: A Chronological Listing of the Troupe's
Creative Output, and Articles and Reviews About Them. Jefferson,
North Carolina: McFarland, 1991.
John J. "Python-a-Thon." New York Times, 30 December 1994.
George C. Life of Python. Boston, Massachusetts: Little,
Alvin P. "And Now for Something Completely Different." U.S. News
& World Report (Washington, D.C.), 16 October 1989.
William E. "Still Zany, Python and Cult Turn 25." New York Times,
28 September 1994.