MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS

British Sketch Comedy/Farce/Parody/Satire Series

Monty 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 of television.

The 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 program.

Of 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.

The 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 Goon Show.

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.

Opening 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.

Several 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

Monty 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.

-Geoff Hammill

CAST

Graham Chapman...................................... John Cleese Terry Gilliam.................................................... Eric Idle Terry Jones.............................................. Michael Palin

PRODUCER John Howard Davies

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 45 30-minute episodes

BBC
5 October 1969-11 January 1970      
15 September 1970-22 December 1970
19 October 1972-18 January 1973
31 October 1974-5 December 1974

FURTHER READING

"And Now for Something Completely Different...." The Economist (London), 20 October 1990.

Clifford, 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.

Johnson, 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, 1989.

McCall, Douglas L. Monty Python: A Chronological Listing of the Troupe's Creative Output, and Articles and Reviews About Them. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1991.

O'Connor, John J. "Python-a-Thon." New York Times, 30 December 1994.

Perry, George C. Life of Python. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1983.

Sanoff, Alvin P. "And Now for Something Completely Different." U.S. News & World Report (Washington, D.C.), 16 October 1989.

Schmidt, William E. "Still Zany, Python and Cult Turn 25." New York Times, 28 September 1994.

 

See also British Programming; Cleese, John; Palin, Michael