Monty Python’s Circus Takes Flight
And now for something completely awesome
Monty Python’s Flying Circus made its television debut on October 5, 1969. It was broadcast at 11 pm after most Britons had gone to bed. The episode was entitled “Whither Canada?” yet there wasn’t a single mention of Canada during the entire program. If you were a stickler for logic or reason then Monty Python wasn’t the show for you. However, if you had a rather warped sense of humor and wanted to laugh your buttocks off, you were in for a treat.
It all began with five graduates from Oxford and Cambridge — Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and American animator Terry Gilliam. They were all veteran contributors to popular British comedies and wanted to work on a joint project but had no clue what that would entail. When the guys told the BBC as much, the BBC replied, “You can have thirteen shows, but that’s it.”
The team did know they wanted to do something — yes — completely different. They intended to push the boundaries of traditional sketch comedy and eschew predictable set-ups and punchlines. Instead, they would employ a stream-of-consciousness approach more in tune with the late ’60s vibe and their own irreverent senses of humor.
But they needed a name for their show. The guys were toying with Owl Stretching Time and The Toad Elevating Moment. The BBC suggested the Circus. “Monty Python” was a name the group thought was the perfect moniker for a sleazy entertainment agent, and so Monty Python’s Flying Circus was born.
Several factors allowed Monty Python to thrive. For one thing, it was shown in color, a Massive boon with their type of over-the-top shenanigans. Another was Terry Gilliam’s vibrant animation as a linking device between completely unrelated scenes, allowing their hoped-for-stream-of-consciousness approach to manifest splendidly.
And, of course, there was the talent and perfectionism of all the Pythons. They took on the roles of virtually every character during the entire series, with the exception of those played by Carol Cleveland.
It took a little while for the program to find its audience, but once it did, the show amassed a large group of dedicated followers. One of their biggest fans, George Harrison, often said the zany spirit of the Beatles lived on in Monty Python.
George literally put his money where his mouth was. He founded HandMade Films, created specifically to bring the sacredelicious “Life of Brian” to fruition. Harrison used his English estate, Friar Park, as collateral for a loan that financed about half of the film’s $4 million budget. Thank you, George!
The Pythons produced 45 episodes of “Flying Circus. ” They also released albums and books that were enthusiastically welcomed by their fans. (Remember, in the Dark Ages, this was the only way Python fans could memorize their favorite bits and then recite them word-for-word to one another. Word. For. Word. VERY important.)
In the 1970s, they also produced inventive and hilarious motion pictures, including what many people (hi, I’m many people) consider one of the funniest films of all time, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
The group continued to do live performances until Graham Chapman’s death on October 4, 1989. The eulogy was funnier than any wedding toast, which isn't surprising since John Cleese was the one giving it:
“Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries. And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me if I didn’t, if I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste.
(He paused, then claimed that Chapman had whispered in his ear while he was writing the speech):
All right, Cleese. You say you’re very proud of being the very first person ever to say ‘shit’ on British television. If this service is really for me, just for starters, I want you to become the first person ever at a British memorial service to say ‘fuck’.”
Perfect. Chapman would've been pleased.
In 2005, Spamalot, a re-working of Monty Python and the Holy Grail written by Eric Idle and John Du Prez hit Broadway with a bang. “Spamalot won a Tony Award for Best Musical, finally bringing some class to the Great White Way.
In 2014, the surviving members of Monty Python reunited for a series of live shows. They had originally planned to do one performance, but the demand was so great the lads ended up doing a ten-date residency at the O2 in London. The final performance was watched by around 50 million people around the world.
It’s been over a half-century since we first met them, yet their influence on comedy and pop culture still resonates. If you think of junk mail or singing Vikings when you hear the word “SPAM”, you’re thinking of the same guys who inspired the moniker of spam, for, well, spam.
In the end, Monty Python is living proof you can be silly without being stupid. This seems to be a lost art. Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time.