The year is 1969. An obnoxiously-mustachioed Brit slides into a bar seat. His derby hat-wearing businessman neighbor (also mustachioed, but not obnoxiously) glances over, and continues to gently sip from his pint. After some awkward, petty banter, Brit #1 questions Brit #2, requesting to know if his wife is “a real go-er, eh?” his tone excitedly raunchy.
The businessman pulls back, his body language surprised, asking, “Beg your pardon?” But he continues to play along unknowingly, and Obnoxious Mustache intensifies his witless banter with suggestive hand motions, his insinuating elbow jabs shaking the businessman’s pint.
Eventually the straight man smacks his glass on the table and raises his voice: “Look, are you trying to insinuate something?” Six ‘no’s and a ‘yes’ later, Eric Idle becomes nervous and specific. “…You’ve done it, you’ve slept with a lady?” Terry Jones replies with a singular, off-balance “Yes,” and here's the twist: in sheer, curious earnestness Idle begs, “What’s it like?”
Never has a group of entertainers, before or since, influenced their art more than the slimy Brits who dubbed themselves “Monty Python.” A troupe of war babies (and one pond-hopping pseudo-American), the Pythons spawned 45 brilliant episodes of a television show, five films, numerous books, record albums, and stage shows that altered history forever with ridiculous sketches like “Upper Class Twit of the Year,” “Dead Parrot,” and “How to Recognise Different Types of Trees From Quite a Long Way Away.”
Sketches like the above “Nudge Nudge” embody the Pythons’ impact on Great Britain and the rest of the world, particularly thanks to their groundbreaking television show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The quirky Python character played by Idle dances all around Jones’s straight businessman in the same silly way the show famously thumbed its nose at a culture in transition. Many critics of the time found the punchline-less humor “macabre,” the loosely tied thematic threads “disorienting.” Later, in 2000, the British Film Institute ranked the show fifth on its list of the “100 Greatest British Television Programmes.”
The influence of Flying Circus is incontestable. Their myriad non-sequiturs, bizarre characters, and dizzying cohesion are today copied by American cult-hit shows (Family Guy, Arrested Development, and South Park) and mainstream programming (Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock) alike.
“Being eight years old, that was my introduction to humor," Trey Stone, co-creator of South Park once said of Flying Circus.
John Cleese even remarked in The Pythons Autobiography by the Pythons that “In America…what was so funny was that kids who watched Saturday Night Live and then watched Python thought that we’d stolen from Saturday Night Live.”
Idle and Jones constituted a mere third of the Pythons. Cleese and Graham Chapman stood as the tallest third and had met at Cambridge, while Terry Gilliam came from the States and specialized in animation. Michael Palin would one day become a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for starring in skits like “The Lumberjack Song,” wearing drag, and portraying “A Man with a Tape Recorder in His Nose.”
These distinguished personnel came together and apart, writing and collaborating on programs like The Frost Report and The Complete and Utter History of Britain for about five years. Says Cleese in their autobiography, “Graham and I used to watch Do Not Adjust Your Set…because it was the funniest thing on television. I said to Graham ‘Why don’t we ring the guys and see if they want to do a show with us?’”
And thus appeared the October 1969 premiere of Flying Circus, titled “Whither Canada?” Apparently Monty Python were also the earliest proponents of Canada-bashing.
The next five years for the Pythons were a wild and inspired ride of writing, acting, and demolishing established norms of humor.
“Our biggest thing really was getting rid of the punchline,” says Chapman.
Experimentation and democracy went hand-in-hand with production. New comedic concepts emerged such as the cold open, directly addressing the camera, and skits featuring cross-dressing (not in itself groundbreaking, but it was highly original that such a skit would not center itself around the actor or actors who were appearing in drag). It was as though the Pythons were playing a huge joke on their audience. They would cue the closing credits midway through the show, introduce pointless and unconnected characters, and even end sketches by dropping 16-ton weights on the set. Somehow they all managed to prevent it from going to their heads.
“It was a writers’ commune,” remembers Idle. “And we never cast until after we’d written everything, and there was a certain sense of fair play in it…Put together we formed almost one completely mad person.”
The success of the show parlayed itself into further gains outside the boob tube, partly thanks to popular recording artists.
“When it came to financing Monty Python and The Holy Grail, who came in but Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd as investors,” says Palin.
Other fans were Genesis, Elvis, and the Beatles (Paul McCartney reportedly put recording sessions on hold to watch Flying Circus). After some brainstorming and discussion between the show’s third and fourth seasons, the movie came along.
“The coconut gag was the original gag that sparked the whole thing off,” says Jones. Monty Python and the Holy Grail views like an extended episode of Flying Circus, with skits tied strongly together around a general Arthurian theme. Cleese and Chapman show up in the movie's blathering argumentative moments, Palin and Jones composed much of the random silliness, Gilliam supplied animation, and Eric Idle celebrated off-stage in a hotel with the girls from the infamous “Castle Anthrax” scene.
Post-Holy Grail Python suffered the slow cancer of varying ambitions. It was a very courteous affair, and they all remain friends to this day, with the exception of Chapman, who passed away from actual cancer in October 1989. Their last major productions together were 1979’s The Life of Brian, and 1983’s The Meaning of Life and, both hilarious movies, neither rivaling the impact and historicity of Holy Grail.
Since their break-up, the Pythons have all enjoyed great success in the media, Cleese in particular, who wrote and starred in the revered BBC program, Fawlty Towers, and in the seminal film, A Fish Called Wanda, with Palin. Gilliam carved out a career as a director, manning the helm of Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the forthcoming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Idle adapted Holy Grail into a successful Broadway musical, Spamalot.
Throughout the years, the influence these six men slathered on the world of humor (and the wider world, for that matter) will forever remain, nobly maintained by new generations. Their tradition is as respectable as any conventional painting or jazz recording, yet as laughable and meaningless as a closetful of fake mustaches and silly walks. As long as humor exists, we all will have Monty Python to thank.