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Front row: Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin
|Medium||Television, film, theatre,
audio recordings, books
|Genres||Satire, surreal humour, dark comedy|
|Influences||The Goons, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook|
|Influenced||Douglas Adams, Eddie Izzard, George Carlin, Vic and Bob, Steve Pemberton, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, Matt Groening|
|Notable works and roles|| Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969–1974)
And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)
|Members|| Graham Chapman
Monty Python (sometimes known as The Pythons) were a British surreal comedy group that created Monty Python's Flying Circus, a British television comedy sketch show that first aired on the BBC on 5 October 1969. Forty-five episodes were made over four series. The Python phenomenon developed from the television series into something larger in scope and impact, spawning touring stage shows, films, numerous albums, several books and a stage musical as well as launching the members to individual stardom. The group's influence on comedy has been compared to The Beatles' influence on music.
The television series, broadcast by the BBC from 1969 to 1974, was conceived, written and performed by members Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Loosely structured as a sketch show, but with an innovative stream-of-consciousness approach (aided by Gilliam's animation), it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in style and content. A self-contained comedy team responsible for both writing and performing their work, the Pythons' creative control allowed them to experiment with form and content, discarding rules of television comedy. Their influence on British comedy has been apparent for years, while in North America it has coloured the work of cult performers from the early editions of Saturday Night Live through to more recent absurdist trends in television comedy. " Pythonesque" has entered the English lexicon as a result.
In a 2005 UK poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, three of the six Pythons members were voted by fellow comedians and comedy insiders to be among the top 50 greatest comedians ever: Cleese at #2, Idle at #21, and Palin at #30.
Before Flying Circus
Jones and Palin met at Oxford University, where they performed together with the Oxford Revue. Chapman and Cleese met at Cambridge University. Idle was also at Cambridge, but started a year after Chapman and Cleese. Cleese met Gilliam in New York City while on tour with the Cambridge University Footlights revue Cambridge Circus (originally entitled A Clump of Plinths). Chapman, Cleese and Idle were members of the Footlights, which at that time also included the future Goodies ( Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, and Graeme Garden), and Jonathan Lynn (co-writer of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister). During Idle's presidency of the Club, feminist writer Germaine Greer and broadcaster Clive James were members. Recordings of Footlights revues (called "Smokers") at Pembroke College include sketches and performances by Cleese and Idle. They are kept in the archives of the Pembroke Players, along with tapes of Idle's performances in some of the college drama society's theatrical productions.
All six Python members appeared in and/or wrote the following shows before Flying Circus. The Frost Report is credited as first uniting the British Pythons and providing an environment in which they could develop their particular styles:
- I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again (radio) (1964–1973) [Cleese: cast member & writer] – [Idle and Chapman: writers]
- The Frost Report (1966–1967) [Cleese: cast member and writer] – [Idle: writer of Frost's monologues] – [Chapman, Palin and Jones: writers]
- At Last the 1948 Show (1967) [Chapman and Cleese: writers and cast members] – [Idle: writer]
- Twice a Fortnight (1967) [Palin and Jones: cast members and writers]
- Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967–1969) [Idle, Jones, and Palin: cast members & writers] – [Gilliam: animation]
— Bonzo Dog Band: musical interludes]
- We Have Ways of Making You Laugh (1968) [Idle: cast member & writer] – [Gilliam: animation]
- How to Irritate People (1968) [Cleese and Chapman: cast members & writers] – [Palin: cast member]
- The Complete and Utter History of Britain (1969) [Palin and Jones: cast members & writers]
- Doctor in the House (1969) [Cleese & Chapman: writers]
Several featured other important British comedy writers or performers of the future, including Marty Feldman, Jonathan Lynn, David Jason, and David Frost, as well as members of other future comedy teams including Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker ( the Two Ronnies), and Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie (the Goodies).
Following the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set, originally intended to be a children's programme, with adults, ITV offered Gilliam, Idle, Jones, and Palin their own series together. At the same time, Chapman and Cleese were offered a show by the BBC, which had been impressed by their work on The Frost Report and At Last The 1948 Show. Cleese was reluctant to do a two-man show for various reasons, including Chapman's supposedly difficult personality. Cleese had fond memories of working with Palin and invited him to join the team. With the ITV series still in pre-production, Palin agreed and suggested the involvement of his writing partner Jones and colleague Idle—who in turn suggested that Gilliam could provide animations for the projected series. Much has been made of the fact that the Monty Python troupe is the result of Cleese's desire to work with Palin and the chance circumstances that brought the other four members into the fold.
Monty Python's Flying Circus
Development of the series
The Pythons had a definite idea about what they wanted to do with the series. They were admirers of the work of Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore on Beyond the Fringe, and had worked on Frost, which was similar in style. They enjoyed Cook and Moore's sketch show Not Only... But Also. One problem the Pythons perceived with these programmes was that though the body of the sketch would be strong, the writers would often struggle to then find a punchline funny enough to end on, and this would detract from the overall sketch quality. They decided that they would simply not bother to "cap" their sketches in the traditional manner, and early episodes of the Flying Circus series make great play of this abandonment of the punchline (one scene has Cleese turn to Idle, as the sketch descends into chaos, and remark that "This is the silliest sketch I've ever been in"—they all resolve not to carry on and simply walk off the set). However, as they began assembling material for the show, the Pythons watched one of their collective heroes, Spike Milligan, recording his groundbreaking series Q5 (1969). Not only was the programme more irreverent and anarchic than any previous television comedy, Milligan would often "give up" on sketches halfway through and wander off set (often muttering "Did I write this?"). It was clear that their new series would now seem less original, and Jones in particular became determined the Pythons should innovate.
After much debate, Jones remembered an animation Gilliam had created for Do Not Adjust Your Set called Beware of the Elephants, which had intrigued him with its stream-of-consciousness style. Jones felt it would be a good concept to apply to the series: allowing sketches to blend into one another. Palin had been equally fascinated by another of Gilliam's efforts, entitled Christmas Cards, and agreed that it represented "a way of doing things differently". Since Cleese, Chapman and Idle were less concerned with the overall flow of the programme, it was Jones, Palin and Gilliam who became largely responsible for the presentation style of the Flying Circus series, in which disparate sketches are linked to give each episode the appearance of a single stream-of-consciousness (often using a Gilliam animation to move from the closing image of one sketch to the opening scene of another).
Writing started at 9 am and finished at 5 pm. Typically, Cleese and Chapman worked as one pair isolated from the others, as did Jones and Palin, while Idle wrote alone. After a few days, they would join together with Gilliam, critique their scripts, and exchange ideas. Their approach to writing was democratic. If the majority found an idea humorous, it was included in the show. The casting of roles for the sketches was a similarly unselfish process, since each member viewed himself primarily as a 'writer', rather than an actor desperate for screen time. When the themes for sketches were chosen, Gilliam had carte blanche to decide how to bridge them with animations, using a camera, scissors, and airbrush.
While the show was a collaborative process, different factions within Python were responsible for elements of the team's humour. In general, the work of the Oxford-educated members (Jones and Palin) was more visual, and more fanciful conceptually (e.g., the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition in a suburban front room), while the Cambridge graduates' sketches tended to be more verbal and more aggressive (for example, Cleese and Chapman's many "confrontation" sketches, where one character intimidates or hurls abuse, or Idle's characters with bizarre verbal quirks, such as The Man Who Speaks In Anagrams). Cleese confirmed that "most of the sketches with heavy abuse were Graham's and mine, anything that started with a slow pan across countryside and impressive music was Mike and Terry's, and anything that got utterly involved with words and disappeared up any personal orifice was Eric's". Gilliam's animations, meanwhile, ranged from the whimsical to the savage (the cartoon format allowing him to create some astonishingly violent scenes without fear of censorship).
Several names for the show were considered before Monty Python's Flying Circus was settled upon. Some were Owl Stretching Time; The Toad Elevating Moment; A Horse, a Spoon and a Bucket; Vaseline Review; and Bun, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot. Flying Circus stuck when the BBC explained it had printed that name in its schedules and was not prepared to amend it. Many variations on the name in front of this title then came and went (popular legend holds that the BBC considered Monty Python's Flying Circus to be a ridiculous name, at which point the group threatened to change their name every week until the BBC relented). Gwen Dibley's Flying Circus was named after a woman Palin had read about in the newspaper, thinking it would be amusing if she were to discover she had her own TV show. Baron Von Took's Flying Circus was considered as an affectionate tribute to Barry Took, the man who had brought them together. Arthur Megapode's Flying Circus was suggested, then discarded. The name Baron Von Took's Flying Circus had the form of Baron Manfred von Richtofen's Flying Circus of WWI fame, and the new group was forming in a time when the Royal Guardsmen's 1966 song Snoopy vs. the Red Baron had peaked. The term 'flying circus' was also another name for the popular entertainment of the 1920s known as barnstorming, where multiple performers collaborated with their stunts to perform a combined set of acts.
There are differing, somewhat confusing accounts of the origins of the Python name although the members agree that its only "significance" was that they thought it sounded funny. In the 1998 documentary Live At Aspen during the US Comedy Arts Festival, where the troupe was awarded the AFI Star Award by the American Film Institute, the group implied that "Monty" was selected ( Eric Idle's idea) as a gently-mocking tribute to Field Marshal Lord Montgomery, a legendary British general of World War II; requiring a "slippery-sounding" surname, they settled on "Python". On other occasions Idle has claimed that the name "Monty" was that of a popular and rotund fellow who drank in his local pub; people would often walk in and ask the barman, "Has Monty been in yet?", forcing the name to become stuck in his mind. The name Monty Python was later described by the BBC as being "envisaged by the team as the perfect name for a sleazy entertainment agent".
Style of the show
Flying Circus popularised innovative formal techniques, such as the cold open, in which an episode began without the traditional opening titles or announcements. An example of this is the "It's" man: Palin, outfitted in Robinson Crusoe garb, making a tortuous journey across various terrains, before finally approaching the camera to state, "It's...", only to be then cut off by the title sequence and theme music.
On several occasions the cold open lasted until mid show, after which the regular opening titles ran. Occasionally the Pythons tricked viewers by rolling the closing credits halfway through the show, usually continuing the joke by fading to the familiar globe logo used for BBC continuity, over which Cleese would parody the clipped tones of a BBC announcer. On one occasion the credits ran directly after the opening titles.
Because of their dislike of finishing with punchlines, they experimented with ending the sketches by cutting abruptly to another scene or animation, walking offstage, addressing the camera (breaking the fourth wall), or introducing a totally unrelated event or character. A classic example of this approach was the use of Chapman's "Colonel" character, who walked into several sketches and ordered them to be stopped because things were becoming "far too silly."
Another favourite way of ending sketches was to drop a cartoonish "16-ton weight" prop on one of the characters when the sketch seemed to be losing momentum, or a knight in full armour (played by Terry Gilliam) would wander on-set and hit characters over the head with a rubber chicken, before cutting to the next scene. Yet another way of changing scenes was when John Cleese, usually outfitted in a dinner suit, would come in as a radio commentator and make the formal and determined announcement, "And now for something completely different."
The Python theme music is The Liberty Bell, a march by John Philip Sousa, which was chosen, among other reasons, because the recording was in the public domain.
The use of Gilliam's surreal, collage stop motion animations was another innovative intertextual element of the Python style. Many of the images Gilliam used were lifted from famous works of art, and from Victorian illustrations and engravings. The giant foot which crushes the show's title at the end of the opening credits is in fact the foot of Cupid, cut from a reproduction of the Renaissance masterpiece Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time by Bronzino. This foot, and Gilliam's style in general, are visual trademarks of the series.
The Pythons used the British tradition of cross-dressing comedy by donning frocks and makeup and playing female roles themselves while speaking in falsetto. Generally speaking, female roles were played by women only when the scene specifically required that the character be sexually attractive (although sometimes they used Idle for this). The troupe later turned to Carol Cleveland, who co-starred in numerous episodes after 1970. In some episodes and later in Monty Python's Life of Brian they took the idea one step further by playing women who impersonated men (in the stoning scene).
Many sketches are well-known and widely quoted. " Dead Parrot", " The Lumberjack Song", " Spam", " Nudge Nudge", " The Spanish Inquisition", " Upper Class Twit of the Year", " Cheese Shop" and " The Ministry of Silly Walks" are just a few examples.
Introduction to North America
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) added Monty Python’s Flying Circus to its national September 1970 fall lineup. They aired the 13 episodes of Series 1, which had first run on the BBC the previous fall ( October 1969 to January 1970), as well as the first 6 episodes of Series 2 only a few weeks after they first appeared on the BBC ( September to November 1970). The CBC dropped the show when it returned to regular programming after the Christmas 1970 break, choosing to not place the remaining 7 episodes of series 2 on the January 1971 CBC schedule. Within a week the CBC received hundreds of calls complaining of the cancellation, and more than 100 people staged a demonstration at the CBC’s Montreal studios.
Time-Life Films had the right to distribute all BBC-TV programs in the United States, however they had decided that British comedy simply would not work in America. Therefore, it was not worth the investment to convert the Python episodes from the European PAL standard to the American NTSC standard.
Sketches from Monty Python’s Flying Circus were introduced to American audiences in August 1972, with the release of the Python movie And Now for Something Completely Different, featuring sketches from series 1 and 2 of the television show. This 1972 release met limited box office success.
In the summer of 1974 Ron Devillier, the program director for non-profit PBS television station KERA in Dallas, Texas, started airing episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Ratings shot through the roof, providing an encouraging sign to the other 100 PBS stations that had signed up to begin airing the show in October 1974—exactly 5 years after their BBC debut. There was also cross-promotion from FM radio stations across the country, whose airing of tracks from the Python LPs had already introduced American audiences to this bizarre brand of comedy. The popularity on PBS resulted in the 1974 re-release of the 1972 ...Completely Different movie, with much greater box office success.
The ability to show Monty Python’s Flying Circus under the American NTSC standard had been made possible by the commercial actions of American television producer Greg Garrison. Garrison produced the NBC series The Dean Martin Comedy World, which ran during the summer of 1974. The concept was to show clips from comedy shows produced in other countries, including tape of the Python sketches "Bicycle Repairman" and "The Dull Life of a Stockbroker". Payment for use of these two sketches was enough to allow Time-Life Films to convert the entire Python library to NTSC standard, allowing for the sale to the PBS network stations who then brought the entire show to US audiences.
In 1975 the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) broadcast two ninety-minute Monty Python specials, each with three shows, but cut out a total of 24 minutes from each in part to make time for commercial, in part to avoid upsetting their audience. As the judge observed in Gilliam v. American Broadcasting, where Monty Python sued for damages caused by broadcast of the mutilated version, "According to the network, appellants should have anticipated that most of the excised material contained scatological references inappropriate for American television and that these scenes would be replaced with commercials, which presumably are more palatable to the American public." Monty Python won the case.
With the popularity of Python throughout the rest of the 1970s and through most of the 1980s, PBS stations looked at other British comedies, leading to UK shows such as Are You Being Served? gaining a US audience, and leading, over time, to many PBS stations having a "British Comedy Night" which airs many popular UK comedies.
Cleese Departs; The Circus Closes
Having considered the possibility at the end of the second series, Cleese left the Flying Circus at the end of the third. He later explained that he felt he no longer had anything fresh to offer the show, and claimed that only two Cleese-and-Chapman-penned sketches in the third series ("Dennis Moore" and the "Cheese Shop") were truly original, and that the others were bits and pieces from previous work cobbled together in slightly different contexts. He was also finding Chapman, who was at that point in the full throes of alcoholism, difficult to work with. According to an interview with Idle, "It was on an Air Canada flight on the way to Toronto, when John (Cleese) turned to all of us and said 'I want out.' Why? I don't know. He gets bored more easily than the rest of us. He's a difficult man, not easy to be friendly with. He's so funny because he never wanted to be liked. That gives him a certain fascinating, arrogant freedom."
The rest of the group carried on for one more "half" series before calling a halt to the programme in 1974. The name Monty Python's Flying Circus appears in the opening animation for series four, but in the end credits the show is listed as simply "Monty Python". Although Cleese left the show, he was credited as a writer for three of the six episodes, largely concentrated in the "Michael Ellis" episode, which had begun life as one of the many drafts of the "Holy Grail" motion picture. When a new direction for "Grail" was decided upon, the subplot of Arthur and his knights wandering around a strange department store in modern times was lifted out and recycled as the aforementioned TV episode.
While the first three series contained 13 episodes each, the fourth ended after just six. Extremely keen to keep the now massively popular show going, the BBC had offered the troupe a full 13 episodes, but the truncated troupe (now under the unspoken 'leadership' of Terry Jones) had come to a common agreement while writing the fourth season that there was only enough material, and more importantly only enough enthusiasm, to shoot the six that were made.
Life after the Flying Circus
And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)
The Pythons' first feature film was directed by Ian MacNaughton, reprising his role from the television series. It was composed of sketches from the first two seasons of the Flying Circus, reshot on a low budget (and often slightly edited) for cinema release. Material selected for the film includes: " Dead Parrot", " The Lumberjack Song", " Upper Class Twit of the Year", "Hell's Grannies", "Self-Defence Class", " How Not To Be Seen" and " Nudge Nudge". Financed by Playboy's UK executive Victor Lownes, it was intended as a way of breaking Monty Python into America, and although it was ultimately unsuccessful in this, the film did good business in the UK, this being in the era before home video would make the original material much more accessible. The group did not consider the film a success.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
In 1974, between production on the third and fourth seasons, the group decided to embark on their first "proper" feature film, containing entirely new material. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was based on Arthurian Legend and was directed by Jones and Gilliam. Again, the latter also contributed linking animations (and put together the opening credits). Along with the rest of the Pythons, Jones and Gilliam performed several roles in the film, but it was Chapman who took the lead as King Arthur. Cleese returned to the group for the film, feeling that the group were once again breaking new ground. Holy Grail was filmed on location, in picturesque rural areas of Scotland, with a budget of only £229,000; the money was raised in part with investments from rock groups such as Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin—and UK music industry entrepreneur Tony Stratton-Smith (founder and owner of the Charisma Records label, for which the Pythons recorded their comedy albums).
The backers of the film wanted to cut the famous Black Knight scene (in which the Black Knight loses his limbs in a duel) but it was eventually kept in the movie.
Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
Following the success of Holy Grail, reporters asked for the title of the next Python film, despite the fact that the team had not even begun to consider a third one. Eventually, Idle flippantly replied "Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory", which became the group's stock answer once they realised that it shut reporters up. However, they soon began to seriously consider a film lampooning the New Testament era in the same way Holy Grail had lampooned Arthurian legend. Despite them all sharing a distrust of organised religion, they agreed not to mock Jesus nor his teachings directly. They also mentioned that they couldn't think of anything legitimate to make fun of about him. Instead, they decided to write a satire on credulity and hypocrisy among the followers of someone who had been mistaken for the "Messiah," but who had no desire to be followed as such. Chapman was cast in the lead role of Brian.
The focus therefore shifted to a separate individual born at the same time, in a neighbouring stable. When Jesus appears in the film (first, as a baby in the stable, and then later on the Mount, speaking the Beatitudes), he is played straight (by actor Kenneth Colley) and portrayed with respect. The comedy begins when members of the crowd mishear his statements of peace, love and tolerance. ("I think he said, 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.'")
Directing duties were handled solely by Jones, having amicably agreed with Gilliam that Jones' approach to film-making was better suited for Python's general performing style. Holy Grail's production had often been stilted by their differences behind the camera. Gilliam again contributed two animated sequences (one being the opening credits) and took charge of set design. The film was shot on location in Tunisia, the finances being provided this time by former Beatle George Harrison, who together with Denis O'Brien formed the production company Hand-Made Films for the movie. He had a cameo role as the 'owner of the Mount.'
Despite its subject matter attracting controversy, particularly upon its initial release, it has (together with its predecessor) been ranked among the greatest comedy films. A Channel 4 poll in 2005 ranked Holy Grail in sixth place, with Life of Brian at the top.
Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)
Filmed at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles during preparations for The Meaning of Life, this was a concert film (directed by Terry Hughes) in which the Pythons performed sketches from the television series in front of an audience. The released film also incorporated footage from the German television specials (the inclusion of which gives Ian MacNaughton his first on-screen credit for Python since the end of Flying Circus) and live performances of several songs from the troupe's then-current Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album.
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)
Python's final film returned to something structurally closer to the style of Flying Circus. A series of sketches loosely follows the ages of man from birth to death. Directed again by Jones solo, The Meaning of Life is embellished with some of Python's most bizarre and disturbing moments, as well as various elaborate musical numbers. The film is by far their darkest work, containing a great deal of black humour, garnished by some spectacular violence (including an operation to remove a liver from a living patient without anaesthetic and the morbidly obese Mr. Creosote exploding over several restaurant patrons). At the time of its release, the Pythons confessed their aim was to offend "absolutely everyone."
Besides the opening credits and the fish sequence, Gilliam, by now an established live action director, no longer wanted to produce any linking cartoons, offering instead to direct one sketch— The Crimson Permanent Assurance. Under his helm, though, the segment grew so ambitious and tangential that it was cut from the movie and used as a supporting feature in its own right. (Television screenings also use it as a prologue.) Crucially, this was the last project that all six Pythons would collaborate on, except for the 1989 compilation Parrot Sketch Not Included, where they are all seen sitting in a closet for four seconds. This was the last time Chapman appeared on screen with the Pythons.
Secret Policeman's Ball benefit shows
Members of Python contributed their services to charitable endeavours and causes—sometimes as an ensemble, at other times as individuals. The cause that has been the most frequent and consistent beneficiary has been the human rights work of Amnesty International. Between 1976 and 1981, the troupe or its members appeared in four major fund-raisers for Amnesty—known collectively as the Secret Policeman's Ball shows—which were turned into multiple films, TV shows, videos, record albums and books. These benefit shows and their many spin-offs raised considerable sums of money for Amnesty, raised public and media awareness of the human rights cause and influenced many other members of the entertainment community (especially rock musicians) to become involved in political and social issues. Among the many musicians who have publicly attributed their activism—and the organisation of their own benefit events—to the inspiration of the work in this field of Monty Python are U2, Bob Geldof, Pete Townshend and Sting. The shows are credited by Amnesty with helping the organisation develop public awareness in the US where one of the spin-off films was a major success.
Cleese and Jones had an involvement (as performer, writer or director) in all four Amnesty benefit shows, Palin in three, Chapman in two and Gilliam in one. Idle did not participate in the Amnesty shows. Notwithstanding Idle's lack of participation, the other five members (together with "Associate Pythons" Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes) all appeared together in the first Secret Policeman's Ball benefit—the 1976 A Poke In The Eye (With A Sharp Stick)—where they performed several Python sketches. In this first show they were collectively billed as Monty Python. ( Peter Cook deputised for the errant Idle in one major sketch The Courtroom.) In the next three shows, the participating Python members performed many Python sketches, but were billed under their individual names rather than under the collective Python banner. After a six-year break, Amnesty resumed producing Secret Policeman's Ball benefit shows in 1987 (sometimes with, and sometimes without variants of the iconic title) and by 2006 had presented a total of twelve such shows. The shows since 1987 have featured newer generations of British comedic performers, including many who have attributed their participation in the show to their desire to emulate the Python's pioneering work for Amnesty. (Cleese and Palin made a brief cameo appearance in the 1989 Amnesty show; apart from that the Pythons have not appeared in shows after the first four.)
Each member has pursued various film, television and stage projects since the break-up of the group, but often continued to work with one another. Many of these collaborations were very successful, most notably A Fish Called Wanda (1988), written by Cleese, in which he starred along with Palin. The pair also appeared in Time Bandits (1981), a film directed by Gilliam, who wrote it together with Palin. Gilliam directed Jabberwocky (1977), and also directed and co-wrote Brazil (1985), which featured Palin, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), which featured Idle. Yellowbeard (1983) was co-written by Chapman and featured Chapman, Idle, and Cleese alongside many of their English contemporaries, including Peter Cook, Spike Milligan and Marty Feldman.
Palin and Jones wrote the comedic TV series Ripping Yarns (1976–79), starring Palin. Jones also appeared in the pilot episode and Cleese appeared in a non-speaking part in the episode "Golden Gordon". Jones' film Erik the Viking, also has Cleese playing a small part.
In 1996, Terry Jones wrote and directed an adaption of Kenneth Grahame's novel The Wind in the Willows. It featured four members of Monty Python: Jones as Mr. Toad, Idle as Ratty, Cleese as Mr. Toad's lawyer, and Palin as the Sun. Gilliam was considered for the voice of the river.
In terms of numbers of productions, Cleese has the most prolific solo career, having appeared in 59 theatrical films, 22 TV shows or series (including Cheers, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Q's assistant in the James Bond movies, and Will & Grace), 23 direct-to-video productions, six video games, and a number of commercials. His BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers (written by and starring Cleese together with his then-wife Connie Booth), is considered the greatest solo work by a Python since the sketch show finished. It is the only comedy series to rank higher than the Flying Circus on the BFI TV 100's list, topping the whole poll.
Idle enjoyed critical success with Rutland Weekend Television in the mid-1970s, out of which came the Beatles parody The Rutles (responsible for the cult mockumentary All You Need Is Cash), and as an actor in Nuns on the Run (1990) with Robbie Coltrane. Idle has had success with Python songs: " Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" went to no. 3 in the UK singles chart in 1991. The song had been revived by Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 1, and was consequently released as a single that year. The theatrical phenomenon of the Python musical Spamalot has made Idle the most financially successful of the troupe post-Python. Written by Idle, it has proved an enormous hit on Broadway, London's West End and also Las Vegas. This was followed by Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy), which repurposes The Life of Brian as an oratorio. For the work's 2007 premiere at the Luminato festival in Toronto (which commissioned the work), Idle himself sang the "baritone-ish" part.
Since The Meaning of Life, their last project as a team, the Pythons have often been the subject of reunion rumours. The final reunion of all six members occurred during the Parrot Sketch Not Included – 20 Years of Monty Python special. The death of Chapman in 1989 (on the eve of their 20th anniversary) put an end to the speculation of any further reunions. There have been several occasions since 1989 when the surviving five members have gathered together for appearances—albeit not formal reunions.
In 1996, Jones, Idle, Cleese and Palin were featured in a film adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, which was later renamed Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
In 1998 during the US Comedy Arts Festival, where the troupe was awarded the AFI Star Award by the American Film Institute, the five remaining members along with what was purported to be Chapman's ashes, were reunited on stage for the first time in 18 years. The occasion was in the form of an interview called Monty Python Live At Aspen, (hosted by Robert Klein, with an appearance by Eddie Izzard) in which the team looked back at some of their work and performed a few new sketches.
On 9 October 1999, to commemorate 30 years since the first Flying Circus television broadcast, BBC2 devoted an evening to Python programmes, including a documentary charting the history of the team, interspersed with new sketches by the Monty Python team filmed especially for the event. The program appears, with a few omissions, on the DVD The Life of Python. Idle's involvement in the special is limited, yet the final sketch marks the only time since 1989 that all surviving members of the troupe appear in one sketch, albeit not in the same room.
In 2002, four of the surviving members, bar Cleese, performed " The Lumberjack Song" and " Sit on My Face" for George Harrison's memorial concert. The reunion also included regular supporting contributors Neil Innes and Carol Cleveland, with a special appearance from Tom Hanks.
In an interview to publicise the DVD release of The Meaning of Life, Cleese said a further reunion was unlikely. "It is absolutely impossible to get even a majority of us together in a room, and I'm not joking," Cleese said. He said that the problem was one of business rather than one of bad feelings. A sketch appears on the same DVD spoofing the impossibility of a full reunion, bringing the members “together” in a deliberately unconvincing fashion with modern bluescreen/greenscreen techniques.
Idle has responded to queries about a Python reunion by adapting a line used by George Harrison in response to queries about a possible Beatles reunion. When asked in November 1989 about such a possibility, Harrison responded: "As far as I'm concerned, there won't be a Beatles reunion as long as John Lennon remains dead." Idle's version of this was that he expected to see a proper Python reunion, "just as soon as Graham Chapman comes back from the dead", but added, "we're talking to his agent about terms."
2003's The Pythons Autobiography By The Pythons, compiled from interviews with the surviving members, reveals that a series of disputes in 1998, over a possible sequel to Holy Grail that had been conceived by Idle, may have resulted in the group's permanent split. Cleese's feeling was that The Meaning of Life had been personally difficult and ultimately mediocre, and did not wish to be involved in another Python project for a variety of reasons (not least amongst them was the absence of Chapman, whose straight-man-like central roles in the Grail and Brian films had been considered to be an essential anchoring performance). Apparently Idle was angry with Cleese for refusing to do the film, which most of the remaining Pythons thought reasonably promising (the basic plot would have taken on a self-referential tone, featuring them in their main 'knight' guises from Holy Grail, mulling over the possibilities of reforming their posse). The book also reveals that a secondary option around this point was the possibility of revitalising the Python brand with a new stage tour, perhaps with the promise of new material. This idea had also met with Cleese's refusal, this time with the backing of other members.
March 2005 saw a full, if non-performing, reunion of the surviving cast members at the premiere of Idle's musical Spamalot, based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It opened in Chicago and has since played in New York on Broadway, London and numerous other major cities across the world. In 2004, it was nominated for 14 Tony Awards and won three: Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical for Mike Nichols and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for Sara Ramirez, who played the Lady of the Lake, a character specially added for the musical. Cleese played the voice of God, played in the film by Chapman.
Owing in part to the success of Spamalot, PBS announced on 13 July 2005 that it would begin to re-air the entire run of Monty Python's Flying Circus and new one-hour specials focusing on each member of the group, called Monty Python's Personal Best. Each episode was written and produced by the individual being honoured, with the five remaining Pythons collaborating on Chapman's programme, the only one of the editions to take on a serious tone with its new material.
Eric Idle and John Cleese appeared on stage at the end of We Are Most Amused, Prince Charles 60th Birthday Show. Idle sang " Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" with the rest of the performers, including Cleese, for the climax. Idle added a couplet dedicated to the Prince of Wales:
"If Spamalot is hot
And you like it, or per'aps not.
A bunch of knights in search of Holy Grails.
When you're 60 years of age
And your mum won't leave the stage,
It's good to know that you're still Prince of Wales"
In 2009, to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the first episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, a six-part documentary entitled Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut) was released, featuring interviews with the surviving members of the team as well as archive interviews with Graham Chapman and numerous excerpts from the television series and films.
Also in commemoration of the 40th anniversary, Idle, Palin, Jones and Gilliam appeared in a production of Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy) at the Royal Albert Hall. The European premiere was held on 23 October 2009. An official 40th anniversary Monty Python reunion event took place in New York City on 15 October 2009 where the team received a Special Award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
In June 2011, it was announced that A Liar's Autobiography, an animated 3D movie based on the memoir of the late Python member, Graham Chapman, was in the making. The book A Liar’s Autobiography was published in 1980 and details Chapman's journey through medical school, alcoholism, acknowledgement of his gay identity and the tolls of surreal comedy. Asked what was true in a deliberately fanciful account by Chapman of his life, Terry Jones joked: "Nothing . . . it’s all a downright, absolute, blackguardly lie."
The film uses Chapman's own voice - from a reading of his autobiography shortly before he died of cancer - and entertainment channel EPIX announced that the film will be released in early 2012 in both 2D and 3D formats. Produced and directed by London-based Bill Jones, Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson, the new film has 15 animation companies working on chapters that will range from three to 12 minutes in length, each in a different style.
John Cleese recorded dialogue which was matched with Chapman’s voice. Michael Palin voiced Chapman’s father and Terry Jones voiced his mother. Terry Gilliam voiced Graham's psychiatrist. They all play various other roles. Among the original Python group, only Eric Idle was not involved.
On 26 January 2012, Terry Jones announced that the five surviving Pythons would reunite in a sci-fi comedy film called Absolutely Anything. The film would combine CGI and live action It would be directed by Jones based on a script by Jones and Gavin Scott. The plot revolves around a teacher who discovers aliens (voiced by the Pythons) have given him magical powers to do "absolutely anything". Other actors attached to the project include Robin Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch and Gemma Arterton.
Graham Chapman was originally a medical student, joining the Footlights at Cambridge. He completed his medical training and was legally entitled to practice as a doctor. Chapman is best remembered for the lead roles in Holy Grail, as King Arthur, and Life of Brian, as Brian Cohen. He died of spinal and throat cancer on 4 October 1989. At Chapman's memorial service, Cleese delivered an irreverent eulogy that included all the euphemisms for being dead from the Dead Parrot sketch, which they had written. Chapman's comedic fictional memoir, A Liar's Autobiography was adapted into an animated 3D movie in 2012.
John Cleese is the oldest Python. He met his future Python writing partner, Graham Chapman, in Cambridge.
Terry Gilliam, an American, was the only member of the troupe of non-British origin. He started off as an animator and strip cartoonist for Harvey Kurtzman's Help! magazine, one issue of which featured Cleese. Moving from the USA to England, he animated features for Do Not Adjust Your Set and was then asked by its makers to join them on their next project: Monty Python's Flying Circus. He co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail and directed short segments of other Python films (for instance " The Crimson Permanent Assurance", the short film that appears before The Meaning of Life).
When Monty Python was first formed, two writing partnerships were already in place: Cleese and Chapman, Jones and Palin. That left two in their own corners: Gilliam, operating solo due to the nature of his work, and Eric Idle. Regular themes in his contributions were elaborate wordplay and musical numbers. After Flying Circus, he hosted Saturday Night Live four times in the first five seasons. Idle's initially successful solo career faltered in the 1990s with the failures of his 1993 film Splitting Heirs (written, produced by and starring him) and 1998's An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (in which he starred), which was awarded five Razzies, including 'Worst Picture of the Year'. He revived his career by returning to the source of his worldwide fame, adapting Monty Python material for other media. He also wrote the Broadway musical Spamalot, based on the Holy Grail movie. He also wrote Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy), an oratorio derived from the Life of Brian.
Terry Jones has been described by other members of the team as the “heart” of the operation. Jones had a lead role in maintaining the group's unity and creative independence. Python biographer George Perry has commented that should you "speak to him on subjects as diverse as fossil fuels, or Rupert Bear, or mercenaries in the Middle Ages or Modern China... in a moment you will find yourself hopelessly out of your depth, floored by his knowledge." Many others agree that Jones is characterised by his irrepressible, good-natured enthusiasm. However, Jones' passion often led to prolonged arguments with other group members—in particular Cleese—with Jones often unwilling to back down. Since his major contributions were largely behind the scenes (direction, writing), and he often deferred to the other members of the group as an actor, Jones' importance to Python was often underrated. However, he does have the legacy of delivering possibly the most famous line in all of Python, as Brian's mother Mandy in Life of Brian, "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!", a line voted the funniest in film history on two occasions.
Michael Palin attended Oxford, where he met his Python writing partner Jones. The two also wrote the series Ripping Yarns together. Palin and Jones originally wrote face-to-face, but soon found it was more productive to write apart and then come together to review what the other had written. Therefore, Jones and Palin's sketches tended to be more focused than that of the others, taking one bizarre situation, sticking to it, and building on it. After Flying Circus, he hosted Saturday Night Live four times in the first ten seasons. His comedy output began to decrease in amount following the increasing success of his travel documentaries for the BBC. Palin released a book of diaries from the Python years entitled Michael Palin Diaries 1969–1979, published in 2007.
Several people have been accorded unofficial "Associate Python" status over the years. Occasionally such people have been referred to as the 7th Python, in a style reminiscent of George Martin (or other associates of The Beatles) being dubbed "the Fifth Beatle." The two collaborators with the most meaningful and plentiful contributions have been Neil Innes and Carol Cleveland. Both were present and presented as Associate Pythons at the official Monty Python 25th anniversary celebrations held in Los Angeles in July 1994.
Neil Innes is the only non-Python besides Douglas Adams to be credited with writing material for the Flying Circus. He appeared in sketches and the Python films, as well as performing some of his songs in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. He was also a regular stand-in for absent team members on the rare occasions when they re-created sketches. For example, he took the place of Cleese at the Concert for George. Gilliam once noted that if anyone qualified for the title of the "Seventh Python," it would certainly be Innes. He was one of the creative talents in the off-beat Bonzo Dog Band. He would later portray Ron Nasty of the Rutles and write all of the Rutles' compositions for All You Need is Cash (1978). By 2005, a falling out had occurred between Idle and Innes over additional Rutles projects, the results being Innes' critically acclaimed Rutles "reunion" album The Rutles: Archaeology and Idle's straight-to-DVD The Rutles 2: Can't Buy Me Lunch, each undertaken without the other's participation. According to an interview with Idle in the Chicago Tribune in May 2005, his attitude is that he and Innes go back "too far. And no further." Innes has remained silent on the dispute.
Carol Cleveland was the most important female performer in the Monty Python ensemble, commonly referred to as the "Python Girl." Originally hired by producer/director John Howard Davies for just the first five episodes of the Flying Circus, she went on to appear in approximately two-thirds of the episodes as well as in all of the Python films, and in most of their stage shows as well.
Cleese's first wife Connie Booth appeared in, amongst others "The Lumberjack Song" and as the "witch" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Cleese and Booth later co-wrote and co-starred in Fawlty Towers.
Douglas Adams was "discovered" by Chapman when a version of the Footlights Revue (a 1974 BBC2 television show featuring some of Adams' early work) was performed live in London's West End. In Cleese's absence from the final TV series, the two formed a brief writing partnership, with Adams earning a writing credit in one episode for a sketch called " Patient Abuse". In the sketch, a man who had been stabbed by a nurse arrives at his doctor's office bleeding profusely from the stomach, when the doctor makes him fill out numerous senseless forms before he can administer treatment. He also had two cameo appearances in this season. Firstly, in the episode The Light Entertainment War, Adams shows up in a surgeon's mask (as Dr. Emile Koning, according to the on-screen captions), pulling on gloves, while Palin narrates a sketch that introduces one person after another, and never actually gets started. Secondly, at the beginning of Mr. Neutron, Adams is dressed in a "pepperpot" outfit and loads a missile onto a cart being driven by Terry Jones, who is calling out for scrap metal ("Any old iron..."). Adams and Chapman also subsequently attempted a few non-Python projects, including Out of the Trees. He also contributed to a sketch on the soundtrack album for Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, a devoted fan of the group, has occasionally stood in for absent members. When the BBC held a "Python Night" in 1999 to celebrate 30 years of the first broadcast of Flying Circus, the Pythons recorded some new material with Izzard standing in for Idle, who had declined to partake in person (he taped a solo contribution from the US). Izzard hosted a history of the group entitled The Life of Python (1999) that was part of the Python Night and appeared with them at a festival/tribute in Aspen, Colorado, in 1998 (released on DVD as Live at Aspen).
By the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Monty Python in 1994, the point was already being made that "the five surviving members had with the passing years begun to occupy an institutional position in the edifice of British social culture that they had once had so much fun trying to demolish". A similar point is made in a 2006 book on the relationship between Monty and philosophy: "It is remarkable, after all, not only that the utterly bizarre Monty Python's Flying Circus was sponsored by the BBC in the first place, but that Monty Python itself grew into an institution of enormous cultural influence" Matt Groening, creator and co-developer of the animated sitcom The Simpsons, names Monty Python as an influence and pays tribute through a couch gag used in seasons five and six.
The asteroid 13681 Monty Python is named after the group/show.
In 2010, the commercial space company SpaceX, launched a wheel of cheese into low earth orbit and returned it safely to the earth. Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, claimed this was done as a tribute to Monty Python.
On St George's Day, 23 April 2007, the cast and creators of Spamalot gathered in Trafalgar Square under the tutelage of the two Terrys (Jones and Gilliam) to set a new record for the world's largest coconut orchestra. They led 5,567 people "clip-clopping" in time to the Python classic "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life" for the Guinness World Records attempt.
Amongst the more visible cultural influences of Monty Python is the inclusion of terms either directly from, or derived from, Monty Python, into the lexicon of the English language. The most obvious of these is the term 'pythonesque', which has become a byword in surreal humour, and is included in standard dictionaries. Terry Jones commented on his disappointment at the existence of such a term, claiming the initial aim of Monty Python was to create something new and impossible to categorize and that "the fact that Pythonesque is now a word in the Oxford English Dictionary shows the extent to which we failed".
The term has been applied to animations similar to those constructed by Gilliam (e.g. the cut-out style of South Park, whose creators have often acknowledged a debt to Python, including contributing material to the aforementioned 30th anniversary theme night).
Good Eats creator Alton Brown cited Python as one of the influences that shaped how he created the series, as well as how he authors the script for each episode. Recent episodes even include Gilliam-style animations to illustrate key points.
Things named after Monty Python
Beyond a dictionary definition, Python terms have entered the lexicon in other ways.
- The Python programming language by Guido van Rossum is named after the troupe, and Monty Python references are often found in sample code created for that language. Additionally, a 2001 April Fool's Day joke by van Rossum and Larry Wall involving the merger of Python with Perl was dubbed "Parrot" after the Dead Parrot Sketch. The name "Parrot" was later used for a project to develop a virtual machine for running bytecode for interpreted languages such as Perl and Python. Its package index is also known as the "Cheese Shop" after the sketch of the same name. There is also a python refactoring tool called bicyclerepair named after Bicycle Repair Man sketch.
- In 1985, a fossil of a previously unknown species of gigantic prehistoric snake from the Miocene was discovered in Riversleigh, Queensland, Australia. The Australian palaeontologist who discovered the fossil snake was a Monty Python fan, and he gave the snake the taxonomic name of Montypythonoides riversleighensis in honour of the Monty Python team. (Transliterated from Greek Μοντυπυθωνοειδής back to English, Montypythonoides means "like Monty Python".)
- In 2006, Ben & Jerry's, known for their "celebrity flavours", introduced to the lineup "Vermonty Python", a coffee liqueur ice cream with a chocolate cookie crumb swirl and fudge cows. The name "Minty Python" had been suggested before in 1996 in a contest to select the quintessential British ice cream flavor.
- In 1999, Black Sheep Brewery released an ale named "Monty Python's Holy
- The band Toad the Wet Sprocket drew its name from the Eric Idle monologue "Rock Notes" on Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album from 1980.
- The band Boxhamsters, which is the German translation of Brook-Hamster, the winner of the Upper Class Twit of the Year.
- A philosophy lecture series entitled Themes in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy as Reflected in the Work of Monty Python.
- The term " spam" in reference to bulk, unsolicited email is derived from the programme's 1970 "Spam" sketch.
- In the book The Reptile Room by " Lemony Snicket", the character Uncle Monty was named after Monty Python, in a joke referring to his obsession with snakes.
- Seven asteroids are named after Monty Python: 9617 Grahamchapman, 9618 Johncleese, 9619 Terrygilliam, 9620 Ericidle, 9621 Michaelpalin, 9622 Terryjones, and 13681 Monty Python.
- The endangered Bemaraha woolly lemur (Avahi cleesei) is named after John Cleese.
- Dead Parrot Society is the title of a comedy CD released in 1993 featuring sketches from Monty Python's Flying Circus as well as Graham Chapman, Peter Cook, John Cleese, Dudley Moore, and The Portsmouth Sinfonia The title is also a play on the 1989 film Dead Poets Society.