Now For Something Completely Different: The Pythons Brought It 50 Years Ago This Month
“Do you realize,” John Cleese once said to Michael Palin, “we could be the first people in history to do a whole comedy show to complete silence?” Palin responded, “I was thinking exactly the same thing.”
The two were about to start filming, before a live audience, the first episode of 1969’s new BBC series ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’.
The name was non-sensical. The show was more so. It was, from top to bottom, a logical but absurd extension of the off-the-wall comedy exemplified in then-recent years by the likes of ‘The Goon Show’, ‘Beyond The Fringe’ and a couple of others. The Pythons, students all of all those shows, essentially threw all their models out the window and started from scratch.
The skits they created, some a few minutes long, others much longer (and a few, such as ‘The Department of Silly Walks’, serialized over their four-year run), flitted, as it were, from a brain storm through a thunder event and on to a hurricane. They were mad and fast-paced as The Marx Brothers and as well-crafted as any comedy performers ever. Their collective name, Monty Python, “doesn’t mean anything,” Mentalfloss says — but its origins does exemplify how the troupe came to quickly spell ‘trouble’ for comedians unprepared to acknowledge that the late ’60s audience was seriously unlike the generation that preceded it, or any other.
Metalfloss explains how the name came to be:
Numerous non-sequitur names were considered before that, including “Owl Stretching Time,” “The Toad Elevating Moment,” “A Horse, a Spoon, and a Basin,” and “Bumwacket, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot.” “Flying Circus” only stuck because the BBC informed the group they had printed their programming schedules with the name already and it couldn’t be changed. When they wanted a name to go before that, John Cleese suggested something slithery like “Python,” while Eric Idle came up with the name “Monty” to suggest a sort of drunken British stereotype.
Preceding Cleese and Palin on stage for that first taping were Terry Jones and Graham Chapman, another two of the five Pythons. As he watched them, Cleese talk show host Michael Parkinson in 2001, “Ever so slowly, people started to giggle. I turned to Michael and said, ‘Maybe we’re all right’.”
‘All right’ hardly begins to describe it: Fifth years on — the first of their four BBC series (45 episodes in all) launched fifty years ago this month — the impact the Pythons had and still have on comedy exceeded the players’, and the BBC’s, wildest dreams. Soon after they almost-instantly took Britain by storm, the Pythons and their antic humor reigned as must-see comedy around the world.
And that was just the beginning: Beyond earning top-billing at live performances globally; the troupe made movies (Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life); saw a key word (spam) in one of their skits become the descriptor of junk mail, and the individual characters became, and remain to this day, much in demand on college campuses, TV talk shows, and elsewhere.
Michael Parkinson, whose long-time talk show was very popular on British television, asked John Cleese in 2001, “Did you have any idea when you started out that you were going to change comedy?”
“Noooo!” Cleese responded. “We knew we wanted to do something different.”
And boy, did they! Employing ‘imitation’ (often falsetto) voices, strange body language (long-legged Cleese is particularly good at that), and amazing graphics produced by Terry Gilliam, also a performing Python, they left viewers clutching their funny bones from early to beyond each 25–30 minute TV episode.
Even today, overhearing the first notes of the Pythons’ intro music — John Phillip Sousa’s ‘Liberty Bell March’ — sets Python fans’ feet a’thumpin’ and hearts a’flutterin’ in anticipation of some amazing, off-the-wall, beyond-reason comedy.