The silly sketches, like the goofy name, came out of nowhere. There was the bookseller who insists his book-lined store has no books; the restaurant that serves mostly Spam to a chorus of Viking customers; the transvestite lumberjack; the pet-shop owner who passes off a dead parrot as "resting"; and a double-visioned explorer bent on climbing a twin-peaked mountain.
Vision wasn't a problem for the six young men in bowler hats and bras who called themselves Monty Python's Flying Circus—a nonsensical name that conveyed the group's anarchic spirit. When their television series made its debut in 1969, it signaled a new era for the BBC, which until then had generally aired shows with names that meant a great deal.
But the "Beeb" was merely a beachhead for Monty Python. The troupe went on to conquer America, where they inspired Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels and a host of irreverent young comics. The Pythons also made several movies including one banned in parts of Britain (Monty Python's Life of Brian, a satire about Christ) and one feted in France (Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, which won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes). Over the years, they released record albums and books, including a new "autobiography" published last fall (St. Martin's Press).
Python-mania shows little sign of flagging. Fans today scoop up the 14-disc boxed DVD set (containing all 45 original shows) and play Python video games on CD-ROM. Thanks to reruns on MTV, a whole new generation of followers are singing "The Lumberjack Song" and perhaps learning to like Spam. Meanwhile, a Broadway version of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail has been announced for next year, to be directed by Mike Nichols.
How to explain such devotion to a late-night BBC TV show whose last episode was filmed three decades ago? Ron Simon, a curator at New York's Museum of Television and Radio, compares Monty Python to another British phenomenon of the same era. "The Pythons revolutionized comedy in the same way the Beatles revolutionized music," he says. "Both groups were very adventurous, but there was always a sense of playfulness."
With one essential difference: the Pythons were college boys, which distinguished them not only from the Beatles but also from the long comic tradition of streetwise tummlers who rose up from vaudeville and nightclubs. John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle attended Cambridge University, where they performed in revues with the Cambridge Footlights, a school institution. Terry Jones and Michael Palin were buddies at Oxford, where they also acted in school productions. Terry Gilliam, the sole American in the Python troupe, went to Occidental College in California. None entered school with a showbiz career in mind, but by the mid-1960s all were in London working at various jobs in television.
It was an exciting place to be, says TV historian Simon. "The BBC had always seen its mission as bringing culture to the masses, but the new generation wanted to use TV to create a new culture. You had TV writers like Dennis Potter, who was exploding all the rules of playwriting."
One of the bright lights at the BBC in those days was David Frost, who was producing a comedy sketch series called The Frost Report. Among the writers were Cleese (who also performed on the show), Chapman, Jones, Palin and Idle—the entire Python team except Gilliam. Working together got the future Pythons thinking about a show of their own—a notion supported by Barry Took, a comedy producer who championed the idea with BBC brass. Took also thought of hiring Gilliam to create animation links.
The concept didn't exactly fly off the shelf. "The BBC hierarchy basically hated the show and didn't want to do it," recalls Terry Jones, now the host of "Terry Jones' Medieval Lives" on the History Channel. "But the good thing about the BBC back then was you didn't have one person controlling all the programs. So it would do things that the producers wanted, even if it didn't like them."
The first show aired to little fanfare. "The BBC had recruited an audience of old-age pensioners," says Jones, "and they really didn't know what was going on." One sketch featured an Englishman attempting to teach conversational Italian to a class of Italian natives. Another related the story of a joke so funny that listeners literally die laughing. The routines had no clear beginning or end, although the entire half-hour was tied together by a strangely porcine theme; a pig would be shot at the end of one sketch, then reappear in a Gilliam animation sequence, and so on. "It was like a collage," says Simon. "They would put up different segments and see what happened when they collided with each other. It was very much a part of the art world, but it was a whole different way of doing TV."
It took several more episodes before British critics felt able to respond with any opinions at all—most of them favorable. Sly one moment, infantile the next and outrageous through and through, the show was growing on audiences too. The cast members gained fame for their characters—Chapman as the bluff army colonel who interrupts sketches for being too "silly"; Idle as the inane TV commentator; Palin as the hermit who introduces each episode by uttering "It's..."; Jones as the nude organist; and Cleese as the tuxedo-clad announcer who intones "And now for something completely different." The show's upbeat theme song, John Philip Sousa's "Liberty Bell March," became so identified with the Pythons that British marching bands could no longer play it without getting laughs.
At first, the BBC adopted a hands-off policy regarding scripts and censorship, but with fame came increased scrutiny, particularly from a self-appointed watchdog of British morals named Mary Whitehouse. Thanks in part to her tireless crusade, the writers reined in some of the more eyebrow-raising sketches.
By the time reruns finally came to America in 1974, the show was gasping to a close in England. Cleese had left after three seasons, and the remaining cast soldiered on for an abbreviated fourth season. All six Pythons reunited frequently in films and onstage, performing their famous sketches and inventing ever stranger ones—but like the Beatles, they had become individual celebrities, pursuing their own film and TV projects. Even Chapman, who died of cancer in 1989, retains a solo career: a collection of his essays, Back to the Trees, will be published next fall.
Gradually the cast drifted apart. "I don't think we've been in a room together for four years," Cleese said last fall. Idle recently dismissed hope that the surviving Pythons would appear in the upcoming Broadway show, telling the Sunday Times of London: "We've discovered the less we do, the more people pay." And when Vanity Fair magazine tried to get them together for a photo shoot marking the 35th anniversary of the show this year, schedule conflicts made it impossible. Instead, said Idle, "we are to be photographed in different parts of the world and stuck together by computer." Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like a Monty Python sketch.