It seems 2019 is a year for a several big anniversaries, especially those at the 50-year mark: The first moon landing, Woodstock, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, and more. But it especially behooves us to remember and celebrate 50 years of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which remains, to me, the most brilliant comedy program ever to air on television, on either side of the Atlantic. I’ll probably write about Python again for this blog later in the year, but for now, here’s a brief history, plus a few modest but heartfelt few words of appreciation:
In a nutshell, the group was officially formed in May of 1969. They had already been familiar with each other’s work on stage and television. Eric Idle, John Cleese and Graham Chapman had attended Cambridge University, and Michael Palin and Terry Jones were Oxford grads. All had performed in their respective schools’ performing clubs, the Footlights at Cambridge, and the Oxford Revue (American Terry Gilliam, an L.A.-based cartoonist, moved to England in 1968). All had achieved enough early success to land writing jobs at a number of BBC comedy sketch programs, including The Frost Report (with host David Frost), before earning their own programs. At Last the 1948 Show starred Cleese and Chapman (along with Marty Feldman), while Palin and Jones created and starred in an afternoon children’s show, Do Not Adjust Your Set, featuring Gilliam’s animation.
Admirers of each other’s work, the two groups decided to join forces and present their ideas for a new comedy sketch show to the BBC. The executive in charge of Light Entertainment (i.e. comedy and variety) at the time was Michael Mills. When the group met with him to pitch their idea for the show, they soon realized that they hadn’t come up with anything to pitch, or how to describe what they wanted to do. They knew they didn’t want to do a traditional sketch show, in which each sketch would have a beginning, middle, and end with a snappy punchline. Other than that, Cleese has said,”At that moment, we had no idea what we were going to do.” When Mills pressed them for more of a description, the exchange became awkward, even embarrassing for the group, since the Pythons hadn’t really discussed it amongst themselves yet. Would there be anyone else in the show? “Well, we don’t really know.” Any music? “We might, maybe.” Filmed segments? “Oh, yes!” After more silence, Mills said, “Well, okay, but I’m only going to give you thirteen shows.”
From there, the group was left alone to do basically whatever they came up with, sans interference from the BBC, or pre-approval of their scripts. It was a surprising but welcome turn of events. “That’s all you need to succeed in comedy,” Idle says. Part of the lackadaisical attitude on behalf of the Beeb was due to the program’s graveyard timeslot, late on Sunday nights (when few viewers were paying attention).
The Pythons’ comedy influences were many, ranging from American comedians like Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Jack Benny, and Phil Silvers, to British greats Peter Sellers, the comedy group “The Fringe” (which included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore), and The Goons radio show, written by Spike Milligan and co-starring Sellers.
When Milligan first aired his comedy show Q5, featuring surreal gags and blackout sketches–often abandoned in mid-sketch– the Pythons were still preparing their first episodes. Upon seeing Q5, Cleese and Terry Jones spoke to each other on the phone and said, “Isn’t that what we’ve been planning to do?”
Even so, Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired the first of its 45 episodes on October 5, 1969 (other possible titles for the show included Owl Stretching Time, The Toad Elevating Moment, and A Horse, A Spoon, and a Basin). The sketches bounced back and forth from shamelessly silly sight gags to skits about philosophers, historical figures, writers, and composers–and then back again to wonderfully pointless slapstick and
silly gags, with Gilliam’s mind-bending, and hysterically funny cartoons interspersed throughout. I won’t mention all of the sketches and catchphrases by name because, unless you’ve lived in a cave all your life, you already know them.
The lazy writers among us might say “…and the rest is history.” Being one of those lazy writers, I’ll do the same for now, saving more of my lavish praise for the show for Part 2 of this entry, in the Fall, to mark the first appearance of the program in the U.S., in 1974.
To get more of the story about Python’s beginnings, and many more fascinating and truly funny anecdotes, here is a wonderful discussion from 2014 between John Cleese and Eric Idle.
Once again, Happy Birthday, Monty Python!
Until next week…