Happy 50th Birthday, Monty Python!

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:

An early shot of the Pythons (without Terry Gilliam).

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), and Do Not Adjust Your Set, an afternoon children’s show, was created by and starred Palin, Jones, and featured Gilliam’s animation.

Admirers of each other’s work, the two group’s 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 had a beginning, middle, and ended 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, due to the fact that 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 gonna 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 even 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 the program’s graveyard timeslot, late on Sunday nights (when few viewers were paying attention).

The Goons (left to right: Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe.

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…


Today, I am a blogger.

Considering how long it’s been taking me to get comfortable with 21st century technology, today marks a big step for me. I still don’t use a smartphone. I don’t text. I don’t tweet. But, as of today, I do blog! While it’s already become a commonplace thing to do (and, in some circles, mocked), I hope this weekly blog will prove to be both informative and entertaining. It will focus mostly on various aspects of pop culture, and from a historical perspective, whenever possible.

I’ve written five non-fiction and three fiction books. Hopefully, there is more to come from each side of my writing brain. I’ve always had diverse interests competing for my attention: science, history, world events, and, of course, pop culture–probably before it was even called pop culture. Ever since my childhood, I’ve absorbed whatever has fascinated and/or entertained me in movies, television, music, etc., and I’ve always been curious and eager to learn, rather than just experience it passively, without knowing the story behind the creation.

A little bit about how I got to be this way…

One day, when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, I was having lunch at home (back when we had an hour to go home every day for lunch), when I decided, for no reason other than curiosity, to listen to my parent’s 8-track tape of Beethoven’s Greatest Hits. I liked it! So, for the next few years, I became obsessed with Beethoven, reading about his life, and listening to records of his music, given to me as birthday and holiday gifts by somewhat confused but supportive family members. I didn’t really understand Beethoven’s music the way an adult with a more sophisticated set of ears would, and I probably didn’t read his biography from cover to cover, but I just thought he was cool. Plus, I kind of liked impressing my elders with my new musical preferences (even though it wasn’t much of a chick magnet in the 6th grade).

A year or two later, I gave a random listen to a Benny Goodman album, featuring the big band music my parents had grown up with in the 1940s. I loved that too, and promptly immersed myself in big band jazz. Around the same time, I discovered the Marx Brothers films on TV, and read about them as much as I could as well. I often talked my parents or older brothers into driving me from our home in suburban New Jersey into New York City, so I could attend all-day Marx Brothers film festivals. My current love of past and present comedy grew from the Marxes, Laurel & Hardy, and W. C. Fields. Again, it was always important to me to learn as I laughed, even if I had to teach myself. Watching “The Odd Couple” film and sitcom led me to buy a collection of Neil Simon’s plays. I memorized “The Odd Couple” and a few others, just for the love of his brilliantly funny dialogue. And, I learned how to write comedy from this–or so I like to think.

And then there were the Beatles. They’ve been a constant in my life since I was about three years old, dancing to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” even before I could sing it. The Fab Four are still a presence in some part of my consciousness every single day.

Many Beatles fans are also Anglophiles by extension, and I’m no exception. I spent my ninth birthday in London, where my family visited my brother during the college year he spent studying there. I fell n love with London and its environs and culture, all while peeking around every corner with the hope of catching an errant Beatle walking by or crossing the street.

And, most Anglophiles love British comedy, too, and again I’m no exception (how’s that for a segue?) Upon discovering “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and the wave of Britcoms that followed that classic series across the pond, I videotaped hundreds of hours, and eventually decided to do something constructive with all of that footage, resulting in my book “Best of the Britcoms.”

You get the idea, even though I’m leaving out quite a lot. But his is just my introductory blog, and with some luck I’ll fill in the gaps as I go from week to week, and from pop culture topic to pop culture topic. Some weeks I’ll use this space to delve more deeply into topic I’v discussed in my books; other weeks I might give new life to a passage from a book or magazine article I’ve written that never got to see the light of day. And there are a fair number of past and present movies, TV shows, and albums about which I’d like to offer my two cents. Hopefully, you’ll find yourself equally interested in may of the topic that clutter my mind on a regular basis, and will return each week to share a bit, and even learn a bit.

See you next week!