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Monty Python Was Formed In 1969: Facts, Trivia, Things You Didn't Know About These Comedy Legends

Entertainment | May 11, 2020

Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more. Terry Jones and Eric Idle of Monty Python, Source: IMDB

The comedy troupe Monty Python gave us the Dead Parrot Sketch, the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Upper-Class Twit of the Year, "Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more," and the films And Now For Something Completely Different, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, and Life Of Brian. The absurd sketches dreamed up by the Pythons -- Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin -- are endlessly quotable and rewatchable. Fans' devotion to Monty Python is unlike anything seen before or since for a comedy show, approaching the enthusiasm normally afforded the biggest rock stars -- but then, there's a reason the Pythons have been called "the Beatles of comedy."

Source: (IMDb)

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast from 1969 to 1974. Although only 45 episodes were made over the course of their four-season run, they became a cultural phenomenon, spawning touring stage shows, films, numerous albums, several books and musicals. In 1988, they were awarded the BAFTA for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema. In 1998, they received the Star Award from the American Film Institute.

The Beginnings Of The Circus

Source: (British Comedy Guide)

Jones and Palin met at Oxford University, performing together with the Oxford Revue. Chapman, who was studying medicine and Cleese, who was studying law, met at Cambridge. While Idle was also at Cambridge, he started the year after Chapman and Cleese.  Chapman and Cleese were part of the Cambridge University Footlights along with Idle. Then, while on tour with the Footlights revue Cambridge Circus, Cleese met Gilliam, who was working as an art director and magazine illustrator in New York City and who featured Cleese in a photo essay for Help magazine about a man’s lust for a Barbie.

The Birth Of The Pythons

The cast of At Last the 1948 Show. Source: (BFI)

All of the Pythons either wrote or appeared in a variety of shows prior to Monty Python's Flying Circus, which led to the creation of the series. One of their shows, Do Not Adjust Your Set, was broadcast on ITV in 1967, and based on its success, Thames Television offered Gilliam, Idle, Jones, and Palin their own late-night comedy show. Meanwhile, the BBC offered Chapman and Cleese a show after seeing their work on The Frost Report and At Last The 1948 Show (both of which featured Marty Feldman as well), but Cleese did not want to do a two-man show. Because he enjoyed working with Palin on How to Irritate People, he invited him to join the team. Palin agreed, and brought Jones and Idle along. Idle then wanted Gilliam to join the team to provide animations. Gilliam, the only American in the group, also appeared as the knight in various sketches.

Monty Python Members Were Inspired By Spike Milligan

Spike Milligan, one of the sources of inspiration. Source: (Cinema Jam)

Their humor was inspired in part by Spike Milligan, but Monty Python’s approach is undeniably their own. They disregarded convention, running their title credits at any point during the show, and appearing in drag to play female characters. (Terry Jones, incidentally, was the one most likely to be cast in drag and probably appeared naked more than anyone else.) They did occasionally cast females; when a woman was needed, they cast Carol Cleveland, and they also cast females in drag.

The Show Could Have Been 'Owl Stretching Time'

Source: (Pinterest)

Their name came from their habit of wandering around the BBC studio like a circus. So that people would not believe they were an actual circus, the BBC tacked on the word "flying" (which also made reference to barnstorming, or performing aerial tricks in planes for entertainment). The BBC was attached to the “flying circus,”  and the troupe added on the first part of their name because they liked the image of a large constricting serpent and Monty Python sounded like a bad theatrical agent. Before coming up with the name, they floated some other ideas: Baron von Took’s Flying Circus (Barry Took was the network’s comedy advisor), Owl Stretching Time; A Horse, a Spoon, and a Bucket; and The Toad Elevating Moment.

The 'Opening' Credits Didn't Always Open The Show

Source: (Medium)

While they were not always at the beginning of the show, the credits did have some consistencies.  Before the show aired, Terry Gilliam was in the National Gallery in 1969, trying to find some inspiration for the show. The foot in the opening credit, Cupid’s foot, was taken from a painting by Bronzinno dating back to about 1545, “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid.”   They chose John Philip Sousa's "The Liberty Bell" as the song for those credits because they did not need to pay royalties for its use.  Gilliam's art also appeared as transitions between sketches and they occasionally used the line “And now for something completely different” as a transition.  This line came from BBC news broadcasts; when anchors moved from one story to another unrelated one, they used this line as a transition. 

Terry Gilliam Saves The Day

Source: (Wallpaperset.com)

The show almost didn’t last past one episode because of low audience ratings and the sentiment that the show’s humor went a little too far. In a sense, their eventual success was not expected, a bit like the Spanish Inquistion.  And we came close to losing the show forever when the BBC was going to erase the original recordings to save money. Luckily, Terry Gilliam bought them before they were destroyed. They also struggled at first because the audience was comprised of older people who didn’t seem to understand the humor; the name of the show confused them and they thought they were going to see an actual circus.

The Pythons Sued ABC, And Lost

Source: (Unrealitymag)

The show didn’t reach American shores until September 22, 1974, when it was in the midst of its final season in Britain. When ABC aired the show, they heavily edited it, removing offensive words such as “damn,” “hell,” and “naughty bits”. ABC also removed entire characters and punchlines from some sketches. When the Pythons sued the network, the case made it to the New York Court of Appeals. Despite Palin and Gilliam’s appearance in court and the fact that the judge laughed more at the original British cuts of the show, he ruled in favor of ABC. The rights to the show reverted to the Pythons, who then sold it to PBS.

Walking Away From The Show

Source: (Imgur)

John Cleese left the show before the fourth and final season because he felt that he was losing control over his life, although he did continue to write for them and appeared occasionally. The actors each went on to careers in film and have worked on other projects as well. Palin has published nonfiction works, novels, and children’s books. Jones has directed films, written books, and wrote the screenplay for the film Labyrinth; he died of complications from dementia in January, 2020. Gilliam has also directed films, in addition to continuing his artwork. Idle has written books, and he created Spamalot (Idle is responsible for some of the troupe's best-known songs, including "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Life Of Brian). Cleese has earned an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay A Fish Called Wanda (he received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the film). Chapman, who turned out to be the the "leading man" in the group as Arthur in Holy Grail and Brian in Life of Brian, died at 48 in 1989 from throat and spinal cancer. He died one day before Monty Python’s 20th anniversary, an event commemorated by a compilation of Monty Python’s greatest hits presented by Steve Martin.

Monty Python's Legacy Is Unmatched In Comedy

Source: (IMDb)

In 2004, TV Guide listed the show as 5th in the list of the top 25 shows and the movies consistently appear on lists of the best comedies. It led to the Tony winning Spamalot. A Muppet Show sketch is a recreation of the sketch “Musical Mice” from the Pythons. The show has lived on in other ways; many people know, the term “spam” referring to junk email comes from a Monty Python skitch, in which spam is served with every dish. In the sketch, a group of Vikings in a restaurant, sing a song about spam, drowning out all conversations in the restaurant. "Pythonesque" is another term that has entered the lexicon based on their absurdist comedy. Monty Python also has a series of apps and a YouTube channel, keeping their absurd silliness alive.

Tags: Eric Idle | Graham Chapman | John Cleese | Michael Palin | Monty Python | Terry Gilliam | Terry Jones

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!