Inside the Birth of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus,’ the Weird Little British Show That Took Over the World
A small group of wild and feuding talents upended the whole idea of television comedy 50 years ago. Maybe we need another bout of the same irreverence.
LONDON—It was demented from the very first minute. It began with a blast of American military band patriotism, John Philip Sousa’s The Liberty Bell, playing to a graphic montage of bizarre images under the title of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Nothing like it had ever been seen on BBC television and even the natives, already familiar with the more surreal reaches of British comedy on BBC radio, took a while to adjust to this new kind of visual humor in which nothing was too sacred to be lampooned: religion, politics, bureaucrats, the military, the Empire, psychiatry, patriotism, culture.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a show that at first seemed so peculiarly British that it couldn’t possibly be understood outside these shores let alone attract a global following that eventually spanned many languages and cultures. But that’s exactly what happened. Long before social media, the Python shows went viral through the slower old-fashioned means of syndicated TV sales.
Today, when political life in Britain and America has become populated with figures so absurd that they outstrip the ability of satire to satirize them, a new viewing of Python reminds us that when all else fails mockery is an important last resort in a democracy – and, in the right hands, it can wound beyond the best investigative journalism. It punctures egos and challenges sacred systems.
And as Donald Trump has demonstrated, there is nothing a demagogue detests more than being laughed at. Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of him on Saturday Night Live provoked Trump into calling for “retribution” and including Baldwin in his “enemies of the people” anti-media incitements.
Python did not ridicule individual politicians. It had a broader and deeper thrust, creating a theater of absurdity in which all the characters, however loony, were drawn from contemporary life and from attitudes that had crippled British behavior for generations, particularly those based on class.
Python performances were always a group effort that depended on a cast of six—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam—each with his own strengths, learning to play off and with the talents of the others. Sometimes it seemed like a mutual therapy session in which passive and aggressive personalities tortured each other to produce convulsive laughter.
A legendary example is the “Dead Parrot” sketch. Cleese plays a customer in a pet store, run by Palin, who is returning a parrot that he claims is dead. This was written, apparently from personal experience, to show how English manners allowed appalling standards of customer service where a shopkeeper could stubbornly resist accepting the return of flawed goods while the customer was too polite to force the issue.
Palin resorts to desperate sales speak to imply that there is nothing actually amiss with the parrot—“it’s resting, it’s stunned”—while Cleese slowly steams to un-British fury – “it’s a late parrot, it’s a stiff.”
Cleese has said that Palin was his favorite foil; the mixture of British social classes they naturally adopted in their sketches—Palin as a crafty pleb and Cleese as a short-fused upper middle class blockhead—became natural to them.
Looking back it’s clear that of the whole troupe of original talents Cleese was the most gifted as a performer. He was physical in a way that the others were not.
As the Python sketches evolved he gradually established a comic personality of his own in the way that Chaplin established the tramp and Jackie Gleason established the belligerent and insecure bus driver Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners.
Cleese’s invention didn’t have a name in the Python sketches. He was a composite of recognizably English personality disorders. Part of it came from his height—at six feet five inches he loomed ominously above the others as a kind of alienated presence, with a square, tense jaw, basilisk eyes and verbal eruptions that began as a low snarl and ended in manic fury. He took the quintessential uptight English male and revealed the rages within, sometimes to a scary degree.
It was not just Cleese’s height that he deployed to comic effect. His whole body had a plastic virtuosity. In a role that he himself later said he disliked he became the Minister of Funny Walks, a parody of Britain’s multiplying officialism, in which he adopts an extreme form of the fascist goose-step while wearing a bowler hat, bureaucratic suit and carrying a briefcase.
Cleese instinctively understood the importance of accent in the hierarchy of British power. Other Python performers assumed upper class accents when required to be buffoonish, but with Cleese the accent came naturally without comic stress. He understood one of the great English deceptions, that the “right” accent conveys authority regardless of intellect, frequently empowering idiots like the World War I British generals who sent millions to needless deaths with a mindless belief in static warfare.
Eventually this creation acquired a name. In 1975 Cleese introduced to us the character of Basil Fawlty in a BBC comedy series, Fawlty Towers. Within the confines of a small suburban English hotel Cleese and the show’s co-creator, his American wife Connie Booth, encapsulated the worst of Little England: managerial incompetence, xenophobia, racism, staff abuse and inedible food.
And it was funny. So funny that it has just been voted the greatest ever British television comedy by the readers of the British listings magazine, Radio Times. Only 12 episodes were made. Cleese and Booth showed rare discipline in understanding that they had mined gold but probably exhausted the lode. The show’s lasting effect on comedy was immense.
There were 45 episodes of Monty Python. Cleese played little part in the final series. He was more engaged in the Python movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life that introduced a wider global audience to this surrealistic form of blasphemy and disrespect for all forms of authority, whether secular or sacred.
Looking back to the origins of the Python humor all tracks first lead to the BBC. Within a decade from the late 1950s into the 1960s, the public broadcaster was an astonishing creative disruptor, finding and nurturing original talents. Surrealistic comedy broke through first on BBC radio, where, for example, Peter Sellers first emerged as an actor of many voices in The Goon Show.
However, the true catalyst in the creation of Python was David Frost. Frost is remembered now as a formidable television interviewer culminating in his landmark interrogation of Richard Nixon. But at the start of his career he was torn between journalism and stand-up comedy. It took him a while to accept that he was a terrible comedian with a tired routine that was widely mocked by contemporaries including Cleese.
Frost and Cleese had been members of Footlights, a legendary Cambridge University forcing ground for comic talent. Frost was the first of them to earn the title of “television celebrity” when he anchored That Was The Week That Was, another BBC breakout production that later served as the model for Saturday Night Live.
In 1967 Cleese and future Python costar Graham Chapman told Frost about an idea they had for a radical new show. It had an inexplicable name, At Last The 1948 Show, and was a series of unrelated and bizarre sketches to be performed by Cleese, Chapman and several others.
By this time Frost had his own production company and had moved from the BBC to commercial television. He sold the idea to a London commercial station and it went on the air late in 1967. One of its catch-phrases that migrated to Python was “And now for something completely different.” Although it seemed a device to deal with the extreme incongruity of the sketches it was also a private joke.
Cleese and Chapman had served in a comedy writers’ pool that Frost employed for his first commercial television show, The Frost Programme. This live one-hour prime time show punctuated serious interviews with some monologues and stand-up one-liners delivered by Frost and written mostly by the pool—who invariably felt pain from Frost’s performances. “And now for something completely different” was their idea for moving Frost from monologue to journalism.
Thirteen episodes of At Last The 1948 Show were made. When the London commercial station changed hands all of them were wiped. Later, as the show’s significance in television history became apparent (several of its sketches were repeated in Python) efforts were made to recover copies, including by Cleese, and 11 have now been saved.
Although Frost should get full credit for not only getting the program on the air but understanding and promoting such a radical break from conventional British comedy the tension between his role as a mocked comedian and the Python troupe continued – in one episode of Python they deliberately slipped Frost’s private phone number into a scene, an annoyance that forced him to change the number.
The more famous Frost became as a journalist the more they mocked him and the more he hated it. As a producer of Frost’s show I watched this strange feud unfold and persist. Cleese in particular never lost an opportunity to ridicule “Frostie”—sounding very much like the misanthropic British stereotype he had so brilliantly embodied. It’s all very Pythonesque.