Monty Python: Something Completely Different
The Cast in costume
The Mark Made by Monty Python
If there is any comedy ensemble from the later half of the 20th Century that has left an indelible legacy on modern humor, to has to be the satiric sextet known as Monty Python. John Cleese, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam created an innovative and original brand of comedy that has lasted for decades, gaining three generations of fans.
The Python boys were born in England during the Second World War, except for Terry Gilliam who was from Minneapolis, Minnesota in the USA. It may seem strange, considering their irreverent and absurd style of humor, but most of the Python group grew up in typical, upper-middle class surroundings. The only exception would be Eric Idle who was sent off to a strict Boy’s Home at age seven after his father was killed and his mother couldn’t afford him. He spent 12 years in the strict atmosphere of cold discipline.
As for the others, their enemy was tedium and the expectations of their families. They all had parents who had high hopes that their sons would become successful career men. Mom and dad had visions of their son’s careers. Cleese was expected to go into law; Chapman into Medicine; Jones into banking and Palin into accounting. Deep down, they dreaded the idea of such a dull existence.
Growing up, the five British Pythons were huge fans of the popular radio shows The Goons. (Television was only just becoming popular at the time.) The show featured such talented performers as Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Every week, the Goons performed absurd and irreverent sketches that thrilled the young Pythons. Their love of The Goons was the embryo which would one day grow into Monty Python.
Being a particularly bright bunch, they all got into excellent school. Cleese, Chapman and Idle were accepted to Cambridge, while Jones and Palin went to Oxford. Over in America, Gilliam attended OccidentalCollege in Los Angeles, on a scholarship. They were all exceptional students.
At Oxford, the shy Palin was dragged to participate in Theater Arts. That was where he met Terry Jones—the local ‘cool kid’ with the flowing black coat and long hair—who wanted to be an actor. Palin and Jones hit it off immediately and would spend the rest of their lives as an on-again/off-again writing team. Meanwhile, Cambridge boys Cleese and Idle had taken to extracurricular activities in various aspects of the performing arts, to offset the boredom of their endless study and the prospect of lives of quiet desperation. Chapman, always a larger-than-life personality, was the campus clown, always entertaining everyone in sight. To their surprise, all three were invited to audition for the lauded, exclusive Footlights Club. The Cambridge Footlights Club was a near legendary performing artist’s society which been around for over 100 years and new members could only be permitted in if they were invited by a current member. All three of the Cambridge Pythons were lucky enough to get a much coveted invitation to audition. All three were accepted.
Over in America, Gilliam--who did art and cartooning as a hobby--joined the school magazine “Fang”. Fang was not very successful until Gilliam took over as editor and redesigned it, basing the new format on the work of Harvey Kurtzman (Creator or Mad Magazine.) He made “Fang” more subversive and added his unique visual style of cartooning. He made “Fang” popular for the first time. After graduation, his time on “Fang” would lead to him actually getting a job working for his idol Kurtzman on Kurtzman’s newest magazine Help.
Meanwhile, the five British Pythons had all decided that they wanted to pursue the performing arts and writing as their careers (Even though it took some of them a long time to tell their parents.) John Cleese and Graham Chapman worked together on projects at the Footlight Club and realized that they clicked as a writing team. They would continue for years as writing partners. Idle preferred to write alone. He became acquainted with Cleese and Chapman when he performed one of the sketches they’d written on stage called "BBC B.C.", which was about a biblical weather reporter. Cleese was unable to attend so Idle took his part, working with Chapman. Idle was introduced to Cleese the following day. Idle watched Cleese perform the role the following night and was very impressed with Cleese’s comic timing and physical comedy skills.
The Oxford boys didn’t have the forum of a club like the Footlights Club to perform in, so they performed in local theaters. Idle and Cleese also liked to branch out beyond the Footlights Club and perform in new venues. On one of these excursions, Idle met Jones and Palin. Idle took note of Palin’s performance, seeing a lot of potential in him.
John Cleese had become a very popular local stage comedy star by 1961. More than any of the other Python’s, he made a strong solo career mark early. He was invited to join the prestigious Cambridge Circus, a famous performing troupe. After graduation, he toured with the Cambridge Circus, appearing in Canada and the United States.
Terry Gilliam was working as a cartoonist in New York City when he attended a performance of the Cambridge circus. Like Idle, he immediately saw the incredible talent in Cleese. He introduced himself after the show and the two had a friendly drink together. Cleese gave Gilliam his contact number and told Gilliam to look him up if he was ever in England.
Another popular stage show of the early sixties was Beyond the Fringe, a ground breaking, satirical sketch show featuring a stable of performers that included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. All the Pythons had seen and loved this show and admittedly copied some of its style when they developed their own series.
After graduating, Michael Palin got a job on a small, local comedy TV show called Now (1963). It wasn’t a hit show and it didn’t pay much, but it allowed Palin to continue in show business, rather than returning defeated to his parent. Terry Jones didn’t have much luck getting a performing or writing job, so in the meantime, he worked as an editor for the BBC. This position helped him make some show business contacts.
Idle and Chapman continued working on stage and doing occasional on-spec TV writing. John Cleese had become a very popular stage star in comedy revues, frequently collaborating with Chapman. Cleese got his big break when he was spotted by popular TV comedian David Frost and cast as a writer/performer on Frost’s BBC TV sketch-comedy TV show, That Was the Week That Was. (1964) Cleese became a popular cast member and soon got Chapman a job as a writer on the show.
Later, David Frost was developing a new show, co-starring two comedians named Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. (Later to star in their own series, The Two Ronnies.) The show would be called The Frost Report. (1966) Cleese became the fourth member of the comedy quartet. He and Chapman were the first two writers but others needed to be hired. When Eric Idle interviewed for the job, Cleese used his influence with Frost to see that Idle got the gig. Meanwhile, Terry Jones had made some connections as a BBC editor and that helped him get in the door as a writer for the Frost Report (Also, Idle put in a good word for him.) Jones then suggested that Frost hire Palin and Frost agreed to look at Palin’s material. Frost was pleased with what Palin had to offer and hired him. For the first time, five future Pythons were working on the same show.
The Frost Report became a hit and Cleese became a popular TV actor. The other four Pythons mostly worked as writers but they did occasionally appear on screen in small roles. Later, Graham Chapman would get to experience more airtime starring alongside Cleese in a short-lived sketch show called At Last the 1948 Show (1967), also produced by Frost. The show also starred Marty Feldman (Best known as Eye-Gor in Young Frankenstein.)
Palin, Jones and Idle also started working on a second show. (Cleese and Palin were too busy with At Last the 1948 Show at the time to appear on this show, too.) The other show was a strange teen-oriented show, starring a bizarre pop group called the Bonzo Dogs. The series was named Do Not Adjust Your Set. (1967) The show was a trippy, abstract mix of child-like silliness and psychedelic sixties surrealism. Palin, Jones and Idle finally got to appear regularly on screen.
To add to the weirdness of the show came Terry Gilliam. Having left America during a turbulent period of public discontent in the 1960s, he was looking for work in England. He looked up Cleese, his only contact in England. Cleese got him an audition for Do Not Adjust Your Set. Gilliam showed his newly developed style of bizarre cut-and-paste animated cartoons to the producers. They loved the oddball style of cartoon cut-outs and hired Gilliam for the second year of the show.
In 1968, the Frost Report, At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set all went off the air at once, and so the six Pythons were at loose ends. Cleese had offers for work, but he felt he wanted to work with the same gang he’d been working with, plus Gilliam. He, Chapman, Jones, Palin, Idle and Gilliam formed a team and told the BBC that they wanted to create their own show. History was in the making.
The BBC wasn’t overly enthusiastic about giving this upstart group their own show. But Cleese was a popular up-and-coming star and David Frost used his influence to push the BBC into going along with the idea. As a test, a one-shot special was filmed and aired, hosted by John Cleese, with the rest of the Pythons appearing in supporting roles. The special was called How to Irritate People (1968). The critical response and viewer-ship was encouraging and so the BBC signed the team to a contract.
The team now had to come up with a program that would be successful and unique. They utilized aspects of their past favorites like 'the Goons' and 'Beyond the Fringe'. They also took parts of shows they worked on in the past. That Was the Week That Was, the Frost Report, At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set were cannibalized and used as inspiration by the Pythons. Another program which influenced the group was Spike Milligan’s Q-5. The executives of the BBC had a lot of questions for the team, wondering why they didn’t seem to be following the traditional rules of comedy. The BBC started to regret giving the Python’s total creative control over their project.
One of the most unique aspects of the show was that they eliminated the use of punch-lines in sketches. They all agreed that the weakest part of most sketches was the ending and the need to rap-up a routine sometimes weakened it. They decided that they would not use punch-lines. Instead, Terry Gilliam’s’ art was used as a link between sketches. Once they’d milked all the laughs they could out of a routine, they’d abruptly segue into one of Gilliam’s cartons, which in turn would segue into the next sketch. Thus the need for punch-lines was eliminated. Nothing like that had ever been done before.
The Pythons fearlessly tackled any subject, no matter how taboo. They mocked the monarchy; made fun of their bosses at the BBC; they even used racial humor. The Pythons included nudity and adult language in their sketches.
The show could be very intellectual, dropping names of philosophers or historic figures. It also liked to mock politics. But on the other hand, the show could be very silly and childish.
The BBC demanded to know the title of the show but the team didn’t have one. They tossed around and dismissed many suggestions until they finally settled on The Flying Circus. The BBC execs wanted more. They wanted a Proper name added to the title. (Most comedy shows included a performer’s name, such as the Frost Report or the Two Ronnies.) The BBC suggested “John Cleese’s Flying Circus” but the other five members didn’t like that idea very much. They decided to make up a name. “Monty” seemed like the type of pretentious name that the sort of person they were mocking would have. And “Python” was meant to indicate that some of their humor would be “sneaky, slimy and low”, like a snake. Thus Monty Python’s Flying Circus was christened.
Cleese and Chapman continued writing together, as did Jones and Palin. Idle preferred to work alone and Gilliam was the lone animator. Beyond that, two writing factions diverged from the Python group as a whole. Cleese and Chapman preferred experiential humor, more firmly based in reality. They thought humor was more effective if the viewer related to the situation. However, Palin and Jones and Gilliam preferred absurdist humor. They were of the surrealist school. The more madcap, the better. This caused several arguments in the writing room.
Cleese and Jones, in Particular, were adamant about having their own way. Jones was often the motivator of the group and saw himself in a leadership position. (Jones, as a former editor, used to join the official BBC editor in the cutting room to see that the show was cut to his satisfaction.) Jones fancied himself the protector of the integrity of their vision of Monty Python and felt he had to fight to maintain the spirit of Python. Cleese, on the other hand, was a formidable presence and equally determined to fight for his ideas when he thought he was right. The two of them often battled for supremacy. This led to compromises that created a perfect balance between the absurd and the situational.
Eric Idle was often the balance between the two factions. He had the best ability of the group to intuitively know what was working and what needed to be discarded. The rest often looked to him to settle disputes. He also was the one who kept an eye on tedious things like the budget. Idle’s unique specialty on screen was to write and perform comical songs. He was joined in this by a fellow named Neil Innes, a musician and singer who helped develop the show’s music. (Other than the Souza march which opened the show.)
Beautiful blond Carol Cleveland was often known as “the seventh python”. Although the male Python members usually performed the female roles in drag, whenever they needed a woman that the males in the audience would actually be attracted to, they called in Cleveland. She was originally supposed to be in only six episodes, the first of a rotating group of females. But the Pythons liked her immediately. There were other women on the show periodically, but none of them got the irony of the roles the way Cleveland did.
Ian MacNaughton was hired by the BBC to be the regular series director and he was approved of by the Pythons because he understood their humor. He was often a director in name only, because the Pythons had their own vision of a sketch when they were writing it. Also, Terry Jones took MacNaughton’s place in the cutting room.
The premier show aired in 1969. At first, it got only a mediocre response from befuddled critics and the viewer-ship was less than spectacular. The fact that the BBC kept moving it to different times and nights didn’t help matters. The beginning wasn’t promising.
But then things started to shift. Viewer-ship started to rise and fan mail increased. The critics became more complimentary. The Python boys decided to do a live show in toward the end of their first year. They were shocked to find the place sold out, and the audience dressed in costumes based on characters from the show, like the “Gumbies”. Around the same time, the team put out a vinyl record of their routines, which sold very well. Even the skeptical BBC executives started to realize that something special was happening. The BBC approved of a second year's block of episodes.
The Python phenomenon exploded in the second year. Both in terms of fans and critics, the show launched into mega-success. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was all the rage. Even the BBC execs started being nice to the stars of their cash cow. The little show that almost failed was now the talk of England.
But there were some behind-the-scenes problems. Graham Chapman had a severe alcohol problem. He’d managed to hide it at first but now it was starting to become obvious. He’d begin by adding gin to whatever he was drinking in the morning, and then go to a pub for lunch. After lunchtime, he was basically useless. This made thing tough for Cleese, who had to write with Chapman daily. At best, Chapman was more of an idea man and a sounding board than a real writer, so Cleese had done most of the writing for the team anyway. Now he was taking on the lion’s share of the work himself.
To cash in on the success of The Flying Circus, the BBC arranged a Monty Python film to be produced between the second and third year. The film was a Best-Of collection; re-enactments of the teams most popular skits from the first two years. The film, titled And Now For Something Completely Different (which was a catchphrase on The Flying Circus) did fairly well, but it was no big hit. Fans deserved something more than a rehash of old material for the first Python film.
As preparations for the third year started, Cleese was feeling stressed by it all. Also, he was bored with writing sketch comedy. He’d been doing it since That Was the Week That Was in 1964. By 1972, Cleese was looking to move on to other things. He was getting lots of offers to do other projects like making a film or creating his own sitcom. He talked about leaving but the rest of the team implored him to stay. The BBC also persuaded him to remain. He was the biggest name of the Python team and his participation was seen as mandatory. He agreed to stay for six out of the 13 episodes but ultimately ended up remaining for the whole year.
The third year rolled around and the show continued to be extremely successful. Behind the scenes, Chapman’s problems were getting worse and it was getting harder to hide it from the BBC bosses. Chapman wasn’t writing much and Cleese, disgruntled by the whole thing, also contributed much less to the scripts than he had in the previous two years.
After the third year, John Cleese made the decision to leave the show and no one could change his mind. The nervous BBC considered canceling the show, but they were hesitant to drop a ratings winner from the schedule. Terry Jones was optimistic that the show could survive the loss of Cleese and assured the BBC that Monty Python could be successful without Cleese. They agreed to produce only six episodes, as a test to see if Python could work post-Cleese.
The show went on with the five remaining Pythons, but the fourth season just was not the same. The flaw in the fourth year was more than just the loss of the most popular cast member. The biggest problem was that the delicate balance between reality based experiential humor and surreal wackiness was tilted too far in favor of the absurdist style. With Cleese gone and Chapman no longer writing (he was unable to write without Cleese pushing him. Even before Cleese left, Chapman relied on Cleese to take his ideas and expand on them) the situational side of the coin was gone. Palin, Gilliam and especially Jones now took control of the writing. Idle made an occasional argument but he wasn’t prepared to stand up to the passionate and proud Jones, so he let Jones have his way. Terry Jones took total control over Monty Python’s Flying Circus in year Four. The show became far too bizarre and surreal for some long-time fans and viewer-ship dropped.
The BBC was not happy and was unwilling to commit to another seven episodes for year four. The killing blow for Python came when Eric Idle decided to quit as well. That left only four Pythons. The BBC would not risk the show with only two-thirds of the cast. They pulled the plug. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was history.
But that still wasn’t the end of the Monty Python story. Terry Jones and Michael Palin had re-watched ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’ and decided that the Monty Python team could make a much better film than that. They felt that if they could get the whole Python team involved, a Python film could be a smash hit. They approached the other members of the group. Gilliam, Idle and Chapman were agreeable. Cleese finally decided to go along with it, because the idea of writing and starring in a feature film was a new challenge that he’d never tackled before. It seemed exciting. The whole team was on board.
They tossed script ideas around for weeks and then finally settled on the idea of doing a parody of the King Arthur legend. It would be called Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). The BBC was unwilling to fund the project, so the team had to get sponsors of their own. Several show business people came to their aid, most notably the rock bands Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, who were big fans of the Flying Circus. The budget for the film would be limited but the film could get made. It was shot on location in Scotland (With one castle substituting for all the English castles.)
There were two directors for the film…Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. They tried to co-direct but their differing styles were not conducive. Gilliam was much more visually oriented and shot the film with the eye of a perfectionist. Jones was focused more on the script and the gags. They finally came to an understanding. Jones would deal with the actors, while Gilliam would deal with cinematography, sets and other matters.
Graham Chapman was chosen to play the starring role of King Arthur. As the production went on, his alcoholism became a problem. One day he tried to go without drinking and got the DTs. He swore to himself that for the next film, he’d be clean and sober.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail was a big hit at the box office and was also released in the United States. This was America’s first look at the Python team. The film went over so well in the USA that the Flying Circus was aired on American TV stations for the first time.
At the world premier, a reporter asked Eric Idle what the Python’s next project would be. As a joke, he said “Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory”. The reporter didn’t get the joke and printed it. For a long time, the Python team was asked when they were going to do the “Jesus movie”. The rumor was still going around when Jones re-gathered the team for a second film, since their last film had been such a success. The team decided to go along with their own gag and made a movie about Jesus. Like before, they had trouble finding funding. This time, it was ex-Beatle George Harrison who saved them with a $5 million donation.
Monty Python’s the Life of Brian (1979) was controversial, since many people took it for an attack on Christianity. It really wasn’t. It was meant to make a commentary on the people of the day who just weren’t ready to hear the words of a prophet. Jesus himself was handled with reverence. There were many protests, especially in America, but that only helped bring more attention and money to the film.
Terry Jones was the solo director this time. Graham Chapman again got the starring role, this time playing the titular Brian, who is mistaken by stupid people for Jesus. Chapman had kept his vow to become clean and sober. The cleaned-up, reborn Chapman gave his best ever performance, and production went off without a hitch. Most of the Python’s say that the filming of ‘Brian’ was the most fun they ever had doing a Python project.
The team gathered together again a year later, for a live show at the Hollywood Bowl. The live event was captured on tape and released as a theatrical film, entitled Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl.
Jones and Palin wanted the team to gather for one last, farewell film. Cleese didn’t have much interest in returning to the group again. He had a been-there/done that attitude. As for Gilliam, he had become a successful film director in his own rite (Brazil; Baron Munchausen; Time Bandits; the Fisher King; 12 Monkeys) and was too busy with his own projects. Still, after some nagging and negotiations, all the Pythons agreed to do a farewell film.
Terry Jones directed the film and Terry Gilliam directed a short film that preceded it. Since none of them had a cohesive vision of what the film should be, they decided to take the various idea they had and create what would be essentially a sketch movie (Going back to where they started.) The sketches were linked by a ‘Seven Stages of Life’ motif. The film was called Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life. (1982) It wasn’t their best work, but there were a few gems in there, and it gave fans one last look at the Monty Python team.
Graham Chapman died soon after the film was released. He was very ill during filming but he hid it from his teammates because he really wanted to make one last film with his pals. Cancer was eating him away inside and he passed away at age 48.
Month Python was essentially over at that point. More than any of the others, Eric Idle has tried to keep the spirit of the team alive. He’s done several stage shows based on the work of Monty Python. Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python (A collection of songs from the Flying Circus and the Films); He’s Not the Messiah, He’s a very Naughty Boy,(A musical revue based on The Life of Brian); and the smash hit Broadway show Spamalot (Based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail) were all successful shows arranged and produced by Idle.
The glory days of Monty Python are gone, but the memory of their hilarious, innovative legacy lives on.