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That's Not Monty Python

Updated on January 18, 2012

Monty Python became popular in the United States in 1974 thanks to PBS stations airing episodes of Flying Circus for the first time, as well as the unexpected success of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Pythons had been trying to crack the American market since 1971 when they made a movie specifically to be shown in the U.S. That movie called And Now For Something Completely Different was basically the same sketches from the television show shot on film, meant to be shown to an audience that never saw Flying Circus. But the American distributor, Columbia Pictures, got cold feet on what they thought was the strange British humor and decided to shelve the film instead of releasing it. A company called Buddha Records got the rights to release the Python's comedy albums in the United States, and felt an album by unknowns would sell a lot better if that film was in the theaters. So they campaigned Columbia to release it, which Columbia did in 1972, but only to a few Manhattan theaters as a limited release. After only a few days the film was pulled. It would not return to theaters until the '80 as part of the Midnight Movie circuit.

By 1977 Monty Python was well known in the United States. Their television show was a hit on PBS, as was their second movie ....Holy Grail. American fans were now looking for the latest from the group. The problem was that they were no longer active. Their series ended in 1974, and they had not immediately filmed a followup to ....Holy Grail. With exception to a compilation and a recording of a live show, there was no new Monty Python albums, as the only new book was a reprint of the first draft and shooting script for ....Holy Grail. Basically, there had been nothing new from Monty Python in nearly three years. At the height of their popularity they seemed to have broken up and were all now working on solo projects. Actually, they were working on a script for their next movie Monty Python's Life of Brian, a biblical parody that was so controversial, ( despite it not actually being about Jesus or his disciples ), that it would not be until 1979 that it was finally filmed and released. It would be another three years until the next movie Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982), a concert that had been taped back in 1980 to be shown on television, but after languishing on the shelve ended up being transferred to film for a limited release. A year later Monty Python released what is, up til now, their last movie, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983). The Pythons only made five movies. And yet there are other films that are usually mistaken for being from Monty Python. They show up in the Monty Python section of video rental shops ( well, those video rental shops still left ) and show up on EBay when you look for their films. You would think that their are 12 or more Monty Python movies, but that is not the case. These are the seven movies that usually masquerade as being from Monty Python.

Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe (1977)

The one and only bootleg Monty Python movie. In 1976 John Cleese helped organize a benefit concert to raise money for Amnesty International called A Poke In The Eye ( With A Sharp Stick ). John got most of the other Python members to participate ( the one exception being Eric Idle ) as well as Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes. He also roped in other comedians he knew from Cambridge and his years working for David Frost. This included three fourths of the troupe Beyond the Fringe ( Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Allan Bennett ) and the entire cast of The Goodies ( Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Billie Oddie ). The event was billed as the reunion of the Oxbrige Mafia, the generation of comedians who came out of Oxford and Cambridge during the early to mid '60s and would dominate the English media for the next two decades. A documentary was made of the concert narrated by Dudley Moore ( the fourth member of Beyond the Fringe ) called Pleasure at Her Majesty's which was broadcast in the U.K. and later the U.S. as a way to raise attention and money for Amnesty International. Someone got their hands on the documentary and began editing it, removing all the back stage footage and giving it a new title Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe where it was then released to theaters. Attempts by Amnesty International as well as Monty Python Inc and members of Beyond the Fringe to stop the film from being distributed were futile. Prints kept turning up again and again at grindhouse theaters, and at least twice video companies released it on VHS.

Monty Python's Jabberwocky (1977)

As already mentioned, Monty Python became inactive right after the release of ....Holy Grail. This defied all logic. In the past whenever a comedy team achieved success they immediately followed up within the year with more movies. There was also the expectation with a hit movie that plans for a sequel would immediately be in the works. So when it was announced that the same director of ....Holy Grail was making another medieval comedy with half of the Python cast, there was some assumption that this was the sequel. Monty Python and the Holy Grail introduced the idea of a messy grimy muck covered medieval movie. Not only was this historically accurate, but contradicted decades of Hollywood films that featured a clean glammed up version of the dark ages. Terry Gilliam felt that he had more he wanted to say with the medieval theme. BBC made him a offer to write and direct a short film for their network based on the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwocky. Someone suggested the short film could be expanded into a full length feature, and inevitably Jabberwocky ballooned into an hour and forty five minute movie. Gilliam convinced Michael Palin to take the lead role, and got Terry Jones and Python collaborator Neil Innes to do cameos. Gilliam himself cast himself in a small roll as a crazy man. In the United States the film was picked up by Cinema 5 Distributing, the same distributors that had released Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the states three years earlier. The distributor asked Gillam if they could release Jabberwocky as a sequel to ....Holy Grail. When Gilliam told them no, Cinema 5 went ahead anyway, promoting the movie as Monty Python's Jabberwocky. Gilliam threatened legal action and Cinema 5 withdrew their promotion of the movie as Python film. But the damage had been done, and to this day there are many who think Jabberwocky is the sequel to ....Holy Grail.

The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

Television producer Lorne Michaels wanted to get the Beatles to reunite on his late night NBC show Saturday Night Live. Each week he would make an on air appeal offering various amounts of money ( usually $3,000 ) if the Beatles just showed up and with no explanation played a few songs. While this was most likely just a running gag, According to Paul McCartney, he had been visiting John Lennon when they were both watching the show where Lorne made the pitch, and as the NBC studios were less than fifteen minutes away, contemplated just dropping in on the show and playing a couple of songs together. One ex-Beatle who did show up was George Harrison as a music guest. A skit he appeared in had Michaels explaining to him that the offer was only valid if all four Beatles showed up on the same broadcast. A month before Harrison's appearance, Eric Idle jokingly made his grab for the $3,000 by showing a "new film" from the Pre-fab Four. The group was called The Rutles, a dead on parody of The Beatles. The clip was from Idle's BBC2 sketch comedy show Rutland Weekend Television, and featured a very brief documentary of the fictitious group who's music would "last a lunchtime". Lorne liked the clip so much that he asked Idle to expand it into a 76 minute mockumentary to be shown during the regular Saturday Night Live slot during an off week. Neil Innes was asked to compose and perform several sound alike parodies of Beatles songs as well as starring as lead Rutle Ron Nasty. Idle appeared as both the documentarian as well as Rutle Dirk McQuickly. Idle was able to get many of his friends to participate in the mocumentary, including Ron Wood, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon and George Harrison as a reporter interviewing Michael Palin as the Rutles press agent. For his part Lorne got SNL cast members Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner to appear in small parts. After airing on NBC the movie went into syndication, and from there home video. With Idle in most of the movie along with frequent Python contributor Innes and a brief cameo by Palin, it was inevitable that video rental shops would pass the movie off as a Python film At the time the real Python movies had not yet been released on home video, as were very few if any of their solo projects. Evan after ....Holy Grail and Life of Brian got released the Rutles movie was usually still found on the shelf right next to them.

Time Bandits (1981)

In 1979 Life of Brian became the first Python movie to get full distribution by a major Hollywood studio. The film had been so controversial that it's original financier, EMI Films, backed out, and for a while no other investors were interested in touching it. For a while the Pythons were considering a plan B, to edit together the two episodes they made for German television into a sketch film. Fortunately Eric Idle was friends with George Harrison, and after telling him that the next Python film would be delayed indefinitely Harrison famously said that he himself would finance it's production just so he could see it. Harrison got together with his business partner Dennis O'Brian and founded the studio Handmade Films with Life of Brian being that studio's first production. Handmade was able to make a deal with Warner Brothers to distribute the movie in the United States despite it's controversial subject matter. Handmade Films would go on to produce several prominent British films including The Long Good Friday (1980), Mona Lisa (1986), Withnail and I (1987), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and unfortunately Shanghai Surprise (1986). Handmade also continued it's association with Monty Python, not only releasing Live at the Hollywood Bowl, but producing a number of their solo projects including The Missionary (1982) and Nuns on the Run (1990). Shortly after production on Life of Brian was completed, Terry Gilliam approached Handmade to back his second solo film. Out of a list of projects Gilliam wanted to make, the only project Handmade could afford was the fantasy Time Bandits, a children's film that he and Michael Palin were writing. While Palin had two brief cameos in the movie, he and Gilliam were able to convince John Cleese to play Robin Hood, a character that was on screen for about ten minutes. Other celebrities appeared in cameos or short scenes, including Ian Holm as Napoleon, Shelley Duvall as Palin's girlfriend Pansy, Ralph Richardson as God, and Sean Connery as Agamemnon. David Warner was in many scenes playing Gilliam's version of Satan called Supreme Evil, but the regular cast members were a group of unknowns, the highest profile member being Kenny Baker who plays R2-D2 in the Star Wars films. American distributor Embassy Pictures decided the best way to sell the movie to the public was to promote it as a new Python film. Although this time Gilliam made sure the Python name would not be attached to any promotional material as had happened on his last movie, Embassy got around that by prominently featuring John Cleese and both of Palin's cameos in the trailers. In addition they added silly sound effects and voice overs to make the trailer seem more Pythonesque. Footage of a giant stepping on a family of trolls had a voice over of a peperpot saying "Did you hear something dear?" seconds before the foot came down. By the time it hit the theaters Embassy had gotten the word out that Time Bandits was a Python reunion, something shows like Entertainment Tonight repeated as fact.


The correct spelling of the film's title is with the letters in all caps and a caret between the words "policeman's" and "ball" with the word "other" above. ( Above is as close as the formatting for this site will allow. ) This signifies the combination of two pre existing filmed concerts, The Secret Policeman's Ball and The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, both which had been shown in the UK, but in the United States were edited and combined into a single film. This cleaver title can be both read as The Secret Policeman's Ball and The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, although usually it is referred to by the later. After the incident with Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe, Amnesty International realized there was potential in releasing a concert film in the United states to raise additional funds, as well as a way to spread their message. After their first fund raiser, Pleasure at her Majesty's, came a smaller concert called Mermaid Frolics. This was followed by the series of Policeman's Balls concerts. A deal was made with distributor Miramax where most of the profits would go back to Amnesty International. The first two Secret Policeman's concerts were edited together, shortening or completely editing out any act that was still unknown in the United States. Miramax did not exactly seem thrilled with promoting a concert film. The trailer had Graham Chapman as a member of the Moral Majority, claiming he had seen The Secret Policeman's Other Ball and demanding that the film be banned, but not actually showing any clips from the film itself. The print adds were just as vague. The movie's poster was a drawing of a ballroom with various cast members wearing the outfits from skits they had performed in, yet again no hint that this was a concert film. Miramax played heavily on the Python connection. Not only did they convince Chapman to shoot the trailer, but had him specifically mention that the film had members of Monty Python, and if that were not enough, a caption underneath him read "Graham Chapman of Monty Python". The movie poster prominently featured members of Monty Python in the front. For anyone who was not familiar with the Amnesty fund raisers would suspect that The Secret Policeman's Other Ball was either a new Python movie, or at the least had most of the Python's participating. ( Four of them, Cleese from both concerts, Palin and Jones in the first concert, and Chapman in the second concert. The combination of both concerts into one film put four Pythons into the same movie. ) When the movie was released critics were caught off guard, and went on to warn their readers that the movie was not a scripted comedy from the Python troupe, but a poorly shot concert film. Siskel & Ebert were particularly not pleased, pointing out that they could tell it had originally been shot on video and later transferred to film stock. To make matters worse, the Pythons had already released a concert film, Live at the Hollywood Bowl, only a few month earlier, and inevitably comparisons were drawn.

Yellowbeard (1983)

Unlike the previous films, Yellowbeard was not promoted as being from the members of Monty Python. On the contrary, it was promoted as a Cheech & Chong movie despite their small roles. This was due to an actual Python movie, ....The Meanig of Life, still being in theaters the same month Yellowbeard was released, and Cheech & Chong's then rise in popularity. But Python fans were then feeling a high. After a three year hiatus with no Python whatsoever they had two years in a row with new Python movies, 1982's ....Live at the Hollywood Bowl which included footage from the "lost" German episodes, and the completely original ....The Meaning of Life a year later. In addition, the Flying Circus series which had been pulled from the air in 1980 when Time-Life television lost the rights, had finally returned to syndication ( and back on PBS stations ) in the early summer of '83. George Perry had just published the first official group biography, Life of Python. And now there was a movie with half of the Python team, and not just in cameos but with substantial screen time, including Chapman who played the lead character. ( The film also had Cleese and Idle.) It was inevitable that film critics and the print media would refer to Yellowbeard as the latest offering from Monty Python, and Python fans were only too eager to accept this as fact. But more likely they were avoiding a more somber reality. There was talk that ....The Meaning of Life would be the final Python project. No more new television shows, no more movies, no more books or records and no more concert tours. If fans wanted anything new from Python then they would have to settle for solo projects that involved a combination of more that one ex-member. Accepting Yellowbeard as a new Python film extended the group lifespan, if only by a few months.

Mr Toad's Wild Ride (2000)

Brazil (1984) was the game changer. The critically acclaimed Gilliam film gained so much attention when it's American distributor refused to release it that it raised Gilliam's status from Python member to major film director. With the exception to the series Fawlty Towers, no other solo project had eclipsed their work as a Python. By the time Brazil did get a proper release on home video, Python fans were well aware that even though it had a script from Gilliam, and featured Michael Palin in a small role, that it was nothing like a Python project. Fans and the media was now willing to accept solo projects with more than one Python involved as what they were, solo projects. There was no attempt to pass off A Fish Called Wanda (1988), The Adventures of Barron Munch (1989) or Erik the Viking (1989) as Python films. The fact that these films featured former Python members was brought up, but in a past tense. With the death of Graham Chapman in 1989 came what was believed to be the official end to Monty Python. But then the possibility of a revival surfaced in 1995 when it was announced that all the surviving Python members would reunite for an adaption of Wind in the Willows. It even seemed like a Python project with Terry Jones as the director. But this was not the case. Terry Jones was doing an adaption of the children's book and had cast himself and Eric Idle in lead roles. He was able to get other Python members to agree to smaller roles. John Cleese had a brief part as a lawyer, while Michael Palin had a cameo as the sun. Terry Gilliam was to do a voice over as another character, but ended up not being involved with the project. When The Wind in the Willows (1996) was released in the UK, it was pre-promoted in the United States as the Monty Python reunion. And then nothing. The American distributor decided not to release it. After much prodding it finally did get a limited release a year later in New York City, where it was pulled from theaters before the week was up. Not only was this the exact same thing that happened with the first Python movie And Now For Something Completely Different, but it was with the same distributor, Columbia Pictures. The only difference this time was that there was now a home video market that did not exist in the '70s. Python fans were promised a VHS and Laserdisc release of the movie by the end of 1997. The release date came and went and no home video. Another release date was announced, and abandoned. There were a few more postponements, and then finally the movie was permanently shelved. Then Disney Studios came along and bought the film, changing the name to Mr Toad's Wild Ride with a planned release in 2000. Mr Toad's Wild Ride would be the first of a series of movies based on popular rides in the Disneyland parks. ( This would later include the successful Pirates of the Caribbean series (2003 - 2011) and the Eddie Murphy film The Haunted Mansion (2003). There were actually a few screenings, but ultimately Disney ended up shelving the film, finally giving it a DVD release in 2004.

By this time the Pythons had made a proper reunion. In 1998 they had been invited to an accepted the invitation to participate in an event where they would receive a comedy award. The Python members ended up writing new material for a semi-real interview with Robert Klein. This was followed by a 30th year retrospective special on BBC2 that included new scripts written and performed by the surviving Monty Python members. There were other reunions to produce new material for the official DVD releases of their movies. And there was now talk about a sequel to ....The Holy Grail. This, along with a proposed reunion concert tour, were both abandoned. But activity from the group repackaging their past projects ( such as Monty Python's Personal Best in 2006 ) was producing more new Python material then they were as a group in the early '80s. The latest announcement is that a new Monty Python movie is now being produced. A 3D cartoon based on Graham Chapman's A Liars Autobiography. All the surviving Pythons are expected to lend their voices, and existing audio of Graham reading his book will allow him to also be in the film. If this project is completed then it will be the 6th official Monty Python movie.


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