Monty Python - a Brief History | Graham Chapman - Comedy Writer and Actor | John Cleese - Comedy Writer and Actor | Terry Gilliam - Writer, Animator and Director | Eric Idle - Comedian, Writer and Actor | Terry Jones - Writer, Director and Actor | Michael Palin - Writer, Actor and Traveller | 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' - the Television Series | Monty Python's 'Dead Parrot Sketch' | 'And Now For Something Completely Different' - the Film | 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' - the Film | 'Monty Python's Life of Brian' - the Film | 'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life' - the Film | Monty Python - The Books | Monty Python - The Records | Monty Python - The Stage Shows | Monty Python - The Best Bits | Almost Pythons - Important 'Monty Python' Contributors
'"It's hot enough to boil a monkey's bum in here, your Majesty," he said, and she smiled quietly to herself.'
'She's a good Sheila, Bruce, and not at all stuck up.'
- 'Bruces', Monty Python's Flying Circus - second series
From 1969, the output of the Monty Python team under the Python banner1 has been enormous, covering television, films, records, books and computer games. But what is it that makes Python so good and so well-loved more than 30 years on? Presented here is a selection of Python's finest moments, chosen by various Researchers, with some thoughts on why they were so successful. Don't read too much into this, however. Comedy is highly subjective and the important thing is not to over-analyse - just enjoy!
'No, I've been shopping. Been shopping for six hours!'
'What have you bought?'
'Nothing! Nothing at all; complete waste of time.'
'Ooh, it'll be worse when we join the Common Market2.'
- 'Mrs Thing and Mrs Entity', Monty Python's Flying Circus - second series.
NB This article is not, nor could it ever be, comprehensive. If your favourite Python moment isn't mentioned here, post to one of the conversations below...
'Do you waaaant... do you waaaant to come back to my place, bouncy-bouncy?'
'I don't think you're using that right.'
'You great poof.'
- 'Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook', Monty Python's Flying Circus - second series.
The 'Fish-Slapping' Dance
This very short piece of insanity from the third series of Monty Python's Flying Circus perhaps encapsulates everything that Python is, and is also Michael Palin's favourite Python moment. To the tune of some jolly music, Palin, dressed in typical British Empire explorer gear (pith helmet etc.) leaps up and down, slapping John Cleese (similarly dressed) in the face with two small fish. When the music stops, Cleese takes a previously-hidden large fish and smacks Palin into the river with it. It's surreal, it's nonsense... but is it also making a point about the ridiculousness of the rituals and behaviour associated with 19th Century British colonialism3? Or is it just two grown men who ought to know better being silly on film..?
'That's just contradiction.'
'No it isn't.'
'Yes it is!'
A piece of Cleese/Chapman genius from the third series. Just brilliant: superb writing, a clever idea and, most importantly, hilarious.
Technically, this one was written before the team came together as Python, but they performed it as part of their Drury Lane stage show and so it's fair game for this article. In the sketch, four old codgers - with Yorkshire accents and names like Obadiah and Jeremiah - sit around on holiday reminiscing about how tough life was when they were young. Everyone has a dad, uncle or grandfather like them!
Silly Disturbances (The Rev. Arthur Belling)
A little-known, very strange sketch from toward the end of the third series, this is another of those short pieces that could be said to define Python. It features the second appearance of the mad vicar from the parish of St Loony up the Cream Bun and Jam, who was originally played by Graham Chapman. This time, Michael Palin thoroughly enjoys himself as he first makes absolutely sure that he won't be disturbing John Cleese and Carol Cleveland's romantic evening, and then proceeds to destroy it utterly by making strange gestures, smashing plates, waving dolls about, squirting shaving foam over himself and singing tunelessly. Eventually, John and Carol take pity on him and, in the next scene, we see them doing the same silly things at home and later rushing to the church at St Loony up the Cream Bun and Jam. Sheer lunacy... or is there a serious point about some of the rites associated with organised religion in which people participate and accept without question? After all, the Pythons' attitude to religious leaders4 is on record in Life of Brian and elsewhere:
And spotteth twice they the camels before the third hour, and so the Midianites went forth to Ram Gilead in Kadesh Bilgemath, by Shor Ethra Regalion, to the house of Gash-Bil-Bethuel-Bazda, he who brought the butter dish to Balshazar and the tent peg to the house of Rashomon, and there slew they the goats, yea, and placed they the bits in little pots. Here endeth the lesson.
- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life
'Now, a last supper I commissioned from you, and a last supper I want! With twelve disciples and one Christ.'
'Yes one! Now will you please tell me what in God's name possessed you to paint this with three Christs in it?'
'It works mate!'
- 'The Last Supper', Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl
The Lumberjack Song
Leaping from tree to tree as they float down the rivers of British Columbia. The giant redwood, the larch, the fir, the mighty scots pine. The smell of fresh-cut timber. The crash of mighty trees. With my best girlie by my side, we'd sing, sing, sing...
A Palin/Jones ditty, originally part of the first series of Flying Circus. This story of a transvestite lumberjack was always a favourite during the stage shows. The end of the line that traditionally introduced the song - 'I never wanted to be...5' was generally drowned out by the roar of the crowd.
Sir Robin's Minstrel
When danger reared its ugly head,
He bravely turned his tail and fled.
One of the minor characters from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the minstrel is played perfectly by Neil Innes. As with most elements of the film, the minstrel subverts the genre entirely, singing not of the heroic exploits of a brave knight, but constantly reminding Sir Robin the Not So Brave how much of a coward he is.
The first sketch of the third series of Flying Circus, this epic is spread throughout the episode and incorporates many 'pythonesque' ingredients:
Erudition - Icelandic sagas are not an obvious target for comedy.
Surrealism - One segment takes place in a modern courtroom and features the hero, Njorl, entirely swathed in bandages.
Breaking television convention - The narrator appears on screen, addresses the audience directly and asks for people to 'phone in with suggestions'.
Satire - The sketch attacks corporate sponsorship and product placement in films, with frequent references to the town of North Malden.
Anti-authority - The police officers in the courtroom sequence are stupid, corrupt and violent.
William Shakespeare's 'Gay Boys in Bondage'
Have they no respect for great literature? Er... no! A piece of Terry Gilliam animation from the third series of Flying Circus, this is part of a longer sketch that flits backwards and forwards in time from the Tudor period to the present day. As he usually did, Gilliam seized upon a line in a sketch and let his imagination loose on images cut from famous and not-so-famous works of art. The result, with Michael Palin providing a suitably mumbled soliloquy over the top, is bizarre, but definitely Shakespearean.
The Whole of Life of Brian!
'All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health... what have the Romans ever done for us?'
What more is there to say? Life of Brian was the Pythons' most successful, most controversial work...
'All right. I am the Messiah. Now... f..k off!'
'How shall we f..k off, oh Lord?'
...and is often cited by John Cleese as the team's greatest collective achievement.
Ve are the Judean People's Front crack suicide squad. Suicide squad! Attack!
The It's Man
Right from the outset, the Pythons were determined to impress upon the viewers that what they were watching was the exact opposite of every nice, normal, sensible programme that had ever been made. So, instead of a presenter addressing the camera with 'Good evening and welcome to the show', or something equally banal, Python viewers are confronted with Michael Palin's ragged, bearded, wild-eyed, incoherent castaway, who staggers up to the camera and announces 'It's...' before being cut off by the opening credits. In the first series of Flying Circus, the It's Man sections were quite long, often involving his struggling through some difficult terrain before reaching the camera. In the second and third series he was limited to a quick 'It's...', although he did get his own chat show in the third series. Sadly, he only got as far as 'It's...' before the credits started to roll, which meant that he never got to interview his guests: Scottish pop singer Lulu and Beatles' drummer Ringo Starr. The It's Man also makes an appearance in a second series 'Vox Pops' sequence about taxation, in which he informs us that 'I would tax Raquel Welch... and I've a feeling she'd tax me'. Possibly more than we needed to know.
Find the Fish
Perhaps the most surreal item anywhere in Python, this oddity sits in 'The Middle' of Meaning of Life. If you haven't seen it, it is impossible to describe adequately. It consists of a sort of thing with an elephant's trunk, Graham Chapman dressed in women's underwear, and Terry Jones with very long arms, and they're all looking for a fish. That description doesn't come close...
The Machine That Goes 'Ping'
Between them, this sketch and the previous one cover the entire range of Python comedy. Where 'Find the Fish' is pure surreality and nonsense, this one is pure satire. The sketch savages modern medicine and its obsession with technology, jargon and finance: the poor mother is deemed unqualified and the father is shooed out as he's not involved. They teach this stuff in medical schools.
It's fun to charter an accountant,
And sail the wide accountancy6.
This witty little number from Eric Idle rounds off Terry Gilliam's epic short film, The Crimson Permanent Assurance and leads us gently into the main body of Meaning of Life. A longer version appears on the film's soundtrack album.
Cruelty to animals - be it blowing them up, converting them into other animals, selling dead ones, beating carpets with them or, as in this case, flinging them over the battlements of castles - was a staple of Python humour. It is strange therefore that a land of animal lovers, such as the British claim to be, should take them to their hearts. In this case, however, the person doing the cow-flinging is very French indeed. Silly accents were also popular with the Pythons proving that, despite all being highly intelligent, educated people, sometimes a little juvenile comedy is exactly what's needed:
I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.
Eric the Half-a-Bee
One of John Cleese's few songs, this was cut from the second series of Flying Circus and eventually appeared on Monty Python's Previous Record. In it, John sings of his love for the eponymous insect that he had accidentally chopped in half. Was someone saying something about cruelty to animals and silly voices..?
One thing that John Cleese does better on screen than almost anybody else is get angry. Given that he is dressed as a woman and trying to sell an albatross to the cinema-going public, you can't really blame him. This sketch escaped from the original Flying Circus series to become very popular in the stage shows, particularly Hollywood Bowl, where John took the opportunity to insert a rather rude word into the sketch. It will not be repeated here.
The Architects Sketch
If John was warming up with 'Albatross', he certainly hit his stride with this incredible piece of invective from the second series of Flying Circus. After his design for a new block of flats is dismissed7 he loses his temper and spews vitriol at the panel.
You excrement! You lousy, whining, hypocritical toadies...
Of course, satire isn't far behind, as this whole sketch suddenly turns into an attack on Freemasonry, with John realising that he may have gone too far and blown his chances of joining the society, excusing himself with the rather pathetic 'I was a bit on edge just now'.
I Like Traffic Lights
When you've broken the rules of television and film, why not break the rules of song-writing as well? This monotonous dirge from the Contractual Obligation Album features Terry Jones droning the line 'I like traffic lights' a random number of times, before ending each 'verse' with a particularly feeble rhyme. When he gets to 'I like traffic lights, although my name's not Bamber', even he can take it no longer and gives up with a sigh and a pained 'oh, god...'
A short piece from Meaning of Life, in which 'fiercely proud' Protestant, Graham Chapman, berates his Catholic neighbours for having too many children. He then describes how, as a Protestant, he can buy any sort of condom he desires, including a 'French tickler'. His increasingly breathless wife - charmingly played by Eric Idle - wishes he would. All together, a beautifully observed piece of comedy.
This is the little-known second half of the 'Dead Parrot Sketch', in which John Cleese's customer travels to an identical pet-shop in Bolton to find a suitable replacement for his parrot. After that, things get so silly that only Graham Chapman's Colonel can end it...
Sit on My Face
Another example of Python controversy, this was a reworking of a song that was originally sung by English singer Gracie Fields and initially faced removal from the Contractual Obligation Album. Fortunately, it remained on the album, and the most memorable performance of the song was at the Hollywood Bowl, where John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones had a serious problem with their trousers.
A naughty little Eric Idle piece from the first series of Flying Circus, taking children's bedtime stories as its inspiration. After some Gilliam-animated bunny-rabbits, the kindly-voiced presenter begins with a tale of Ricky the magic pixie, whose relationship with Daisy Bumble is not entirely appropriate... After several more attempts to find a suitable story - '...with a melon?!' - he gives up and we go back to Terry G's rabbits, who are promptly squashed by a hippopotamus. Life is harsh, kids.
And just to prove that not all Python humour is gross, shocking and satirical, this sweet little tribute to a certain northern-European country was written by Michael Palin. Of course, some people might accuse him of damning with faint praise, but they're just cynics.
Graham Chapman's Memorial Service
How sweet to be an idiot,
And dip my brain in joy.
- Neil Innes
Does this count as a piece of Python? Well, John Cleese paraphrased the 'Dead Parrot Sketch', accused Graham of being a 'freeloading b.....d' and became the first person at a British memorial service to say 'f..k', and the other Pythons also chipped in bits of Python nostalgia and Graham stories, including renditions of 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' and 'How Sweet to be an Idiot'. All in very bad taste... which is most definitely Python! The text of John Cleese's 'eulogy' to Graham can be found here.
But What's So Funny About a Transvestite Lumberjack/Mad Vicar/Silly Argument..?
It is often said that people are divided into two types: those who love Python, and those who don't get it at all. Naturally, the real situation is a little more complicated. There are those who are offended by Python (whether they have ever seen any or not), those who find it all baffling and frankly unfunny, those who appreciate some of the more mainstream material, such as the 'Dead Parrot sketch' or The Life of Brian, and those who love the whole lot to bits and revel in the sheer silliness of it all. Whichever category you fall into, there is no doubt that the best bits of Python will continue to be quoted and re-quoted for many years to come.
Having dutifully recorded everyone's choices, the compiler of this article would like to end with a random quotation from Meaning of Life, on the subject of foreplay:
'Was it taking your clothes off, sir?'
'And after that?'
'Putting them on a lower peg, sir?'
Admittedly, this makes very little sense without the previous 5 minutes of the film, but whenever did 'making sense' have anything to do with Python..?