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Monty Python (sometimes called the Pythons) is the collective name of a comedy troupe founded in London, England and comprised of five British and one American writer/performers who together wrote, starred in and created Monty Python's Flying Circus. They also made three original movies together (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and Meaning of Life), one film compilation of their TV sketches (And Now for Something Completely Different) and one concert film (Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl), as well as several TV specials in the UK, the USA and Germany. The six official members are:
In addition, one woman is often considered a non-official Python:
She featured prominently in all four seasons of the TV series and all five movies, and she has thus been affectionately named "the seventh Python." Others who play important roles in the series' and troupe's development and history include:
- Connie Booth - actress
- Neil Innes - actor, composer and writer
- Douglas Adams - writer
- John Howard Davies - producer
- Ian MacNaughton - producer
The comedy troupe Monty Python has its roots in the early 1960s in the hallowed halls of England's two most prestigious universities: Cambridge and Oxford. Members Michael Palin and Terry Jones met at Oxford, and it was in Cambridge, with the famous Footlights, that future member John Cleese first met and worked with Graham Chapman. (Eric Idle would also work with the Footlights and serve as its president, although he was not there at the same time as Cleese and Chapman. However, he had met Cleese in a revue called the Pembroke Smoker, and he credits Cleese with being the one to encourage him to join the Footlights.) Their work there, particularly Cleese's, caught the eye of the BBC, who hired him as a comedy writer, first on the radio show I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again. In 1964, Cleese and Chapman travelled to America with a Footlights revue, Cambridge Circus, and there Cleese met and worked on a photo shoot with American Terry Gilliam, a magazine cartoonist and writer. (Cleese also met future wife and recurring Python cast member Connie Booth in New York.) Back in England, the five English members worked together in various combinations on such BBC television shows as At Last the 1948 Show, Twice a Fortnight and most notably The Frost Report—the first show on which the five of them would all work together. In 1967, Gilliam arrived in Britain after a backpacking tour of Europe looking for work. He contacted Cleese, who put him in touch with producer Humphrey Barclay, with whom Cleese had first worked on I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again. Barclay liked Gilliam's cartoons and sketches and put him to work as an animator on Do Not Adjust Your Set, for which Jones, Palin and Idle were writers at the time.
In 1969, the BBC offered Cleese and Chapman their own show together—although they intended the show as primarily a vehicle for Cleese. Cleese was concerned about doing a two-man show, particularly because Chapman was a notorious alcoholic, but he had fond memories of working with Palin on The Frost Report, and he enjoyed the others' work on Do Not Adjust Your Set. He offered Palin and Gilliam a chance to work on the BBC series, and although the four Do Not Adjust Your Set writers were, at the time, considering an offer to do their own show with ITV, delays in pre-production convinced them to accept Cleese's offer.
The BBC series became known as Monty Python's Flying Circus. There have been several explanations offered for the "Monty" part of the name (including Field Marshall Lord Montgomery, the P.G. Wodehouse character Monty Bodkin, and a regular at a pub which Idle frequented). "Python" was chosen because the cast members wanted a "slippery-sounding" name. And "Flying Circus" was the preliminary title given the series by the BBC in advance press, which the network executives refused to change.
The Python style—so distinctive, unique and original that the word "Pythonesque" has made its way into The Oxford English Dictionary—came about because the members were disappointed by other sketch comedies' use of punchlines to end sketches and preferred instead to simply end pieces halfway through. In addition, Gilliam's animations—surreal, avant-garde and often used to link sketches—inspired a sort of stream-of-consciousness comedy style which became the group's trademark. They also shied away from the sort of political and pop culture satire which had become a staple of other contemporary sketch comedies, such as That Was the Week That Was in the UK and Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and relied instead on absurdist humor and historical references. Thus their material is as fresh and relevant 35 years later as it was when the series initially aired in the 1960s and '70s. Other trademarks include the Pythons' frequent cross-dressing as middle-aged women (called "Pepperpots"), which later inspired comedy troupes such as The Kids in the Hall and comic actors such as Mike Myers.
The writing process would begin in small groups—Chapman and Cleese; Palin and Jones; Idle and Gilliam each off by themselves. The groups would then pitch their concepts to the others, and those sketches which everyone found funny would be developed in the group for inclusion in the show. Gilliam would then insert his animations. Each of the six members considered himself a writer first and an actor second, and so all report a noticable lack of egos in casting pieces. In fact, each of the writing groups often wrote their characters to other members' strengths. For instance, Chapman often played upper-class authority figures; Cleese often played bureaucratic white-collar workers; Idle slick, sleazy salesmen; Jones shrill housewives; and Palin working-class slobs.
The series' first producer, John Howard Davies, initially hired Carol Cleveland when a sketch required a sexy woman, because the Pythons felt, although they could convincingly play middle-aged or unattractive women, the joke would be ruined if they attempted to be sexy. The Pythons were impressed by Cleveland's comedic talents, and although they later worked with other women—including Booth and Idle's then-wife Lyn Ashley—they pushed their second producer Ian MacNaughton to hire Cleveland whenever possible.
The first season was met by audiences and critics with a combination of confusion, bewilderment and dismissal. But the audience grew as the season progressed, and by the second season, the show had become a cult hit. It also developed a following on the European continent with its showing in TV festivals. In 1971, after the second season, the troupe created two specials for German television of sketches performed or dubbed into German, called Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus. That same year, the Pythons made their first theatrical film, And Now for Something Completely Different, a sort of "greatest hits" refilming of some of their most famous sketches, in part to help get the Pythons into America, if only on college campuses and arthouses. However, the Pythons—Cleese in particular—were unsatisfied with the film and felt they should focus on more original material and not reworkings of pieces they had already performed.
By the third season, as Palin states it, "The BBC were starting to notice that they had this show." The upside was increased promotion and budget; the downside was censorship and increased network control. When the show had a fourth and final short season, Cleese opted not to return, as he felt he was not spending enough time with Booth and his children.
However, he was onboard for the group's first original film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Production was a miserable experience due to in-fighting between the two co-directors—Jones and Gilliam—bad weather, long shooting schedules, technical difficulties and Chapman's alcoholism. Troubled production aside, the film was an international success: It received rave reviews in England, Europe and North America. The troupe began to receive its first substantial monetary return, and it was cheered by large crowds upon its arrival in Canada, much like The Beatles upon their first American tour. (In fact, it was at this time when Monty Python became what many have said was the equivalent to comedy to what the Beatles were to music. Palin has referred to the writing team of Cleese and Chapman as "Lennon and McCartney." The Beatles themselves were fans of the show, and Ringo Starr made a cameo appearances in the series. And George Harrison has gone on record as saying Python took over where the Beatles left off.) Perhaps most importantly, the cult success of the film in America led to PBS airing the first three seasons on American television. When ABC bought the rights to the fourth season and aired it re-edited without the Pythons' approval, they successfully sued to retain the rights, and the resulting agreement led to an unprecedented and highly rare control over their own series. They also made a stage tour of the United States—including an appearance at City Center in London in which Idle's pal Harrison made an uncredited and unrecognized cameo as one of the singers in the famous "Lumberjack Song" sketch.
Their true rock star status, however, would come upon the release in 1979 of their second original film, Life of Brian. Originally proposed by Idle as a joke to reporters, the film was conceived as a satire of the life of Jesus Christ. However, the Pythons found they agreed with Jesus the man and instead chose to parody Biblical times, Christianity the faith, organized religion and the culture of celebrity itself. To ensure a better experience than the filming of Holy Grail, the film was written in the Caribbean and filmed in Tunisia, and Jones had sole directorial control. Protests by religious groups and local governments only added to the film's allure, and it rocketed the film to a legendary status. This incredible celebrity allowed Monty Python to film and release their concert film, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl.
Afterwards, the Pythons went to work on their third original and final film together, The Meaning of Life. Once again, Jones was sole director (although Gilliam directed an opening live-action short and his own animations). However, unlike Holy Grail and Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life had no running plotline. Instead, it was, like the series, a collection of sketches, although unlike any episode of the series, the progression of the scenes were united by a common theme—the progression of life from birth to death. Although the film was successful, it was not the smash international hit the previous two films had been, and critical reaction was mixed. The most important response, however, was from the Pythons, who were happy with some of the scenes but overall dissatisfied with the final result. What's more, they felt they had grown apart, although they had, in the final scenes, successfully concluded their collaboration as a troupe, as the members all ascended to Heaven.
In 1989, to celebrate the troupe's twentieth anniversary, they reunited for the television special Parrot Sketch Not Included: Twenty Years of Monty Python, a collection of their most famous sketches (except, of course, for the "Parrot Sketch") hosted by Steve Martin. The original plan for the special had included a sketch which the Pythons were to perform with Martin, whose work they admired and with whom they found it a joy to work. However, the Pythons were dissatisfied with the outcome of the sketch—which neither they nor Martin had written. Worst of all, Chapman was in the midst of a battle with cancer and was in a wheelchair at the time, so he was unable to take part in the sketch. When Chapman was finally brought into the room, his gaunt appearance and inability to walk or even swallow came as a shock to both Martin and his fellow Pythons.
That final, "lost" Monty Python sketch was scrapped. Instead, the special ends with Martin saying, "So there you have it: The best of Monty Python. Hm, where are they now? Well, they're here in this cupboard." Martin then opens his closet to reveal Gilliam, Cleese, Jones, Idle and Palin standing around a visibly pale, gaunt and ill Chapman. After four seconds, Martin closes the cupboard and says, "Sad, isn't it?" These four seconds would mark the final public appearance of all six Pythons together in one place.
Mere weeks later, on October 4, 1989—exactly one day shy of the twentieth anniversary of the premiere of Monty Python's Flying Circus in the United Kingdom—Chapman died. Since then, the surviving five have appeared together occasionally, including at the Aspen Comedy Arts Festival for the HBO special Monty Python's Flying Circus: Live at Aspen. They also collaborated on the book The Pythons Autobiography by the Pythons, which draws on interviews, diaries and original memoirs to trace the origins and history of the troupe. They were all together in March 2005 at the Chicago premiere of Idle's theatrical play Monty Python's Spamalot—a musical adaptation of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They also collaborated (although they did not appear together, except in clips from the original series) on the 2006 miniseries Monty Python's Personal Best, another retrospective of their classic sketches with new filmed comedy bits as framing material.
Note: All credits are only for those appearances as Monty Python. For individual cast member credits, see their respective pages.
|Monty Python's Flying Circus||Sketch comedy||BBC||1969–74||Fourth season did not feature Cleese|
|Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus||Sketch comedy specials||ARC||1972|
|Monty Python's Personal Best||Sketch comedy retrospective||PBS||2006||Chapman appears in archive footage only|
|Monty Python: Almost the Truth||Documentary||BBC||2009||Chapman appears in archive footage only|
|Monty Python and the Holy Grail Location Report||BBC||December 19, 1974|
|The Pythons: Somewhere in Tunisia, Circa A.D. 1979||BBC||1979|
|The Meaning of Monty Python's Meaning of Life||BBC||1983|
|Parrot Sketch Not Included: Twenty Years of Monty Python||BBC||October 5, 1989|
|Life of Python||BBC||1990|
|Python Night||BBC2||October 9, 1999|
|It's... the Monty Python Story||BBC2||October 9, 1999|
|Monty Python Live at Aspen||HBO||March 21, 1998|
|Monty Python Live (Mostly)||Gold||uly 20, 2014|
Note: This list only includes releases which focused on more than one Monty Python program. Any releases which focus on a program are listed in their own article
|Episode Collections - Various Series: Region 2|
|The Best of Monty Python's Flying Circus Vols. 1-3 and Live at Aspen||March 1, 2004||4||purchase|
|The Best of Monty Python's Flying Circus and Live at Aspen||October 2, 2005||4||purchase|
|Episode Collections - Various Series: Region 1|
| Monty Python Live!
Includes Live at Aspen, Parrot Sketch Not Included and the first Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus special
|October 23, 2001||2||purchase|
Notable Film Roles
- And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
- Life of Brian (1979)
- Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)
- The Meaning of Life (1983)
Awards and Accolades
American Film Institute
- Won: AFI Star Award (1998)
- Honoring "the talents of those who have made a significant impact and have had an enduring influence on the television and motion picture industries."