Prompts a Cult Following Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Monty Python’s Flying Circus, an unconventional and often absurd comedy program, ran on British television from 1969 to 1974 and captured worldwide attention, earning the Monty Python troupe and its work both on television and in subsequent films an enduring cult following.

Summary of Event

Monty Python’s Flying Circus first appeared on British television on October 5, 1969, and ran for forty-five shows through December 5, 1974. The last six shows in the series bore the shortened title of Monty Python, differed somewhat in style from the first thirty-nine, and were performed without John Cleese in the cast. The program was written and performed by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, all of whom had worked in British television in one capacity or another (chiefly writing, except for Gilliam, whose specialty was animation) prior to their involvement in the Monty Python troupe. Monty Python’s Flying Circus (television program)[Monty Pythons Flying Circus] Television;comedies Comedies;television [kw]Monty Python’s Flying Circus Prompts a Cult Following (Oct. 5, 1969) [kw]Cult Following, Monty Python’s Flying Circus Prompts a (Oct. 5, 1969) Monty Python’s Flying Circus (television program)[Monty Pythons Flying Circus] Television;comedies Comedies;television [g]Europe;Oct. 5, 1969: Monty Python’s Flying Circus Prompts a Cult Following[10460] [g]United Kingdom;Oct. 5, 1969: Monty Python’s Flying Circus Prompts a Cult Following[10460] [c]Radio and television;Oct. 5, 1969: Monty Python’s Flying Circus Prompts a Cult Following[10460] [c]Motion pictures and video;Oct. 5, 1969: Monty Python’s Flying Circus Prompts a Cult Following[10460] [c]Popular culture;Oct. 5, 1969: Monty Python’s Flying Circus Prompts a Cult Following[10460] Cleese, John Gilliam, Terry Idle, Eric Palin, Michael Jones, Terry Chapman, Graham

Monty Python’s Flying Circus, however, was as a whole like nothing that had come before it. It featured an unconventional brand of comedy as well as an unconventional presentation. It did not rely on one-liners or punch lines, or, for that matter, jokes, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. It eschewed standard sketches with a beginning, middle, and end, musical interludes, guest stars, and linear and logical progression. It instead flowed without interruption from one idea to another in stream-of-consciousness fashion, mixing film sequences with sketches performed before a live studio audience as well as animation and stock footage. The film sequences and sketches most often took a concept or situation and stretched it to comically absurd extremes or completely removed the predictable contents of a concept or situation, or both, and replaced said contents with totally unconventional, unpredictable material.

Sequences were linked most often—if in fact there was a link at all—by comically strange animation, much of which consisted of the creative superimposition of several pictures that appeared to be clipped from art books, magazines, and catalogs, or by the loose theme of a particular episode. The program was absurd, bizarre, even near anarchic, but once its audience caught on to its style, it was an unmitigated success and the beginning of what would become the Monty Python phenomenon.

The Pythons themselves were an eclectic group, six young writer/performers who came together to invent, with the blessing of the British Broadcasting Corporation British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a comedy program. The most prominent member of the troupe was Cleese, for whom the BBC supposedly had been searching for a comedy program when the soon-to-be Pythons came together. As a Python, Cleese excelled at playing the educated, cultured, prim and proper, establishment character, but always, in true Python fashion, with a twist. His characters included, to mention but a few, a lawyer who questions a deceased witness, a BBC newsreader who continues to read the news even as he and his desk are wheeled out of the studio by gunmen, and Mr. Teabags of the Ministry of Silly Walks, whose job it is to consider grants for those who wish to develop silly walks of their own.

The members of the troupe performed together as a group but wrote segments of the shows in smaller teams or individually. Cleese’s writing partner for the show was Chapman, who had collaborated with Cleese on pre-Python projects and who, like Cleese, excelled at playing establishment characters, though most of Chapman’s most memorable characters were not simply establishment but authority figures. These included numerous police inspectors, such as Inspector Dim of the Yard, who, in a courtroom, breaks into a song and dance to a recurring colonel character who frequently interrupted sketches to declare them either too risqué or too silly.

Cleese and Chapman wrote rather tight, though by no means conventional, sketches that relied heavily on verbal humor, in the University of Cambridge tradition. Palin and Jones, who also had written together prior to the show, regularly produced more nonsensical, visually oriented segments, more in the tradition of the University of Oxford. As a performer, Palin played a wide range of characters, both male and female. Almost all female characters in the program, except those for whom an obvious female appearance was vital, were played to comic and screechingly high-pitched absurdity by the Pythons themselves. Some of Palin’s most popular characters were either a combination of dishonest and phony, such as his frequent shop-owner characters and his numerous television hosts, or downright stupid, such as the Gumbies, idiotic characters who appear in various roles and whom Palin polished to perfection.

Jones also played a wide variety of roles, including numerous female characters—perhaps most frequently middle-aged suburban housewives—and one of the program’s most bizarre characters (which is saying something, given the program in question), a nude organist who helped open most of the shows of the third season of the program.

While Cleese and Chapman and Palin and Jones paired off and wrote together, Idle wrote primarily on his own. The comic weight of Idle’s characters frequently lay in their verbal excess, from his man on trial who delivers an impassioned speech on the issue of freedom, all in defense of his citation for a parking violation, to his popular “Mr. Nudge” character, who, in a conversation full of insinuation concerning a fellow bar patron’s wife, repeatedly nudges the other man in the ribs and utters the phrase “Say no more! Say no more!” Gilliam, the only American of the troupe, performed only on occasion, usually in relatively minor roles, though his role as a performer grew as the program progressed. He was instead responsible for creation of the program’s animation, which he created largely without contact with the other members of the troupe, frequently revealing his work only on the day of each show’s taping.

This animation, known both for its unusual style and its comic violence, was yet another element that separated Monty Python’s Flying Circus from its comedic predecessors. The fortuitous teaming of these six talented individuals produced a program that in both its form and its content lived up to the program’s and the troupe’s popular catchphrase: “And now for something completely different.”

Significance

The success of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, first in Britain, then in the United States, beginning with the first airings of the program by stations of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1974, and then around the world brought the Monty Python troupe legions of loyal fans who could recite their favorite segments from the shows word for word.

These favorites included sketches such as “The Dead Parrot,” also known as “The Pet Shop,” in which a man (Cleese) attempts to return a dead parrot to the pet shop from which he purchased it and is told by the shop owner (Palin) that the parrot is only sleeping. In “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” a man (Palin) seeking funding to develop a silly walk is told that his walk is not silly enough by Mr. Teabags (Cleese), who works for the Ministry of Silly Walks and whose walk, as well as that of his secretary, are far sillier. “The Spanish Inquisition” is known primarily for its intentionally poor acting by Palin, Jones, and Gilliam.

In “The Architect,” Cleese presents plans for a slaughterhouse to a group that wishes to build a block of flats. A frustrated customer (Cleese) attempts to purchase cheese in “The Cheese Shop.” After running through a list of cheeses he would be willing to purchase, the customer finds that the shop in fact has no cheese for sale. At this point, he produces a gun and shoots the cheese-shop proprietor. Python fans embraced favorite characters from the program as well, such as the aforementioned Gumbies, and even songs from the show, for example, “The Lumberjack Song,” which praises the virtues of being a lumberjack, which, in the case of the lumberjack in the song, includes dressing in women’s clothing.

The success of the television program allowed the Monty Python troupe to branch out into other media. The Pythons took their act on tour, performing many of their most popular sketches, as well as some new material and their unique animation (projected on large screens), on stages from those in Britain to the Hollywood Bowl.

The troupe also made films. And Now for Something Completely Different (1972) collected skits, much like a longer version of the television show. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) was a sketch-driven, Pythonesque look at medieval England, loosely connected to King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail. Jabberwocky (1977), directed by Gilliam and starring Palin but no other Pythons, offered another look at medieval England. Life of Brian (1979) follows the life of a man (Brian, played by Chapman) whose life parallels that of Jesus Christ. Although intended by the troupe as an attack on those who follow blindly, the film drew considerable protest from those who thought it ridiculed the life of Christ. Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982) was a filmed performance of the troupe’s stage act. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) was a series of bizarre—even by Python standards—sketches on everything from birth control and sex to gluttony.

The troupe recorded numerous records as well, such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1970), The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973), The Monty Python Instant Record Collection (1977), and Monty Python’s The Final Ripoff (1988). The troupe even produced a number of books, such as Monty Python’s Big Red Book (edited by Idle, 1971), which appropriately has a blue cover, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Just the Words (1989), which contains the scripts of the television program. Numerous books by others have attempted to chronicle and explain the Python phenomenon.

One of the strongest influences of Monty Python’s Flying Circus can be seen in Saturday Night Live. Monty Python certainly helped popularize the skit-oriented style of show. Saturday Night Live was one of the first American shows to exploit this rediscovered genre, and a host of other skit-oriented comedy shows followed.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus not only broke with but virtually obliterated all conventions of both content and presentation in its comic style. Once its audience learned to expect (and accept) “something completely different,” both the program and its troupe went on to earn an enduring cult status. Most important, the program influenced numerous writers, performers, and programs that followed it, as well as the comic taste of an entire generation and beyond. The members of the Monty Python troupe continued to work in television and film after the group disbanded. Monty Python’s Flying Circus (television program)[Monty Pythons Flying Circus] Television;comedies Comedies;television

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardcastle, Gary L., and George A. Reisch, eds. Monty Python and Philosophy: Nudge Nudge, Think Think! Chicago: Open Court, 2006. Part of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series, this collection with the seemingly impossible title and subject examines the Monty Python phenomenon not only as a “philosophy” in its own right but also as an avenue for addressing the “big questions” of life. The introductory essay asks “What’s All This Then?”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Kim. The First 280 Years of Monty Python. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999. This may be the definitive book—with the deliberately incorrect title—on both Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the troupe itself. Includes a synopsis of each show, discussion of the films, and behind-the-scenes information from the Pythons themselves. Also includes a profile on each Python as well as trivia questions, a collection of quotes on various subjects taken from the sketches, and an annotated list of records, books, videos, and other items by or about Monty Python. Numerous photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Landy, Marcia. Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2005. Part of the series Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television Series: TV Milestones. A brief study that examines the comedy program as part of a changing British culture. Also looks at the program and its U.S. audience, the show’s use of cross-dressing and gender bending, and the troupe’s “recycling” of culture—art, literature, drama, and cinema.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCall, Douglas L. Monty Python: A Chronological Listing of the Troupe’s Creative Output, and Articles and Reviews About Them, 1969-1989. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1991. Provides what the title indicates as well as a record of numerous personal events in the lives of the Pythons, including their work outside the group. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nathan, David. “Monty Python’s Flying Breakthrough.” In The Laughtermakers: A Quest for Comedy. London: Peter Owen, 1971. The book as a whole examines the development of postwar comedy in Great Britain. Most of this 9-page chapter focuses on John Cleese, also discussing the nature of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and how it differs from programs before it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perry, George. Life of Python. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983. Includes the chapter “Birth,” which discusses British humor from around 1950 up to the formation of Monty Python. Discusses each of the Pythons’ work prior to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Subsequent chapters provide insightful profiles of each Python and trace the history of the troupe’s work. Numerous photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilmut, Roger. From Fringe to Flying Circus: Celebrating a Unique Generation of Comedy, 1960-1980. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980. Includes a chapter on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Discusses the history of the program, with considerable attention paid to the types of sketches, the evolution of the program, and the distinctive characteristics of each performer. More analysis than simple description. Also discusses the group’s films, records, and books.

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