The Before And After Of "Monty Python's Flying Circus"

When but a girl, I used to stay up quite late watching TV (exciting in itself!) trolling for Fred Astaire or Marx Brothers movies in a sea of horrific late-night jangling commercials like those featuring, in his white cowboy hat, the car dealer Cal Worthington “and his dog, Spot” (who turned out to be an elephant, often as not). Thus it was that one night I discovered “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” a phenomenon that roared like a hurricane across the plain of my tender psyche, ending in an hoarse, explosive “It’s!” How can I tell you what this meant to me? It was just a TV show, but “Monty Python” came across the screen like a gunshot in a lullaby; it was a life-altering revelation from the first moment; decades later, the lunacy and insight of these five then-young Oxbridge guys (plus one wayward American animator) are bred into my very bones.

This essay is part of a series about our favorite TV shows past.

Previously: “Carnivàle” Broke My Heart

“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” aired in the UK for just three and a half seasons, from 1969 to 1974; it’s hard to believe, but there are only 45 episodes. By the time the show first arrived in the U.S. in mid-1974 its run in the UK was over, and John Cleese was about to debut “Fawlty Towers.” I was to learn, on first visiting England in the late 1970s, that the natives (impossibly!) thought Monty Python rather passé.

I was not alone in my first raptures, though: I was delighted to learn that a few of my friends at school were as transported as I had been. By the time we graduated from high school we all of us knew nearly every word of every episode, and basically the whole script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail besides.

The enduring depth of my attachment to Monty Python was not entirely clear to me until I began writing about it. The first time I was able to choose my own .mp3 ringtone, I absently opted for the Liberty Bell March (scroll down to the 1896 version for greatest fidelity to the Python version); my Twitter page, too, turns out to be Python themed. Does a week even pass where I don’t shout, in a truly hopeless Scottish accent, “Angus Podgorny, yer a fewl”?! Who among us can fail to identify, and often, with the crazed optimism of that ambitious retailer of kilts (and tennis champion)?

Now that I’m grown up, I can see that the Pythons’ subversive charm consisted largely in spoofing television itself in a new way; the credits might appear in the middle of the show, or they might scroll backward; the sketch might end in the middle, or suddenly give way to the beautiful and/or ghastly animations of Terry Gilliam, bewitching new images that simultaneously recalled (as I came to learn) Peter Max, Hieronymus Bosch, underground cartoons, MAD Magazine, circus posters and William Morris wallpapers. Each program provided a series of unpredictable shocks, delightful, or creepy, or hilarious, or sad, or any or all of those things at once. The curtain having once been lifted, one could never look at television quite the same way again. But for a very young kid, this message, significant as it was, was as yet subliminal; at the time I only saw, and marveled, and laughed and laughed and laughed.

“The Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things” provides a remarkably compact illustration of the Pythons’ po-mo approach to storytelling (here strengthened, I feel, by the addition of Portuguese subtitles).

Excitingly, too, this was the first TV show I’d ever seen that poked fun so uproariously at literature, and at learnedness. Watching Socrates pondering in the middle of a soccer field was an education all its own; the All-England Summarize Proust Competition was just as good. The intellectualism that I worshiped as a kid, far from being strictly a matter for pious reverence, could be mocked by intellectuals themselves. This came as a glorious relief to us junior would-be boffins.

(And can this be the direct progenitor of all Internet cat videos?)

The 1970s were a rough time for American comedy in general, given that the country was mired in a war even deadlier and stupider than the ones we are in now. Even so, many of Monty Python’s innovations weren’t entirely new to us. “Laugh-In” (1968–1973) had been immensely popular; in that gently satirical show there had already been a lot of breaking of the fourth wall, an anarchic pace and vibe, one-line sketches, things like this. It had a colorful, mildly psychedelic, unhinged air, and made sad little anti-war jokes once in a while. The really subversive show, though, was “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” (1967–69): nominally a “variety show,” but in reality a red-hot, raging indictment of the Man, who (in the form of CBS exec Bill Paley) put the kibosh on it, despite its high ratings and Emmy awards. Even now, watching clips of this show makes one realize exactly how much tamer even Stephen Colbert is by comparison (Colbert being the closest thing we have, alas) — and how much Colbert & co. have lifted from it. The show’s op-ed man, Pat Paulsen, even ran for President (six times, between 1968 and 1992) in an amalgam of political satire and performance art that prefigured many of the wheezes Colbert would employ decades later (cf. the editorial pieces linked above, as against Colbert’s “The Word”).

Certain satirical and absurdist elements of “Monty Python” as well as “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “Laugh-In” were deeply rooted in earlier British comedies that can be traced back almost like beads on a string. Cleese and Chapman wrote for “That Was The Week That Was” (1962–63), along with a roster of talent so glittering it’s hard to believe these guys all worked on the same project, among them: David Frost (presenter), Roald Dahl, John Betjeman, David Nobbs (The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin), Kenneth Tynan, Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven), and Richard Ingrams, who founded the satiric magazine Private Eye. “Beyond the Fringe” (1960–64), featuring an earlier gang of Oxbridge comic geniuses (Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller), had connections with “TW3” through a number of its writers. Both these shows were more openly challenging of authority and of institutions in general than their most obvious precursor, “The Goon Show,” a BBC radio program(me) airing from 1951 to 1960, starring Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, and claimed as an influence by pretty much every notable English comedian of the last fifty years.

Milligan, author of the excellent memoir Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall, and maybe the most original comedic talent of 20th-century England aside from Wodehouse, yields to nobody in his mastery of sheer lunacy and speed. So far as I can tell, he is the original layerer-up of comedic bits in a single dramatic scene that might include puns, a poke at authority, a few asides, a complete shift of gears and a pratfall, all in the space of a minute. Sadly, Milligan was very loosely scotch-taped to the rails in real life; he was diagnosed as a manic depressive, as that illness was then known; he is said to have tried to stab Peter Sellers at a bad moment. But Milligan’s antic sense of language and the breakneck speed of his wit, combined with Sellers’s equal speed and his incredible gift for mimicry, make “The Goon Show” exciting and super crazy listening to this day (and pretty much all of it is available for download).

The Pythons amplified the wordplay and anarchy of Spike Milligan and the Goons, adding this to the rapid-fire sketch techniques of “TW3” and “The Frost Report.” On top of it all came the fake-scholarly element that would continue through to modern English comedies about intellectuals and about scholarship, such as “Look Around You.”

John Cleese and Graham Chapman met at Cambridge in 1959; Eric Idle arrived there a couple of years later. Terry Jones and Michael Palin met at Oxford. By the time the show began, their writing styles were fully developed and they continued to write in pairs, with Idle writing alone. In Roger Wilmut’s 1980 book, From Fringe to Flying Circus (already very scarce, buy one if you see it) Cleese remarked, “[M]ost of the sketches with heavy abuse were Graham’s and mine, anything that started with a slow pan across countryside and impressive music was Mike and Terry’s, and anything that got utterly involved with words and disappeared up any personal orifice was Eric’s.”

The Pythons were ever allusive, never topical; their comedy abstract, and the targets of their satire, general. All authority is suspect, whether of church, state, academy, police, or business, and the only real events alluded to are in the distant past: the Crusades, the life of Christ, the Spanish Inquisition. In this way, they were able to skirt the institutional and political strictures that likely doomed both “TW3” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” while still creating thought-provoking and revealing works of satire. At their best they had it both ways, maybe: the ability to take on the Man without giving obvious offense, without really endangering their freedom of expression.

The lovely motto of the Footlights club at Cambridge is “Ars est celare artem” (“Art is in concealing the art”). I will humbly propose another for the timeless inspiration of Monty Python: “Ars est revelare artem.”

Though the members of the Python cast went on independently to create all kinds of projects, I felt they equalled their early brilliance only rarely (A Fish Called Wanda springs to mind as one of those times.) The reason for their breakup might have been partly to do with the alcoholism of Graham Chapman, who was by all accounts a difficult character. Substance abusers can be very rough to work with; doubly so, perhaps, when the fortunes of many are riding on one fragile person’s participation. But Chapman was seemingly such a lovable guy as well. When he died of throat cancer in 1989 John Cleese delivered a famous eulogy for his old friend and collaborator, in which he said,

Graham Chapman, co-author of the “Parrot Sketch,” is no more. He has ceased to be. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. He’s kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky. And I guess that we’re all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, of such capability for kindness, of such unusual intelligence, should now so suddenly be spirited away at the age of only 48, before he’d achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he’d had enough fun.

Well, I feel that I should say: nonsense. Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries. And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me if I didn’t, if I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything, for him, but mindless good taste.

A Liar’s Autobiography (2011), the animated film version of the late Chapman’s memoir, is kind of a trainwreck (currently streamable on Netflix). But for those willing to endure some tedious musical numbers, a lot of hairy-looking cartoon copulation and an animated Chapman careening around in a penis-shaped rollercoaster car, there are inspiring moments. Such as the account of the auditions of Chapman and Cleese for Cambridge’s Footlights Club, before club secretary David Frost. “I impersonated a carrot,” Chapman remarks breezily, “and a man with iron fingertips being pulled offstage by an enormous magnet. John Cleese did a routine of trampling on hamsters, and can still do a good pain-ridden squeak.”

A certain amount of the baroque artifice of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” has disappeared from American television (while in England, the torch has been passed to the likes of “The Mighty Boosh”). American comedy has changed; it’s more direct now, more personal. There are not so many wild costumes, fewer flights of fancy, and a distinct shortage of lupins. But what we can learn from Graham Chapman done up as King Arthur and being insulted by a maniacal Frenchman is still so deep and true. His bravado giving way to bewilderment, and coming back again. “Now look here, my good man!” Their theatricality may have been detached, ludicrous, abstract, but scenes like those could draw attention to the underlying absurdity of social structures in a way that is, I think, less available to us now. The Pythons depicted the confusion of the just man in an unjust world with an inventiveness and awareness that I am very grateful to have experienced as a young kid. So grateful that I’ve just changed my ringtone back to “The Liberty Bell March.”

Previously in series: “Carnivàle” Broke My Heart

Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic.