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Monty Python

Monty Python (sometimes known as The Pythons) is the collective name of the six creators of Monty Python's Flying Circus, a British television comedy sketch show that first aired, on the BBC, on 5 October 1969. Forty-five episodes were made over four series (seasons). The Python phenomenon developed from the original television series into something much larger in scope and impact, spawning touring stage shows, five films, numerous albums, several books and a stage musical, and launching the members to individual stardom. The group's influence on comedy has often been compared to The Beatles' influence on music

The television series, broadcast by the BBC from 1969 to 1974, was conceived, written and performed by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Loosely structured as a sketch show but with an innovative stream-of-consciousness approach (aided by Terry Gilliam's animations), it pushed the boundaries of what was then considered acceptable, both in terms of style and content.

A self-contained comedy team responsible for both writing and performing their work, they changed the way performers entertained audiences. The Pythons' creative control allowed them to experiment with form and content, discarding the established rules of television comedy. Their influence on British comedy of all kinds has been apparent for many years, while in America it has coloured the work of many cult performers from the early editions of Saturday Night Live through to more recent absurdist trends in television comedy. "pythonesque" has entered the English lexicon as a result.

There are differing accounts of the origins of the Python name although the members agree that its only "significance" was that they thought it sounded funny. In the 1998 documentary Live At Aspen the group implied that "Monty" was selected as a gently-mocking tribute to Field Marshal Lord Montgomery, a legendary British general of World War II; requiring a "slippery-sounding" surname, they settled on "Python". On other occasions Idle has claimed that the name "Monty" was that of a popular and rotund fellow who drank in his local pub; people would often walk in and ask the barman, "Has Monty been in yet?", forcing the name to become stuck in his mind.

In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, three of the six members were voted by fellow comedians and comedy insiders to be among the top 50 greatest comedians ever - Palin was at number 30, Idle at 21 and Cleese at two, just beaten by Peter Cook.

Before Monty Python

Palin and Jones met at Oxford University, while Cleese and Chapman met at Cambridge. Idle was also at Cambridge, but started a year after Cleese and Chapman. Cleese met Gilliam in New York while on tour with the Cambridge University Footlights revue Cambridge Circus (originally entitled A Clump of Plinths).

Chapman, Cleese and Idle were all members of the Footlights, which at that time also included the future Goodies (Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden), and Jonathan Lynn (co-writer of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister). During Idle's presidency of the Club, feminist writer Germaine Greer and broadcaster Clive James were members. Recordings of Footlights revues (called "Smokers") at Pembroke College include sketches and performances by Idle and Cleese. They are kept in the archives of the Pembroke Players, along with tapes of Idle's performances in some of the college drama society's theatrical productions.

Python members variously appeared in or wrote, or both, the following shows before Monty Python's Flying Circus. The Frost Report is credited as first uniting the British Pythons and providing an environment in which they could develop their particular styles:

Several of these featured other important British comedy writers and/or performers of the future, including Marty Feldman, Jonathan Lynn, David Jason and David Frost, as well as members of other significant upcoming comedy teams, Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker (the Two Ronnies), and Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie (the Goodies).

Following the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set, originally intended to be a children's programme, with adults, ITV offered Palin, Jones, Idle and Gilliam their own series together. At the same time Cleese and Chapman were offered a show by the BBC, having been impressed by their work on The Frost Report and At Last The 1948 Show. Cleese was reluctant to do a two-man show for various reasons, including Chapman's supposedly difficult personality. Cleese had fond memories of working with Palin and invited him to join the team. With the ITV series still in pre-production Palin agreed and suggested the involvement of his writing partner Jones and colleague Idle—who in turn suggested that Gilliam could provide animations for the projected series. Much has been made of the fact that the Monty Python troupe is the result of Cleese's desire to work with Palin and the chance circumstances that brought the other four members into the fold.

Monty Python's Flying Circus

Development of the series

The Pythons had a very definite idea about what they wanted to do with the series. They were all great admirers of the work of Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore on Beyond the Fringe, and had worked on Frost, which was similar in style. They also enjoyed Cook and Moore's sketch show Not Only... But Also. However, one problem the Pythons perceived with these programmes was that though the body of the sketch would be strong, the writers would often struggle to then find a punchline funny enough to end on, and this would detract from the overall quality of the sketch. They decided that they would simply not bother to 'cap' their sketches in the traditional manner, and early episodes of the Flying Circus series make great play of this abandonment of the punchline (one scene has Cleese turn to Idle, as the sketch descends into chaos, and remark that "This is the silliest sketch I've ever been in" - they all resolve not to carry on and simply walk off the set). However, as they began assembling material for the show, the Pythons watched one of their collective heroes, Spike Milligan, recording his new series Q5 (1969). Not only was the programme more irreverent and anarchic than any previous television comedy, Milligan would often "give up" on sketches halfway through and wander off set (often muttering "Did I write this?"). It was clear that their new series would now seem somewhat less original, and Jones in particular became determined the Pythons should innovate further.

After much debate, Jones remembered an animation Gilliam had created for Do Not Adjust Your Set called "Beware of the Elephants", which had intrigued him with its stream-of-consciousness style. Jones felt it would be a good concept to apply to the series: allowing sketches to blend into one another. Palin had been equally fascinated by another of Gilliam's efforts, entitled "Christmas Cards", and agreed that it represented "a way of doing things differently." Since Cleese, Chapman and Idle were less concerned with the overall flow of the programme, it was Jones, Palin and Gilliam who became largely responsible for the presentation style of the Flying Circus series, in which disparate sketches are linked to give each episode the appearance of a single stream-of-consciousness (often using a Gilliam animation to move from the closing image of one sketch to the opening scene of another).

Each day of writing started at 9am and finished at 5pm. Typically, Cleese and Chapman worked as one pair of writers isolated from the others, as did Jones and Palin, while Idle wrote alone. After a few days of working in this configuration, they would all join together with Gilliam, critique their scripts and exchange ideas. Their approach to writing was democratic. If the majority found the idea to be humorous, it would be included in the show. The casting of roles for the sketches was a similarly unselfish process, since each member viewed himself primarily as a writer, rather than an actor desperate for screen time. When the themes for sketches were finally chosen, Gilliam had carte blanche to decide how to bridge them with animations, armed with his camera, scissors, and airbrush.

While the show was a collaborative process, different factions within Python were clearly responsible for different elements of the team's humour. In general, the work of the Oxford-educated members was more visual, and more fanciful conceptually (e.g. the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition in a suburban front room), while the Cambridge graduates' sketches tended to be more verbal and more aggressive (for example, Cleese and Chapman's many "confrontation" sketches, where one character ends up intimidating or hurling abuse at another, or Idle's characters with bizarre verbal quirks, such as The Man Who Speaks In Anagrams). Asked about this, Cleese has confirmed that "most 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. Gilliam's animations, meanwhile, ranged from the whimsical to the savage (the cartoon format allowing him to create some astonishingly violent scenes without fear of censorship).

Several names for the show were bandied about before Monty Python's Flying Circus was settled upon. Some of the more memorable were "Owl Stretching Time", "The Toad Elevating Moment", "Vaseline Review" and "Bun, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot". "Flying Circus" stuck when the BBC explained to the group that it had already printed that name in its schedules and was not prepared to amend it, leaving the Pythons no choice in that matter. Many variations on the name in front of this title then came and went. Gwen Dibley's Flying Circus was named after a woman Palin had read about in the newspaper, thinking it would be amusing if she were to discover she had her own TV show. Baron Von Took's Flying Circus was considered as an affectionate tribute to the man who had brought them together. Arthur Megapode's Flying Circus was also suggested, then discarded. Cleese then added "Python", liking the image of a slippery, sly individual that it conjured up. The specific origin of "Monty" is somewhat confused (see above).

Style of the show

Flying Circus pioneered some innovative formal techniques, such as the cold open, in which an episode began without the traditional opening titles or announcements. An example of this is the "It's" man: Palin in Robinson Crusoe garb, making a tortuous journey across various terrains, before finally approaching the camera to state, "It's...", only to be then cut off by the title sequence and the theme song. On several occasions the cold open would last until mid show, after which the regular opening titles would run. Occasionally the Pythons would attempt to trick viewers by rolling the closing credits halfway through the show, usually continuing the joke by fading to the familiar globe logo used for BBC continuity, over which Cleese would parody the clipped tones of a BBC announcer. On one occasion the credits ran directly after the opening titles. They also experimented with ending segments by cutting abruptly to another scene or animation, walking offstage, addressing the camera (breaking the fourth wall), or introducing a totally unrelated event or character. A classic example of this approach was the use of Chapman's "Colonel" character, who walked into several sketches and ordered them to be stopped because things were becoming "far too silly." Another favourite way of ending sketches was to drop a cartoonish "16-ton weight" prop on one of the characters when the sketch seemed to be losing momentum, or a knight in full armour (played by Terry Gilliam) would wander on-set and hit characters over the head with a raw chicken, before cutting to the next scene. Another innovative way of changing scenes was when John Cleese would come in as a radio commentator and say "And now for something completely different". This line has come to be thought of as the troupe's catchphrase.

The Monty Python theme music is The Liberty Bell, a march by John Philip Sousa, which was chosen among other reasons because the recording was in the public domain.

The use of Gilliam's surreal, collage stop motion animations was another innovative intertextual element of the Python style. Many of the images Gilliam used were lifted from famous works of art, and from Victorian illustrations and engravings. The giant foot which crushes the show's title at the end of the opening credits is in fact the foot of Cupid, cut from a reproduction of the Renaissance masterpiece Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time by Bronzino. This foot, and Gilliam's style in general, have come to be considered the visual trademarks of the series.

The Pythons built on and extended the great British tradition of cross-dressing comedy. Rather than dressing a man as a woman purely for comic effect, the (entirely male) Python team would write humorous parts for women, then don frocks and makeup and play the roles themselves. Thus a scene requiring a housewife would feature one of the male Pythons wearing a housecoat and apron, speaking in falsetto. These women were referred to as pepperpots. While this accentuated the humour, it was not, in itself, the joke (had a woman played the role, the lines would have had the same comic effect). Generally speaking, female roles were only played by a real woman (usually Carol Cleveland) when the scene specifically required that the character be sexually attractive (although sometimes they used Eric Idle for this). In some episodes and later Monty Python's Life of Brian they took the idea one step further by playing women who impersonated men (in the stoning scene).

Many of the sketches have become extremely well-known outside the hardcore of Python fans, and are still widely quoted to this day. "Dead Parrot", "The Lumberjack Song", "Spam", "Nudge Nudge", "The Spanish Inquisition", "Upper Class Twit of the Year", "Cheese Shop" and "The Ministry of Silly Walks" are just a few examples.

The end of Flying Circus

Having considered the possibility at the end of the second series, Cleese left the Flying Circus at the end of the third. He later explained that he felt he no longer had anything fresh to offer the show, and claimed that only two Cleese-and-Chapman-penned sketches in the third series ("Dennis Moore" and the "Cheese Shop") were truly original, and that the others were bits and pieces from previous work cobbled together in slightly different contexts. He was also finding Chapman, who was at that point in the full throes of alcoholism, increasingly difficult to work with. According to an interview with Eric Idle, "It was on an Air Canada flight on the way to Vancouver, when John (Cleese) turned to all of us and said 'I want out.' Why? I don't know. He gets bored more easily than the rest of us. He's a difficult man, not easy to be friendly with. He's so funny because he never wanted to be liked. That gives him a certain fascinating, arrogant freedom.

The rest of the group carried on for one more "half" series before calling a halt to the programme in 1974. The name "Monty Python's Flying Circus" appears in the opening animation for series 4, but in the end credits the show is listed as simply "Monty Python". Despite his official departure from the group, Cleese supposedly made a (non-speaking) cameo appearance in the fourth series, but never appeared in the credits as a performer. Several episodes do credit him as a co-writer since some sketches were recycled from scenes cut from the Holy Grail script. While the first three series contained 13 episodes each, the fourth ended after only six.

In 1975 the series was first broadcast in the United States and soon gained a cult following. Ron Deveiller, an executive from PBS television station KERA-TV in Dallas, Texas, found some of the episodes on a shelf when searching for programming for his station. He watched one, then another, and before he was done he had acquired the entire series to put on the air. The series was eventually aired on PBS stations across the country, and by this chance event Python invaded America. A couple of sketches ("Bicycle Repairman" and "The Dull Life of a Stockbroker") aired in 1974 on the NBC series ComedyWorld, a summer replacement series for The Dean Martin Show.

Life after the Flying Circus

Filmography

And Now For Something Completely Different (1971)

The Pythons' first feature film (directed by Ian MacNaughton, reprising his role from the television series) did not really live up to its title, composed as it was, of what were considered the best sketches from the first two series of the Flying Circus, re-shot on an extremely low budget (and often slightly edited) for cinema release. Material selected for the film includes: "Dead Parrot", "The Lumberjack Song", "Upper Class Twit of the Year", "Hell's Grannies", "Self-Defence Class", "How Not To Be Seen" and "Nudge Nudge". Financed by Playboy's UK executive Victor Lowndes, it was intended as a way of breaking Monty Python into America, and although it was ultimately unsuccessful in this, the film did good business in the UK (this still being in the era before home video would make it much more accessible to view the material again). The group did not consider the film a success, but it enjoys a cult following today.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

In 1974, between production on the third and fourth series (which Cleese declined to take part in for a variety of reasons), the group decided that the time was now right to embark on their first 'proper' feature film, containing entirely new material. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was based on Arthurian Legend and was directed by both Terrys, Jones and Gilliam. Again, the latter also contributed linking animations (and put together the opening credits). Along with the rest of the Pythons, Jones and Gilliam performed several roles in the film, but it was Chapman, considered by far the best straight actor of the bunch, who took the lead as King Arthur. Holy Grail was filmed on location, throughout several picturesque rural areas of Scotland, with a tiny budget of nearly £150,000; the money was raised in part with investments from rock groups such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin - and UK music industry entrepreneur Tony Stratton-Smith (founder/owner of the Charisma Records label, for which the Pythons recorded their song albums).

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Following the success of Holy Grail, many reporters asked them for the title of the next Python film, despite the fact that the team had not even begun to consider a second movie. Eventually, Eric Idle once flippantly replied "Jesus Christ - Lust for Glory", which became the group's stock answer once they realised that it shut reporters up. However, they soon began to seriously consider a film lampooning the New Testament era in the same way Holy Grail had lampooned Arthurian legend. Despite being non-believers, they agreed that Jesus was "definitely a good guy" and found nothing to mock in his actual teachings; on the other hand, they shared a distrust of organised religion, and decided to write a satire on credulity and hypocrisy among the followers of someone mistaken for the "Messiah", but who had no desire to be followed as such.

The focus therefore shifted to a separate individual born at the same time, in a neighbouring stable. When Jesus does appear in the film (first, as a baby in the stable, and then later on the Mount, speaking the Beatitudes), he is played straight (by actor Kenneth Colley) and portrayed with respect. The comedy begins when members of the crowd mishear his statements of peace, love and tolerance ("I think he said, 'blessed are the cheesemakers'").

Directing duties were handled solely by Terry Jones on this project, having amicably agreed with Gilliam that Jones' approach to film-making was better suited for Python's general performing style. Holy Grail's production had often been stilted by their differences behind the camera. Gilliam again contributed two animated sequences (one being the opening credits) and took charge of set design. The film was shot on location in Tunisia, the finances being provided this time by former Beatle George Harrison, who formed the production company Handmade Films especially for the movie. He was rewarded with a cameo role as the 'owner of the Mount'.

Despite its subject matter attracting much controversy, particularly upon its initial release, it has (together with its predecessor) often been ranked amongst the very greatest comedy films of all time. A Channel 4 poll in 2005 ranked Holy Grail in sixth place, with Life of Brian at the top.

Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)

Filmed at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles during preparations for The Meaning of Life, this was a concert film (directed by Terry Hughes) in which the Pythons performed sketches from the television series in front of an audience. The released film also incorporated footage from the German television specials (the inclusion of which gives Ian MacNaughton his first on-screen credit for Python since the end of Flying Circus) and live performances of several songs from the troupe's then-current Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album.

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

Python's final film returned to something structurally closer to the style of Flying Circus. A series of sketches loosely follows the ages of man from birth to death. Directed again by Jones solo, The Meaning of Life is embellished with some of Python's most bizarre and disturbing moments, as well as various elaborate musical numbers. The film is by far their darkest work, containing a great deal of black humour, garnished by some spectacular violence (including an operation to remove a liver without anaesthetic and the morbidly obese Mr. Creosote exploding over several restaurant patrons). At the time of its release, the Pythons confessed their aim was to offend "absolutely everyone".

Besides the opening credits and the fish sequence, Gilliam, by now an established live action director, no longer wanted to produce any linking cartoons, offering instead to direct one sketch - The Crimson Permanent Assurance. Under his helm though, the segment grew so ambitious and tangential that it was cut from the movie and used as a supporting feature in its own right (television screenings also use it as a prologue). Crucially, this was the last project that all six Pythons would collaborate on, except for the 1989 compilation Parrot Sketch Not Included where they are all seen sitting in a closet for four seconds. This would be the last time Chapman was filmed on screen with the rest of the gang.

The Secret Policeman's Ball benefit shows

Various members of Monty Python have contributed their services to multiple charitable endeavours and causes over the years - sometimes as an ensemble, at other times as individual members. The cause that has been the most frequent and consistent beneficiary has been the human rights work of Amnesty International. Between 1976 and 1981, the troupe and/or its members appeared in four major fund-raisers for Amnesty - known collectively as the Secret Policeman's Ball shows - which were turned into multiple films, TV shows, videos, record albums and books. These benefit shows and their many spin-offs raised considerable sums of money for Amnesty, raised public and media awareness of the human rights cause and influenced many other members of the entertainment community (especially rock musicians) to become involved in political and social issues. Among the many musicians who have publicly attributed their activism - and the organisation of their own benefit events - to the inspiration of the work in this field of Monty Python are U2, Bob Geldof, Pete Townshend and Sting. The shows are also credited by Amnesty with helping the organisation develop public awareness in the USA where one of the spin-off films was a major success.

Cleese and Jones had an involvement (as performer, writer and/or director) in all four Amnesty benefit shows, Palin in three, Chapman in two and Gilliam in one. Eric Idle did not participate in any of the Amnesty shows. Notwithstanding Idle's lack of participation - the other five members (together with two "Associate Pythons" - Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes - all appeared together in the first Secret Policeman's Ball benefit - the 1976 A Poke In The Eye (With A Sharp Stick) performing several Python sketches and in this first show, they were collectively billed as Monty Python. (Peter Cook deputised for the errant Eric Idle in one major sketch The Courtroom). In the next three shows, the participating Python members performed many Python sketches - but were billed under their individual names rather than under the collective Python banner. After a six-year break, Amnesty resumed producing Secret Policeman's Ball benefit shows in 1987 (sometimes with, and sometimes without variants of the iconic title) and by 2006 had presented a total of twelve such shows. The shows since 1987 have featured newer generations of British comedic performers - including many who have attributed their participation in the show to their desire to emulate the Python's pioneering work for Amnesty. (Cleese and Palin made a brief cameo appearance in the 1989 Amnesty show - apart from that the Pythons have not appeared in shows after the legendary first four.)

Going solo

Each member has pursued various film, television and stage projects since the break-up of the group, but often continued to work with one another. Many of these collaborations were very successful, most notably A Fish Called Wanda (1988) (written by Cleese, in which he starred along with Palin). The pair also appeared in Time Bandits (1981), a film directed by Gilliam, who wrote it together with Palin. Gilliam also directed and co-wrote Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), which featured Palin and Idle respectively. The success of these films, all of which contain many unusual visual elements, earmarked Gilliam as one of cinema's most popular independent film-makers.

Elsewhere, Palin and Jones wrote the comedic film series Ripping Yarns, starring Palin with an assortment of British actors. Palin subsequently joined the establishment of British documentarians with his popular travel series for the BBC. Jones embarked on a similar career path with historical documentaries, also putting his love of the subject to use when writing, directing and acting in Erik the Viking, which also has Cleese playing a small part.

In terms of numbers of productions, John Cleese has had the most prolific solo career, having appeared in 59 theatrical films, 22 TV shows or series (including Cheers, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Will & Grace), 23 direct-to-video productions, six video games, and a number of commercials. Most notably, his BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers (written by and starring Cleese together with his then-wife Connie Booth), is generally considered the greatest solo work by a Python since the sketch show finished. It is the only comedy series to rank higher than the Flying Circus on the BFI's list of the greatest British TV shows, topping the whole poll. The first series of it was made while the rest of the troupe were concerning themselves with the last series of Flying Circus.

Idle enjoyed critical success with Rutland Weekend Television in the mid-70s, out of which came the Beatles parody The Rutles (responsible for the cult mockumentary All You Need Is Cash), and as an actor in Nuns on the Run (1990) with Robbie Coltrane. However, his greatest success has come when returning to Python material, including taking their most famous song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, to no. 3 in the UK singles chart in 1991. The song had been revived by Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 1, and was consequently released as a single that year. The theatrical phenomenon of the Python musical Spamalot has made Idle the most financially successful of the troupe post-Python. Spamalot "lovingly ripped off" from the Holy Grail film. Written by Idle, it has proved an enormous hit on Broadway, London's West End and also Las Vegas. This was followed by Not the Messiah, which repurposes The Life of Brian as an oratorio. For the work's 2007 premiere at the Luminato festival in Toronto (which commissioned the work), Idle himself sang the "baritone-ish" part.

Post-Python reunions

Since The Meaning of Life, their last project as a team, the Pythons have often been the subject of reunion rumours. The final reunion of all six members occurred during the Parrot Sketch Not Included - 20 Years of Monty Python special. The death of Chapman in 1989 (on the eve of their 20th anniversary) seemed to put an end to the speculation of any further reunions. However there have been several occasions since 1989 when the surviving five members have gathered together for appearances - albeit not formal reunions.

In 1998 the five remaining members, along with what was purported to be Chapman's ashes, were reunited on stage for the first time in 18 years. The occasion was in the form of an interview (hosted by Robert Klein, with an appearance by Eddie Izzard) in which the team looked back at some of their work and performed a few new sketches. One of the show's more memorable moments occurred when the ashes were "accidentally" spilled. The person responsible for upsetting the urn was Gilliam – who then hurriedly cleaned up with a mini-vacuum cleaner and a broom and dustpan (with Cleese even dipping his finger into the substance and tasting it). A significant amount of the ashes were brushed under the rug.

On 9 October 1999, to commemorate 30 years since the first Flying Circus television broadcast, BBC2 devoted an evening to Python programmes, including a documentary charting the history of the team, interspersed with new sketches by the Monty Python team filmed especially for the event. The program appears, though omitting a few things, on the DVD The Life of Python. Though Idle's involvement in the special is limited, the final sketch marks the only time since 1989 that all surviving members of the troupe appear in one sketch, albeit not actually in the same room.

In 2002, four of the surviving members, bar Cleese, performed The Lumberjack Song and Sit On My Face for George Harrison's memorial concert. The reunion also included regular supporting contributors Neil Innes and Carol Cleveland, with a special appearance from Tom Hanks.

In an interview to publicise the DVD release of The Meaning of Life, Cleese said a further reunion was unlikely. "It is absolutely impossible to get even a majority of us together in a room, and I'm not joking," Cleese said. He said that the problem was one of business rather than one of bad feelings.. A sketch appears on the same DVD spoofing the impossibility of a full reunion, bringing the members “together” in a deliberately unconvincing fashion with modern bluescreen/greenscreen techniques.

Idle has responded to queries about a Python reunion by adapting a line used by George Harrison in response to queries about a possible Beatles reunion. When asked in November 1989 about such a possibility, Harrison responded: "As far as I'm concerned, there won't be a Beatles reunion as long as John Lennon remains dead." Idle's version of this was that he expected to see a proper Python reunion, "just as soon as Graham Chapman comes back from the dead", but added, "we're talking to his agent about terms."

2003's The Pythons Autobiography By The Pythons, compiled from interviews with the surviving members, reveals that a series of disputes in 1990, over a possible sequel to Holy Grail that had been conceived by Idle, may have resulted in the group's permanent fission. Cleese's feeling was that The Meaning of Life had been personally difficult and ultimately mediocre, and did not wish to be involved in another Python project for a variety of reasons. (Not least amongst them was the absence of Chapman, whose straight man-like central roles in the original Grail and Brian films had been considered to be essential performance anchorage.) Apparently Idle was angry with Cleese for refusing to do the film, which most of the remaining Pythons thought reasonably promising (the basic plot would have taken on a self-referential tone, featuring them in their main 'knight' guises from Holy Grail, mulling over the possibilities of reforming their posse). The book also reveals that a secondary option around this point was the possibility of revitalising the Python brand with a new stage tour, perhaps with the promise of new material. This idea had also hit the buffers at Cleese's refusal, this time with the backing of other members.

The members have continued to appear in each other's films. Gilliam has directed all four other surviving members in various non-Python pictures, Chapman worked with Cleese and Idle in Yellowbeard and Palin and Cleese worked together in the acclaimed A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures. Jones' 1996 adaptation of The Wind in the Willows featured all the surviving Python members except for Gilliam, who was going to play The River but could not find space in his schedule. More recently, DreamWorks' popular animated film Shrek the Third features both Cleese and Idle in voice-over roles, although they do not share any scenes: Cleese reprises his starring role as Princess Fiona's father from the previous film, and Idle had a guest star part as Merlin the magician.

March 2005 saw a full, if non-performing, reunion of the surviving cast members at the premiere of Idle's musical Spamalot, based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It opened in Chicago and has since played in New York on Broadway, and is currently entertaining audiences in Toronto. In 2004, it was nominated for 14 Tony Awards and won three: Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical for Mike Nichols and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for Sara Ramirez, who played the Lady of the Lake, a character specially added for the musical. Cleese played the voice of God, played in the film by Chapman.

Owing in part to the success of Spamalot, PBS announced on 13 July 2005, that it would begin to re-air the entire run of Monty Python's Flying Circus and new one-hour specials focusing on each member of the group, called Monty Python's Personal Best. Each episode was written and produced by the individual being honoured, with the five remaining Pythons collaborating on Chapman's programme, the only one of the editions to take on a serious tone with its new material.

The Pythons

Graham Chapman was born in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, England on 8 January 1941. He was originally a medical student, but changed to theatre when he joined Footlights at Cambridge. He completed his medical training and was legally entitled to practise as a doctor. Chapman is best remembered for the lead roles in The Holy Grail, as King Arthur, and Life of Brian, as Brian Cohen. Chapman appeared in films such as The Odd Job (which he also produced) and Yellowbeard (which he co-wrote), also making several appearances on Saturday Night Live. He died of spinal and throat cancer on 4 October 1989. He is now lovingly referred to by the surviving Pythons as "the dead one." At Chapman's memorial service, Cleese delivered the irreverent speech he felt his co-writer would have wanted: after declaring "Good riddance to the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries!", he announced that, having been the first person to say “shit” on British television, Chapman would never have forgiven him had he missed the opportunity to become “the first person ever at a British memorial service to say 'fuck'.” In an XM radio interview, Cleese later explained that he was originally planning on doing a serious speech but he could imagine his friend being disgusted at what he was writing. He also claimed that the final decision was made after the fellow Pythons, and Graham's family, got into the spirit in which it was intended. Cleese recited all the synonyms for being deceased from the legendary Dead Parrot sketch, which they had written. Cleese remarked in an interview with Michael Parkinson that, in a heartfelt reference to Chapman's tendency towards lateness, Palin had remarked at the funeral, "Graham Chapman is with us today...or at least he will be in 25 minutes". Chapman was survived by partner of 24 years, David Sherlock, and adopted son, John Tomiczek, who died in 1992 of heart trouble.

John Cleese was born on 27 October 1939 in Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset, England, making him the oldest Python. Cleese’s surname was originally Cheese, but his father changed it to Cleese when he joined the army during World War I. Cleese attended Clifton College, Bristol where he developed a taste for performing by appearing in house plays, then moved on to Cambridge, where he met his future Python writing partner, Graham Chapman. In addition to Python, he co-created and starred in, with then-wife Connie Booth, one of the most acclaimed sitcoms in British TV history, Fawlty Towers. Cleese recently played Q's assistant ("R") and then the new Q himself in the James Bond films. He has also done work for the Shrek and Harry Potter film franchises, Time Bandits, A Fish Called Wanda, Clockwise, and several Saturday Night Live episodes.

Terry Gilliam was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, on 22 November 1940. He is the only member of the troupe of non-British origin, though he married a British citizen, makeup and costume designer Maggie Weston, and held dual American-British citizenship for 38 years before renouncing the former. He started off as an animator and strip cartoonist for Harvey Kurtzman's Help! magazine, one issue of which featured Cleese. Moving from the USA to England, he animated features for Do Not Adjust Your Set and was then asked by its makers to join them on their next project - Monty Python's Flying Circus. He co-directed Monty Python and The Holy Grail and directed short segments of other Python films (for instance "The Crimson Permanent Assurance", the short film that appears before The Meaning of Life). Gilliam has gone on to become a celebrated and imaginative film director of such notable titles as Brazil, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Eric Idle was born on 29 March 1943 in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, England. When Monty Python was first formed, two writing partnerships were already in place: Cleese and Chapman, Jones and Palin. That left two in their own corners: Gilliam, operating solo due to the nature of his work, and Idle. Regular themes in his contributions were elaborate wordplay and musical numbers. Idle's initially successful solo career faltered in the 1990s with the failures of his 1993 film Splitting Heirs (written, produced by and starring him) and 1998's Burn Hollywood Burn (in which he starred), which was awarded five Razzies, including 'Worst Picture of the Year'. He revived his career by returning to the source of his worldwide fame, adapting Monty Python material for other media. He is the writer of the Tony award-winning Broadway musical Spamalot, based on the Holy Grail movie. He collaborated with John Du Prez on the music for the show. He has written another Python stage musical, Not the Messiah, this one derived from the Life of Brian film. The production premiered in Montreal in summer 2007. He had earlier strengthened his credentials as a comedic composer with the theme tune to the acclaimed BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave.

Terry Jones was born on 1 February 1942 in Colwyn Bay, Conwy, Wales. He has rarely received the same attention as his colleagues, but has been described by other members of the team as the “heart” of the operation. Recent Python literature has highlighted his lead role in maintaining the group's unity and creative independence. Python biographer George Perry has commented that should you "speak to him on subjects as diverse as fossil fuels, or Rupert Bear, or mercenaries in the Middle Ages or Modern China... in a moment you will find yourself hopelessly out of your depth, floored by his knowledge." Many others agree that Jones is characterised by his irrepressible, good-natured enthusiasm, which is perhaps the reason for his unflagging loyalty to the preservation of the group. However, Jones' passion often led to prolonged arguments with other group members — in particular Cleese — with Jones often unwilling to back down. Since his major contributions were largely behind the scenes (direction, writing), and he often deferred to the other members of the group as an actor, Jones' importance to Python was often underrated. However, he does have the legacy of delivering possibly the most famous line in all of Python, as Brian's mother Mandy in Life of Brian, "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!", a line voted the funniest in film history on two occasions. Since Python, he has continued as a film director and as a TV documentarian (normally on historical subjects). He was diagnosed with bowel cancer in October 2006, undergoing a successful operation to remove it weeks later.

Michael Palin was born on 5 May 1943 in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. The youngest Python by a matter of weeks, Palin is often referred to as "the nice one". He attended Oxford, where he met his Python writing partner Jones. The two also wrote the series Ripping Yarns together. Palin and Jones originally wrote face-to-face, but soon found it was more productive to write apart and then come together to review what the other had written. Therefore, Jones and Palin's sketches tended to be more focused than that of the others, taking one bizarre, hilarious situation, sticking to it, and building on it. After Python, his comedy output began to decrease in amount following the increasing success of his travel documentaries for the BBC, beginning with one edition in the first series of Great Railway Journeys of the World. He eventually announced his retirement from his first profession in the late 1990s. His most recent travel doc was 2007's Michael Palin's New Europe.

Associate Pythons

Several people have been accorded unofficial "Associate Python" status over the years. Occasionally such people have been referred to as the 7th Python, in a style reminiscent of associates of the Beatles being dubbed "The 5th Beatle." The two collaborators with the most meaningful and plentiful contributions have been Neil Innes and Carol Cleveland. Both were present and presented as Associate Pythons at the official Monty Python 25th anniversary celebrations held in Los Angeles in July 1994.

Neil Innes, born on 9 December 1944, in Danbury, Essex, England, is the only non-Python besides Douglas Adams to be credited with writing material for the Flying Circus. He appeared in sketches and the Python films, as well as performing some of his songs in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. He was also a regular stand-in for absent team members on the rare occasions when they re-created sketches outside of Python. For example, he took the place of Cleese when he was unable to appear at the memorial concert for George Harrison. Gilliam once noted that if anyone qualified for the title of the "Seventh Python," it would certainly be Innes. He was one of the creative talents in the off-beat Bonzo Dog Band, appreciated for such nutty compositions as "The Intro and the Outro" and "I'm The Urban Spaceman." He would later portray Ron Nasty of the Rutles and write all of the Rutles' compositions for All You Need is Cash. By 2005, an unfortunate falling out had occurred between Eric Idle and Innes over additional Rutles projects, the results being Innes' critically acclaimed Rutles "reunion" album The Rutles: Archaeology and Idle's undistinguished, straight-to-DVD Rutles sequel The Rutles 2: Can't Buy Me Lunch, each undertaken without participation from the other. According to an interview with Idle carried by the Chicago Tribune in May 2005, his attitude as a result of the dispute is that he and Innes go back "too far. And no further." Innes has maintained a diplomatic silence on the dispute.

Carol Cleveland, born 13 January 1942, in London, England, was the most important female performer in the Monty Python ensemble, commonly referred to as the "Python Girl." Originally hired by producer/director John Howard Davies for just the first five episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus, she went on to appear in approximately two-thirds of the episodes as well as in all of the Python films, and in most of their stage shows as well. Her common portrayal as the stereotypical "blonde bimbo" eventually earned her the sobriquet "Carol Cleavage" from the other Pythons, but she felt that the variety of her roles should not be described in such a pejorative way.

Other contributors

Cleese's ex-wife Connie Booth, who alongside him, co-wrote and co-starred in Fawlty Towers, was probably the only other significant female performer. She appeared in, amongst others "The Lumberjack Song" and as the "witch" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Douglas Adams was "discovered" by Chapman when a version of the Footlights Revue (a 1974 BBC2 television show featuring some of Adams' early work) was performed live in London's West End. In Cleese's absence from the final TV series, the two formed a brief writing partnership, with Adams earning a writing credit in one episode for a sketch called "Patient Abuse". In the sketch, a man who had been stabbed by a nurse arrives at his doctor's office bleeding profusely from the stomach, when the doctor makes him fill out numerous senseless forms before he can administer treatment (a joke Adams later incorporated into the Vogon race's obsession with paperwork in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). He also had two cameo appearances in this season. Firstly, in the episode The Light Entertainment War, Adams shows up in a surgeon's mask (as Dr. Emile Koning, according to the on-screen captions), pulling on gloves, while Palin narrates a sketch that introduces one person after another, and never actually gets started. Secondly, at the beginning of Mr. Neutron, Adams is dressed in a "pepperpot" outfit and loads a missile onto a cart being driven by Terry Jones, who is calling out for scrap metal ("Any old iron..."). Adams and Chapman also subsequently attempted a few non-Python projects, including Out of the Trees. He also contributed to a sketch on the soundtrack album for Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, a devoted fan of the group, has occasionally stood in for absent members. When the BBC held a "Python Night" in 1999 to celebrate 30 years of the first broadcast of Flying Circus, the Pythons recorded some new material with Izzard standing in for Idle, who had declined to partake in person (he taped a solo contribution from the US). Izzard hosted a history of the group entitled The Life of Python (1999) that was part of the Python Night and appeared with them at a festival/tribute in Aspen, Colorado, in 1998 (released on DVD as Live at Aspen).

'Pythonesque'

Monty Python casts a considerable shadow over modern comedy. As such, the term 'pythonesque' has become a byword in surreal humour. This is perhaps somewhat misleading, since the humour of Monty Python, whilst certainly nonsensical and surreal, is still strongly characterised by a preoccupation with sociological concepts such as the British social class system. These themes cannot be said to be essential to surrealist comedy as a whole.

The term has also been applied to animations similar to those constructed by Gilliam (e.g. the cut-out style of South Park, whose creators have often acknowledged a debt to Python, including contributing material to the aforementioned 30th anniversary theme night ). In this regard, some say that "Gilliamesque" would be more accurate.

Python media

Television

The show that started the Python phenomenon. See also List of Monty Python's Flying Circus Episodes.

Two 45-minute specials made by WDR for West German television. The first was recorded in German, while the second was in English with German dubbing.

Six one-hour specials, each episode presenting the best of one member's work.

Films

There were five Monty Python productions released as theatrical films:

A collection of sketches from the first and second TV series of Monty Python's Flying Circus purposely re-enacted and shot for film.

King Arthur and his knights embark on a low-budget search for the Holy Grail, encountering humorous obstacles along the way. Some of these turned into standalone sketches.

Brian is born on the first Christmas, in the stable next to Jesus'. He spends his life being mistaken for a messiah.

A videotape recording directed by Ian MacNaughton of a live performance of sketches. Originally intended for a TV/video special. Transferred to 35mm and given a limited theatrical release in the US.

An examination of the meaning of life in a series of sketches from conception to death and beyond, from the uniquely Python perspective.

Albums

Theatre

  • Monty Python's Flying Circus — Between 1974 and 1980 (Live at the Hollywood Bowl was released in 1982, but was performed in 1980) the Pythons made three sketch-based stage shows, comprising mainly material from the original television series.
  • Monty Python's Spamalot — Written by Idle directed by Mike Nichols, with music and lyrics by John Du Prez and Idle, and starring Hank Azaria, Tim Curry, and David Hyde Pierce, Spamalot is a musical adaptation of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It ran in Chicago from 21 December 2004 to 23 January 2005, and began performances on Broadway on 17 March 2005. It won three Tonys.
  • Not the Messiah — The Toronto Symphony Orchestra commissioned Idle and John Du Prez to write the music and lyrics of an oratorio based on Monty Python's Life of Brian. Entitled Not the Messiah, it had its world premiere as part of Luminato, a "festival of arts and creativity" taking place June 1–10, 2007 in Toronto. Not the Messiah was conducted by Peter Oundjian, Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, who is Idle’s cousin. It was performed by a narrator, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with guest soloists and choir. According to Idle, "It will be funnier than Handel, though not as good".

Books

Games

  • In 1994 "Monty Python's Complete Waste of Time", for PC / DOS, was released by 7th Level.
  • In 1996, 7th Level released the official Monty Python & the Quest for the Holy Grail. It used footage and imagery from the film, as well as audio clips (some new) and featured an animated version of a scene never filmed entitled "King Brian The Wild".
  • In late 2007 Toy Vault Inc announced their epic Monty Python property game, Python-opoly. It is scheduled for wide release in the second quarter of 2008.

World Record Holders

  • On St George's Day, Monday, 23 April 2007 the cast and creators of Spamalot gathered in Trafalgar Square under the tutelage of the two Terrys (Jones and Gilliam) to set a new record for the world's largest coconut orchestra. They led 5,567 people "clip-clopping" in time to the Python classic "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life" for the Guinness World Records attempt.

Things named after Monty Python

See also

References

  • Chapman, Graham (1997). Graham Crackers: Fuzzy Memories, Silly Bits, and Outright Lies, Career Pr Inc. ISBN 1-56414-334-1
  • Landy, Marcia (2005). Monty Python's Flying Circus. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-3103-3.
  • Morgan, David (June 1999). Monty Python Speaks, a Spike imprint, Avon Books Inc., New York, New York. ISBN 0-380-80479-4
  • Wilmut, Roger (1980). From Fringe to Flying Circus, Eyre Methuen Ltd, London. ISBN 0-413-50770-X

Notes

External links

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