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Monty Python

Monty Python or The Pythons were the creators and stars of Monty Python's Flying Circus, the television comedy series. As a television series it consisted of 45 episodes over 4 series; however, the phenomenon that is Monty Python was much more than the television series alone, spawning a stage tour, four films, several computer games and books, as well as launching the individual Pythons (as they are often called) to stardom in their own right.

The show, originally 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 back the boundaries of what was then considered acceptable, both in terms of style and content, and has been a lasting influence, not just on British comedy, but globally.

History (pre-Python)
Humble beginnings

Palin and Jones met at Oxford University, Cleese and Chapman met at Cambridge University. Idle was also at Cambridge, but a year later than Cleese and Chapman. Gilliam met Cleese in New York whilst the latter was touring with A Clump Of Plinths.

Variously they appeared in the following shows before being united for Monty Python's Flying Circus:

  • I'm Sorry, I'll Read that Again (radio) (1964-1973)
  • The Frost Report (1966-1967)
  • At Last the 1948 Show (1967)
  • We Have Ways Of Making You Laugh (1968)
  • Do Not Adjust Your Set (1968-1969)
  • The Complete And Utter History Of Britain (1969)

They also have writing credits for a selection of other shows.

The Python members
Michael Palin

The youngest Python by a matter of weeks, Palin is often labeled 'the nice one'. He attended Oxford, where he met his Python writing partner Terry Jones. The two also wrote the series 'Ripping yarns' together. Their sketches tended to be more focused (if this word can be used to describe the work of ANY of the Pythons) than that of the other four, taking one bizarre, hilarious situation, sticking to it, and building on it. Examples include The Spanish inquisition sketch and the Mr Creosote sketch in The Meaning of Life. These sketches take everyday situations (talking in the sitting room, dining out) but then introduce an unexpected, impossible to predict, rogue element (The Spanish Inquisition, a grotesquely overweight man). From here, Palin and Jones could play around with the newly created environment, taking it to impossible, unbelievably stupid extremes, for example, attempting to torture old ladies with cushions or having Cleese's waiter feed Mr Creosote until he actually explodes, showering the other diners in vomit. Palin has attempted to dispel his 'nice guy' image in recent years, going to the extremes of traveling the globe in uncompromising conditions.

(See also Michael Palin.)

Terry Jones

All the Pythons have an eclectic range of talents, but Terry Jones is particularly hard to compartmentalize. George Perry has commented that should you "speak to him on subjects as diverse as fossil fuels, or Rupert the Bear, or mercenaries in the Middle Ages or Modern China and in a moment you will find yourself hopelessly out of your depth, floored by his knowledge." However Jones is by no means a show off, he merely has a good natured enthusiasm. It is this same good natured enthusiasm that has led to his unflagging loyalty to the preservation of the group. As long as there is Terry Jones, there will be, in some way, a Monty Python. Jones' dedication to Python is not a recent occurrence however. As well as writing with Michael Palin, he committed himself to directing the Python films Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, when it was felt that a member of the group should be in charge. Though the rest of the group appreciate such efforts, it would be a lie to say that there was not a little resentment at being bossed around by a man they viewed as an equal, especially when he acted as director. This has resulted in light hearted joking at Jones' expense: Eric Idle, for example, constantly hails him as the most boring man on the planet.

(See also Terry Jones, above for Jones' work with Palin.)

Eric Idle

Two writing partnerships were absorbed into the Pythons - John Cleese and Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. That left Terry Gilliam in his own corner, a sensible position in view of the arcane nature of his work, and Eric Idle. Eric was content to be cast as the group loner, preferring to write by himself, at his own pace, although he sometimes found it difficult in having to present material to the others and make it seem funny without the back-up support of a partner. He claimed, "It was easier in a show where there were thirteen in a series than with a film, where stuff was read out all the time, and you had to convince five others. And they were not the most un-egotistical of writers either." Eric studied at Cambridge, a couple of years behind John Cleese and Graham Chapman. His participation was essential to the Python synergy. His talent for verbal humor is exceptional, leading the group to dub him "master of the one liner". As a performer he can master with ease tongue twisting word plays that verge on impossibility. He is also a talented songwriter and accomplished guitarist with a real ear for lyrics and styles. This talent lent heavily to the Python's work, composing, amongst others, 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life', which has become the group's signature tune.

(See also Eric Idle.)

John Cleese

Perhaps the best known of the Pythons, Cleese attended Cambridge, where he met his future Python writing partner Graham Chapman. His work with Chapman was, aside from Gilliam's animations, perhaps the most surreal of the Pythons work and almost certainly the most intentionally satirical (a noteworthy achievement indeed). It often involved ordinary people in ordinary situations, doing inreadably strange and surreal things. A civil servant in black suit and bowler hat makes his way to work. However, Cleese and Chapman transform this every day sight into a bizarre, unforgettable scene as the straight faced Cleese uses his writing skills and his physical potential to their full force as the crane legged civil servant performs an athletic, grotesque, utterly memorable walk to his office at the 'Ministry of Silly Walks'. This showcased Cleese talent for physical comedy (also famously used in Fawlty Towers) and playing characters who could remain serious, even straight faced, whilst doing something utterly ludicrous. His role as Sir Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail also showcases this, as he fights his way through a castle to save a damsel in distress, much like, say, Kevin Costner in films such as Robin Hood, completely oblivious to the fact that he is actually savaging wedding guests. Another popular device used by the two was highly articulate arguments over completely arbitrary subjects, such as in the cheese shop, the dead parrot sketch or the Argument clinic. All of these roles were opposite Michael Palin, who John often claims is his favourite Python.

(See also John Cleese.)

Graham Chapman

Graham Chapman died of cancer on 4 October 1989. Chapman was perhaps best remembered for taking on the lead roles in The Holy Grail, as King Arthur, and The Life of Brian, as Brian Cohen. The movie roles were fairly straight, the comedy deriving from the stereotypical lead in bizarre situations, encountering eccentric characters, still being played as serious, and unflinching. These roles, however, were unusual for the Graham Chapman the public had come to know on the Flying Circus, where he figured as the tall, craggy pipe smoker who gave the impression of calmness, disguising a manic unpredictability as real in his characters as they were in reality. For behind the pipe-smoking, rugby playing exterior lay an alcoholic homosexual, with whom the rest of the Pythons often had trouble dealing. This was one of the reasons that Cleese left the television show after series three. Chapman particularly had trouble filming the Holy Grail in Scotland, where he got the D.T's. However, by the time his definitive role of Brian arose, he was sober and continued to produce some of his best work with the Pythons.

(See also Graham Chapman, above for Cleese and Chapman's work together.)

And now for something completely different

The first series of (the as-yet unnamed) Flying Circus was originally planned as a vehicle for Cleese. Cleese, however, wanted to work in collaboration, and so the group was assembled in an organized and disciplined fashion. Each day of writing started at 9 am and finished at 5 pm. At the start of a typical week, Cleese and Chapman worked as one pair of writers isolated from the others, Jones and Palin worked as another pair, and Idle wrote alone. After a few days of working in this configuration, the entire group would get together with Gilliam and critique each other's scripts and exchange ideas. Their approach to writing was democratic. If something made the majority laugh, it would be in the show. The casting of roles for the sketches was a similarly democratic and ego-less process, since each member of the troupe viewed himself as a writer rather than as an actor desperate for screen time. With the themes for all of the sketches for an episode locked in place, Gilliam now had free creative rein to decide for himself how to glue them all together with fanciful animations, armed with his camera, scissors, and airbrush.

Several names were bandied about before the title "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was settled upon. Some of the more memorable were "Owl Stretching Time", "Bunn, Wacket, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot", and "Gwen Dibley's Flying Circus".

The group had a very definite idea about what they wanted to do with the series, and were a little dismayed when they saw Spike Milligan recording his series Q, as it seemed like he'd beaten them to it. However, whilst there are acknowledged Milligan influences, the style of the show is markedly different. This is largely due to Terry Gilliam's distinctive animations, but the peer-review process in selecting material is also significant.

Life after Python
Python (Monty) Pictures

The five surviving members of the main Monty Python team are directors of Python (Monty) Pictures Limited which was incorporated in 1973 and now manages ongoing activities resulting from their previous work together, such as royalties. In the accounts return, the company describes its activities as 'the exploitation of television and cinematographic productions'. In the last financial year for which accounts are available (to March 2002) the company's turnover was £3.3M (source: Bureau van Dijk's FAME).

A driving force behind Python in the late 1970s was the Beatles' George Harrison, who not only funded and appeared in Monty Python's Life of Brian but produced a number of their songs from that period, including the Lumberjack Song single.

Going solo

Each member pursued other film and television projects after the break-up of the group, but often continued to work with one another. Many of these were very successful, such as A Fish Called Wanda (1988), starring Cleese and Palin. Palin and Cleese appeared in Time Bandits (1981), a movie written by Gilliam and Palin, and directed by Gilliam. Palin appeared in Brazil (1985), directed and co-written by Gilliam. Idle appeared in The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988), which was directed and co-written by Gilliam. Idle had success in 'Nuns on the Run' (1990) with Robbie Coltrane.

For full details see the Pythons' individual biographies.

The end?

The Pythons are very often the subject of reunion rumours. The death of Graham Chapman in 1989 (on the eve of their 20th anniversary) seemed to put an end to this speculation, but in 1998 the 5 remaining members, along with 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 and with an appearance by Eddie Izzard) where the team looked back at some of their work, as well as performing a few new skits.

On 9 October 1999, to commemorate 30 years since the Flying Circus's first TV appearance, BBC2 devoted an evening of programmes, such as a documentary charting the history of the team, and interspersed them with new sketches filmed especially for the evening. 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 busy-ness rather than one of bad feelings.

Python bibliography
Books

The following books were published by Monty Python, mostly in large format:

  • Monty Python's Big Red Book (1971) - in a blue cover, naturally
  • The Brand New Monty Python Bok (1973) (Paperback edition issued as The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok)
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1977) (Original and shooting script, with Gilliam pictures, lobby cards, stills, correspondence and cost breakdown)
  • The Life of Brian of Nazareth/Montypythonscrapbook (1979) (Film script plus a lot of extra material published back-to-back with it)
  • The Life of Brian script book published separately as a standard paperback
  • Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983) (Film script with photos)
  • The Monty Python Songbook
  • Monty Python: Just the Words (1989) (Full transcripts of all 4 television series. Originally published in two volumes)
  • The Complete Works of Shakespeare and Monty Python: Vol. 1 - Monty Python (1981) (a repackaging of both the Big Red Book and the Brand New Bok)
Records

Album releases include:

  • Monty Python's Flying Circus (1970)
  • Another Monty Python Record (1971)
  • Monty Python's Previous Record (1972)
  • The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973) (A "three-sided" record; side two of the record has two separate grooves)
  • Monty Python Live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (1974)
  • The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
  • The Worst of Monty Python (1976) (A repackaging of Another Monty Python Record and Monty Python's Previous Record)
  • Monty Python Live at City Center (1976)
  • The Monty Python Instant Record Collection (UK Version - 1977)
  • Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
  • Monty Python examines The Life of Brian (1979) (A promotional album, never publicly released)
  • Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album (1980)
  • Monty Python's Meaning of Life (1983)
  • Monty Python's The Final Ripoff (1988) (As the name suggests, a compilation of previous material)
  • Monty Python Sings (1989) (A compilation of Python songs)

In addition, there have been several singles, either on general release or as promotional material (including magazine freebies).

Films

There were four Monty Python films:

  • And Now For Something Completely Different
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Life of Brian
  • The Meaning of Life

In addition, a documentary-style film was made of their live performances at the Hollywood Bowl in 1980, titled Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl.

Specials

Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus: Two 45-minutes specials made by WDR for West German television. These were shot entirely on film, mainly on location in Bavaria and in the German language, although the second episode was originally recorded in English and then dubbed into German. Some of the material was reworked from At Last the 1948 Show. Footage from these specials was used to fill in between live stage performances. At one point the team considered editing the two shows together, dubbing them completely into English and releasing them as a 90-minute film, but it never came about.

Live shows

Python performed several live shows and tours. The following shows were recorded for public release:

  • Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl: A video record of the team's Hollywood Bowl concerts in 1978, filmed before a hysterical audience. Also incorporates some filmed inserts from the German specials.
  • Monty Python Live At Drury Lane: Also released as an album.
Computer games
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus: A platform/shoot-em-up game in which you play Mr. Gumby on a quest to find his missing brain cells.
  • Monty Python's Complete Waste Of Time
  • Monty Python and The Quest for the Holy Grail
  • Monty Python's Meaning Of Life
Further reading
Literature
  • From Fringe To Flying Circus - Roger Wilmut (1980)
  • The First 28 Years Of Monty Python - Kim "Howard" Johnson (1998)
  • The Pythons Biography Of The Pythons (2003)

This biography was taken verbatim from the Wikipedia. We're providing a snapshot just in case the Wikipedia servers were temporarily unreacheable. The original page is not only much more up-to-date, it also features links to other pages and sites. This snapshot was last updated: 09/09/2004. (mm/dd/yyyy)

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