Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a popular British sketch comedy show that launched in 1969. It had such a big following that there’s even an asteroid named after the comedy troupe (Asteroid 13681 is called “Monty Python”). The show starred Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Read on for little-known facts and where the cast is now.
See why the show was almost canceled after one episode!
Not Really a Circus
The first episodes of the show were filmed in front of an older audience, who thought they were seeing an actual circus. Needless to say, they were very confused by the program, which didn’t generate as many laughs as the Pythons wanted.
The cast decided to invite friends and family to watch the tapings so their jokes would get the expected reactions from the audience. Some of their jokes were so bawdy the network censored them.
And Now For Something Completely Different
The show was known for the phrase, “And now for something completely different,” but the Pythons didn’t invent it. The BBC often used the phrase during its TV and radio broadcasts when it segued from one news item to another. Cleese made the phrase popular; however, Idle was the first one to use it.
In 1971, a film of the same name was released. It was 90 minutes of sketches from the first two series of the show. Cleese appeared in between some sketches to deliver the line, at one point roasting on a spit and another lying on top of a desk in a pink bikini. While the cast members had a lot of laughs together, not all of them felt like they fit in the comedy troupe.
Feeling Like an Outsider
Terry Gilliam didn’t really feel like he belonged with the other Pythons, who were very educated and went to either Oxford or Cambridge universities. Gilliam, the only American, was born in a poor area outside Minneapolis and believed himself to be “the monosyllabic Minnesotan farm boy.” He told the Telegraph he was very impressed with his co-stars, “because of their command of the language and just their general intelligence.”
Eventually, however, their novelty wore off. He joked, “But over the years I’ve realized they’re really stupid about the real important things in life – they’d been coddled by Oxbridge for so long.” Gilliam, by the way, was no dummy. He graduated from Occidental College. While he felt like a bit of an outsider, one member quit the show for a completely different reason.
The Real Reason Cleese Left Flying Circus
“I felt that Python had taken my life over and I wanted to be able to do other things,” John Cleese told the Telegraph. “I wanted to be part of the group, I didn’t want to be married to them – because that’s what it felt like. I began to lose any kind of control over my life and I was not forceful enough in saying no.”
He added, “The Pythons didn’t really hear my objection when I said I was not happy about one or two aspects of the show. It was like, ‘Cleese is on some strange trip of his own’ and they never listened. We never really communicated.” Cleese also had issues with one of his colleagues.
Graham Chapman’s Alcoholism
Another one of the problems Cleese had was collaborating with Graham Chapman, who had a major drinking problem at the time. It was difficult for them to get much accomplished. Cleese told the Telegraph, “And I also had the burden of working with Chapman during his alcoholic phase when no one else would work with him. So my writing consisted of sitting with someone who couldn’t remember in the afternoon what we had written in the morning.”
Cleese left the Flying Circus in 1973 after the third series but did return for some films, including The Life Of Brian in 1979. Did his departure cause bad blood among the rest of the Pythons?
More Than Just Colleagues
Often people work together on film or TV but don’t necessarily get along in real life. That’s why it’s called acting. But the chemistry the Pythons shared was genuine, and the members of the group were friends “from way back,” according to Terry Gilliam.
He told the Telegraph, “I don’t like ’em but we’re friends. No, no, it’s family, it’s more than friends. This is family. With all the things that family means – the good and the bad. There was this combination of six characters and it just was the right chemical balance. The molecule fitted. It worked.” But their on-screen chemistry was nearly lost forever.
Miraculously Preserved Tapes
If it weren’t for some quick thinking on the part of the cast, all episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus may have been lost forever. Terry Jones told CNN in 2009 that the BBC called him in 1971 and said they were planning on erasing all of the tapes as a way of saving money. “We’re also lucky because the shows were nearly wiped by the BBC…That is what the BBC did in those days; they wanted the videotapes to reuse,” he explained.
Fortunately, Terry Gilliam bought all the episodes to preserve them. If he hadn’t, no one would be able to see some of the stunts these guys performed without doubles!
Today, a lot of actors use stunt doubles to handle dangerous and unusual action sequences that could cause personal injury. Often studio execs want to protect their A-list assets. But the Pythons performed nearly all of their own stunts.
Graham Chapman was a qualified mountaineer. In one episode, he read a sketch while hanging upside-down on a rope. The stunt was not a problem for someone with his experience. In another sketch, John Cleese smacked Michael Palin in the head with a trout, and Palin fell 15 feet into a canal in “The Fish-Slapping Dance.” Again, no stunt double was used for the sketch. All the actors performed in some incredible sketches.
See what word caused a major stir within the group next!
While the Pythons were able to get away with saying and doing a lot of risque things on the show, they struggled with one particular episode in the third series. Michael Palin told the Telegraph in 2013 that the BBC started enforcing some “fairly ridiculous censorship decisions.” All six Pythons got into an argument with the head of comedy at the network over the right to use a word that describes the act of sexually pleasuring oneself.
Palin explained: “It was cut out. We recorded it. It was the man in the Summarise Proust Competition whose hobbies were strangling animals, golf and [getting off]. They just cut the word, so you had: My hobbies are strangling animals, golf… short pause, huge laugh… So what was so funny about golf?” Not only was the series censored, it was almost canceled after one episode!
See why, next.
When the first episode aired, ratings were so low the BBC considered canceling it. Only three percent of the TV audience had tuned in to watch. Some thought the sketches were of “appalling taste,” and Stephen Hearst, head of arts features, believed the stars were “nihilistic and cruel”, reported the Daily Mail in 2009, which uncovered an internal BBC memo “detailing a crisis management meeting” about the series.
BBC1 controller Paul Fox accused the Pythons of going “over the edge of what was acceptable.” However, the show turned into a success and lasted three and a half series. Flying Circus also stole a popular phrase from the BBC, which wasn’t exactly supportive during the show’s infancy.
Who Was the Funniest?
Each one of the six Pythons had their own special charm. But who was the funniest one? It depends on who you ask. Terry Gilliam had good words to say about John Cleese, but in his opinion, Michael Palin was the funniest and made him laugh the most.
He told the Telegraph, “Mike’s the funniest. John is the most spectacular. There’s something about Mike, it’s done with such ingenuousness, such innocence. There’s no edge to it, it’s just unbelievably funny. In the real world, he’s not like that at all. Once he goes into character, it’s just extraordinary to watch him in action.” In addition to making audiences laugh, the crew also coined a phrase that’s still hugely popular today. Keep reading to find out which one.
The Creators of Spam
No, we’re not talking about the luncheon meat Spam (spiced ham), which is popular among Hawaiian residents and made by Hormel Foods. We’re referring to the term “spam,” which means network abuse, specifically junk e-mail. Well, the Pythons are to blame for spam — the phrase, not the actual spam in your inbox.
The internet term was inspired by a 1970’s episode — “Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Spam.” The sketch took place in a restaurant that had a very unusual menu. The paying customers were given a large helping of Spam with every single item they ordered on the menu. Pretty disgusting but also pretty funny! The show’s title also had an interesting origin.
The Show’s Title
Multiple names were considered for the show’s title, some of them quite odd. Execs came up with Owl Stretching Time; Bunn, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot; Whither Canada?; Ow! It’s Colin Plint; A Horse, a Spoon, and a Bucket; The Toad Elevating Moment; The Algy Banging Hour; and Baron von Took’s Flying Circus.
BBC’s head of comedy wanted “Circus” in the title because the BBC referred to the six guys wandering around the network’s offices as a circus. “Flying” was added to make it sound less like a real circus. The troupe later added “Monty Python” to the title. Once the title was determined, the opening credits were created. And one piece has a historical basis.
The Famous Foot
One of the iconic scenes in the opening credits is a giant foot. It belongs to Cupid. Terry Gilliam created most of the animation in the series and visited the National Gallery in 1969 to find some inspiration for the show.
He found what he was looking for in Bronzino’s painting “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid.” The painting features Cupid kissing a nude Venus. On one side is Pleasure and Play with other Loves. On the other are Fraud, Jealousy, and other passions of love. The painting dates back to about 1545 and was given to King Francis 1. While both the opening and closing credits were amusing, the show also had its share of controversy.
Gay Controversy That Really Wasn’t
Graham Chapman was openly gay and mentioned it publicly on more than one occasion. Not all TV viewers were happy about his admission. An angry female viewer sent a letter to the Pythons in which she pointed out that an “anonymous” member of the troupe confessed to being gay. She also sent along several prayers to help him change his ways. She advised that the comedian say them on a daily basis in order to achieve salvation.
Eric Idle sent a letter back to the woman. He claimed the troupe had determined who the gay member was and stoned him. The woman did not respond. The troupe dealt with problems as they occurred. But they didn’t always love the work they performed.
Ministry of Silly Walks
One of the most popular gags on Monty Python was the “Ministry Of Silly Walks” depicted by John Cleese, who portrayed a British government civil servant wearing a bowler hat. He is responsible for developing silly walks, and naturally, walks in a variety of amusing ways. The sketch became popular not for the dialogue but for his ridiculous leg lifting movements.
Cleese wasn’t a big fan of the gag. He thought the laughs it generated were cheap and it could have been better satirized. He refused to do the walk during Monty Python Live (Mostly), the troupe’s 2014 reunion show. The reunion show also included a recurring female cast member.
The Unofficial Seventh Python
Although most people recognize the six major players of the comedic troupe, Carol Cleveland also played a big role in the series. She appeared in 34 of the 46 episodes (and all four movies) and has been referred to as the “unofficial seventh python.” The guys had no problem dressing up like women and portraying females on Flying Circus, but sometimes they used Cleveland when an attractive woman was required.
Cleveland appeared in several documentaries about the group, including Monty Python: Almost the Truth (Lawyers Cut) and reunited with the Pythons in 2014 for their reunion stage show Monty Python Live (mostly). Somehow she managed to get along with the team of men, who had very specific methods of working together.
The crew wrote their sketches in teams: John Cleese and Graham Chapman wrote together, and Terry Jones and Michael Palin teamed up. Eric Idle wrote alone, and Terry Gilliam, the animator, worked independently. The entire group gave input to the “links” between sketches, and Gilliam often acted as a test audience during writers’ meetings.
Gilliam later told the Telegraph that the group acted very democratically. “Once the momentum is started then everybody picks it apart, pulls it this way and that…People would argue and fight – it was always about what size chair it should be in the sketch – [but] we could say anything we wanted to about anybody else’s work without them going out of the room crying.” The show was so popular, it even headed to Germany.
Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus
A TV producer and German entertainer named Alfred Biolek noticed the Pythons while visiting England in the early ’70s and asked them to reproduce their hilarious sketches for a German audience. Two episodes were produced in German and titled Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus.
“Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Clowning around for Germany” was produced in 1971 and performed in German. The second episode, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Clowning around in the distinguished English way”, was produced in 1972 and was recorded in English. It was then dubbed into German for its broadcast in Germany. The original English recording was transmitted by the BBC the following year. Monty Python’s Flying Circus may have ended decades ago, but it has left a standing legacy.
Following the end of the series, the Pythons went on the create several films and stage productions. And their comedy has influenced a slew of contemporaries. Producer and writer Lorne Michaels has admitted that the troupe heavily influenced his Saturday Night Live sketches.
In 1997, John Cleese and Michael Palin appeared on the show and re-enacted their famous “Dead Parrot” sketch, which centers on a shopkeeper and disgruntled customer who argue over whether a “Norwegian Blue” parrot is actually dead. And for those who currently want to become British citizens, they must answer questions regarding some of the troupe’s most famous sketches.
Ingmar Bergman Connection
Monty Python went on to make several iconic films after the tenure on their show. In the opening credits of their film Monty Python and The Holy Grail, the guys aimed to parody the famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Bergman was famous for films like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.
When Monty Python was making their film they ended up running out of money before being able to create the opening title sequence. They decided to use white text title cards over black backgrounds but of course they had to find a way to include a joke. Michael Palin came up with the idea of including ridiculous Swedish subtitles that were actually about a moose with very dramatic sounding music that one would find in a Bergman film.
Rock Band Investment
Pink Floyd was actually a huge fan of Monty Python and The Flying Circus. When the group wanted to make their first film they were able to get some help with rock band royalty. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Genesis all invested in Holy Grail. The budget wasn’t huge by any means and was around £200,000 (or about $243,920 dollars).
They had around ten investors, three of them being famous rock bands. In addition to Pink Floyd being great fans of the show, they were also convinced through another reason. Tony Stratton-Smith was the head of Charisma Records which was the record label who had released Monty Python’s comedy albums. He apparently asked the bands to contribute to the film, and the rest is history!
Film Premiere Bomb Threat
When The Holy Grail premiered at Cannes, someone called in a bomb threat forcing the audience to evacuate. However, everyone was confused as to whether it was simply a prank pulled by the ridiculous Monty Python troupe or an actual threat. It turns out it was the real deal. John Cleese spoke about how hilarious the Ingmar Bergman parody credits had been because he had no idea they were even put into the film.
He said as they sat through the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival the subtitles got the audience to crack up but as soon as the credits ended the film stopped. Cleese continued, “Then these men in French fireman uniforms with gold helmets came racing in and stopped the film and we had to go outside. It was a bomb scare. And everybody thought it was part of the film. It was perfectly timed because it was just after the credits so it didn’t interrupt anything. That was a good start.”
Another Bomb Scare?
In 2009, a member of the water board discovered a suspicious object under a fire hydrant cover at the junction between Tabernacle Street and Epworth Street in Finsbury, London. A bomb threat was immediately called in and the police, fire brigade, and a bomb disposal team showed up.
It turns out it was just a gag. Apparently, someone left a replica of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A pub landlord, Alberto Romanelli, who was an eye-witness thing was not too happy about how the whole thing that went down.
The Most Ridiculous Thing
The pub owner, Romanelli, talked about how crazy the whole thing was and said, “It was one of the most ridiculous things I have ever seen. It all lasted about 45 minutes before they decided it was nothing — which I thought was pretty obvious from the start.” Imagine all of these police, fire-fighters, and bomb specialists basically giving so much attention to a Monty Python grenade, it reads like something right out of one of their skits.
Of course, a Monty Python member also had to comment on the whole incident. Michael Palin brought a good-humored take on the whole thing and said, “Our Holy Hand Grenade was fictional and there were no plans for creation. We don’t want to add to the armaments of the world.”
Michael Palin vs John Cleese
In 2014, some of the original Monty Python crew got together for live shows. Michael Palin and John Cleese reunited for ten shows put on in London’s O2 Theater. Although this might be the last time such a performance happens! Michael said that after reading John Cleese’s autobiography he realized that John wasn’t really enjoying himself.
However, Michael also said was probably saying this with a sense of humor behind it, as per usual. Michael said about John, “Having just read his very attractive if slightly overpriced autobiography, I could tell he wasn’t really keen to do a lot more.”
For their film Life of Brian, the guys at Monty Python did not want to show Universal Pictures a film script out of fear that it wouldn’t be approved. Eric Idle commented on the matter saying, “If we couldn’t work out how to make a Monty Python film, they couldn’t tell us.”
The crazy comedy troupe ended up writing and showing the Studios a poem they wrote which actually summarized the film as well as a budget projection. Oddly enough, Universal Studios actually went for the pitch. Eric Idle commented further saying, “To their credit, they made the film on just that.”
Terry Gilliam Renounced Citizenship
Monty Python member was the only member of the group that was American. He was born in Minnesota, but originally became a naturalized citizen of Britain way back in 1968. However, it wasn’t until 2007 that he officially renounced his United States citizenship.
Terry has previously spoken about his decision to leave the United States. In an interview with Salman Rushie, Terry recalled “the bad times” in America. He said, “I became terrified that I was going to be a full-time, bomb-throwing terrorist if I stayed [in the U.S.] because it was the beginning of really bad times in America. It was ’66–’67, it was the first police riot in Los Angeles.”
Terry’s American Hassle
Terry Gilliam further discussed how he felt about issues going on in the United States particularly during the 1960s. He said, “In college, my major was political science, so my brain worked that way.” He said he was constantly being hassled by the police, but they never listened to him.
He said the police believed he was just a long-haired drug addict. However, Terry actually worked in advertising at the time as he was previously an illustrator, before joining Monty Python. He said he told police, “’No, I work in advertising. I make twice as much as you do.’ Which is a stupid thing to say to a cop.”
Empathizing with Minorities
In an interview with Salman Rushdie, Terry Gilliam discussed being hassled by police in Hollywood as a white man, simply because he had long hair and the police believed him to be a drug addict back in the 1960s.
He expressed empathy for minorities saying, “I suddenly felt what it was like to be a black or Mexican kid living in L.A. Before that, I thought I knew what the world was like, I thought I knew what poor people were, and then suddenly it all changed because of that simple thing of being brutalized by cops.” Terry said his anger began to grow and ultimately he moved to England.
How the Group Formed
While all the members of Monty Python had previously met, the group didn’t actually come together until they all worked independently for journalist David Frost’s The Frost Report. According to Terry Gilliam, everyone else was working in television at the time including John Cleese and Graham Chapman.
Terry was an illustrator at the time. Meanwhile, the other guys Mike Palin, Terry Jones, and Eric Idle were all working on Do Not Adjust Your Set. John introduced Terry to the producer of Do Not Adjust Your Set and he ended up doing his first animation there. John Cleese had an invitation to do a show for the BBC so the group all got together and did a show. At first, the BBC did not understand them in the least and was ready to pull them, but the audience had a tremendously positive response, and that is how Monty Python came to be.
After Monty Python disbanded all of the members went on to do their own thing. Terry Gilliam went on to become a famous film director and many of his films are not comedies! You are probably familiar with some of his work without even knowing he directed the film. Some of his work includes Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brothers Grimm, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
He worked with actor Heath Ledger twice before his untimely death in 2008. It was The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus that Heath was working of when he was found dead of an accidental overdose at age twenty-eight.
John Cleese’s Wife Is a Witch?!
In the film Monty Python and The Holy Grail John Cleese’s first wife, Connie Booth played “the witch.” Connie also co-wrote and co-starred in Fawlty Towers alongside her husband at the time. In the scene, the people of the village grab a woman whom they claim to be a witch, which the woman denies.
She claims they have set her up and even dressed her to appear as a witch, a fact they finally concede to. Of course, this mocking the hysteria from the uneducated that existed in medieval times and other instances throughout history particularly regarding the supernatural. In the film scene, Eric Idle almost broke character by laughing that he bit the blade of a machete he was holding which you can see on film.
Gilliam on Animal Trainers
The famous rabbit of the Monty Python Holy Grail film was also a “trained” bunny. Terry Gilliam said that the woman who owned and trained the rabbit was adamant that it not get dirty. When the crew wanted to dye the fur, they found a way to distract her.
However, the dye didn’t come out right away and the woman was not happy about her pet rabbit and even described as being “crazed.” Nowadays there are many stringent laws about how animals must be treated on film sets. Terry said of animal trainers, “The animals not really trained, they’re just doing what animals do–most of the training is in trainers’ minds.”
Tetanus Shots on Set?
Another strange occurrence on the film set of The Monty Python and the Holy Grail is that it is the only time Terry Gilliam witnessed Michael Palin get upset. He said Michael had to spend all day crawling around in “Plague Village” mud. He said the mud was absolutely disgusting and full of “pig [expletive].”
Terry alleged the mud was so dirty people had to go to the doctor saying, “People had to get tetanus shots.” Michael was even meant to eat the mud and the prop man on set said he put down chocolate but Michael couldn’t tell the difference. After doing over fourteen takes of the scene, Michael couldn’t take anymore. He apparently even started beating on the ground which John Cleese found exceedingly hilarious. Unfortunately for Michael, most of those scenes were cut.
Stephen Hawking and Monty Python
In 2014, Monty Python had some live reunion shows. As part of the show, they recruited quite a few other famous friends to add to the experience. One of their exploits included famous physicist Stephen Hawking. They were able to get Stephen to sing the theme song, the Galaxy Song, to their film Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
They also filmed a sketch in which Stephen uses his wheelchair to mow down another renowned physicist – Brian Cox. Brian is apparently a good friend with Eric Idle. When Brian emailed Stephen to participate he said he received an email back straight away accepting the offer and stating that he too was a big Monty Python fan.
Monty Python and Science
Famous physicists, Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking aren’t the only scientists who love Monty Python. In 1985, a giant prehistoric snake fossil was discovered in Riversleigh, Queensland, Australia. Scientists named the find Montypythonoides riversleighensis in honor of the Monty Python guys.
And in 1997, two Czech astronomers discovered an asteroid that they named 13681 Monty Python. And most recently, in 2010, billionaire, engineer, and inventor Elon Musk held a tribute of his own to Monty Python when he launched a wheel of cheese into the earth’s orbit and then brought it back to earth. Monty Python fandom certainly knows no bounds!
John Cheese Fun Fact
A weird fact about John Cleese is that his last name is not the original family name. John’s father was born Reginald Cheese. However, when he joined the army way back in 1915, he knew he would face unceasing teasing. He was especially concerned about being nicknamed “Cheesie.”
So, he changed his name. John has said he is extremely grateful that his father changed the name because he too would have faced countless ridiculous jokes while in school. He obviously didn’t forget about his almost fate however as he said he took it upon himself to make friends with a boy whose last name was Butter.
Budget Issues = Classic Python Jokes
When Monty Python’s Flying Circus first went on air, the guys were lucky to get on the air with the BBC thanks to John Cleese. However, they still didn’t have much of a budget. In order to get around that problem, they picked a very particular theme song.
The theme song is the is The Liberty Bell by John Philip Sousa, which is kind of hilarious because he is an American, not British icon. The reason the guys chose it was not a nod to the United States, however, it was because the recording was free! You’ve probably heard the song yourself a time or two at your local parade.
Monty Python Art
In the opening credits of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, there is a famous bit where a giant foot comes stomping down. The foot is actually a cropped photo from a famous Renaissance painting by Bronzino that depicts Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time.
The animation was done by Terry Gilliam who was an illustrator before working in film. Terry did the animation for the group in all of the work including Monty Python and The Holy Grail. The scene which includes animation of “God” was done by Terry. The face of “God” is actually a picture of one of the most famous cricket players in England of all time – W.G. Grace.
Rare Monty Python Film about Peas
In 1971, the UK branch of Birds Eye Peas enlisted their favorite sketch comedy group to create an episode of their TV show about the company. The result was a 25-minute film about frozen peas. But it never aired on television. Only a few Monty Python superfans saw the film until YouTube came around.
Up until then, it was locked in the Birds Eye vaults. The short film/commercial is a parody of company meetings, what it’s like to be a salesman, game shows, the corporation, and more. Not much information is out there about the industrial film either online or in the various Python books.
When the show aired, most television programs listed the credits in a relatively straightforward way. However, the Pythons decided to spice things up a bit with the manner in which they listed the credits. In one episode, the credits scrolled sideways. In another, gag names replaced the actual names of the cast and crew.
At one point, the ending credits rolled at the start of the episode, and in another, the opening titles were positioned at the end of the show. Sometimes credits rolled earlier than expected, and there were even spoofs of BBC broadcast announcements that included the famous “rolling earth” logo.
The Film And Now For Something Completely Different
In 1971, the Pythons created the sketch comedy film And Now For Something Completely Different, which was based on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and featured several sketches from the first two series. The film’s title was one of the show’s popular catchphrases. The funnymen remade the sketches on film without an audience. It was intended for Americans who had not yet viewed the TV show.
John Cleese, the announcer, appeared briefly between some of the sketches where he would say, “and now for something completely different” while actually doing something different such as being roasted on a spit or sitting on a desk wearing a pink bikini.
Knight in Shining Armor
While Terry Gilliam was largely responsible for providing the animated sequences on the show, he also often popped up as the Knight in shining armor with the plastic, plucked chicken that appeared sporadically on the series. When John Cleese left the show in the fourth season, the American-born Gilliam was in front of the camera even more often.
Then he and Terry Jones co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but it wasn’t the perfect partnership. They reportedly had very different directing methodologies. The film’s “The Knights of the Round Table” was the inspiration for the Broadway musical Spamalot.
Holy Grail Success
Between the third and fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Pythons came up with the idea for Monty Python and The Holy Grail, a 1975 film centering on the Arthurian legend. The slapstick film included completely new material from the group and parodied King Arthur’s quest to find the holy grail.
The movie was a huge success in the United States; it was more popular than any other British film at the time. An ABC special, Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time, listed the movie as the second best film of all time.
Graham Chapman didn’t have the best time filming Monty Python and the Holy Grail. According to The Life of Python, The First 20 Years of Monty Python and The Pythons’ Autobiography, Chapman struggled with acrophobia, which is an extreme or irrational fear of heights. In addition, he often trembled and forgot things while filming.
It was determined that the problem was Chapman’s major addiction to alcohol. The funnyman decided during production to remain “on an even keel” in order to complete the film. About three years after its release, Chapman successfully gave up alcohol, becoming a teetotaler in December 1977.
No Budget for Real Horses
It wasn’t the original plan for the characters in Monty Python and The Holy Grail to mime riding their horses. In fact, they were supposed to ride real horses. However, filmmakers didn’t have a budget for the real deal.
As a result, the Pythons decided to pretend they were riding horses while porters followed them from behind and banged coconut shells together to mimic the sound of hooves on the ground. It wasn’t a new device; the stunt was derived from an old-fashioned sound effect that many radio shows used in the past to convey the sound of clattering hooves.
More Hilarious Credits
Like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the troupe got creative with the credits for The Holy Grail. The opening credits featured pseudo-Swedish subtitles that implored viewers to visit Sweden and check out the country’s moose population. Eventually, the subtitles are cut off, but the moose references keep popping up throughout the credits.
Then the credits are stopped again and restarted in a completely different visual style. The moose reference is replaced by llama references. According to Michael Palin, who wrote the credits, the stunt was intended to “entertain the ‘captive’ audience” while they watched the start of the film.
Spamalot on Broadway
Thirty years after Monty Python and the Holy Grail was released, Eric Idle used the film as the basis for the Broadway musical Spamalot. Just like the film, it is a parody of the Arthurian legend. Prior to the start of the show, Idle tells the audience a pre-recorded message: “Be aware there are heavily armed knights on stage that may drag you on stage and impale you” if any cell phones ring.
Director Mike Nichols took charge of the 2005 production, which won three Tony Awards, including the Tony Award for Best Musical of the 2004-05 season. It received a total of 14 nominations. More than 2 million people saw the production during its initial run of over 1,500 performances. The play grossed over $175 million.
Cleese’s Other Gigs During Flying Circus
While working on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John Cleese was also the rector of the University of St. Andrews. He modernized the job by turning it into a much better position for the students. The rector originally appointed an “assessor” to sit in his place at important meetings during his absence. Cleese transformed it by changing it into a position for a student elected by other students.
This allowed the student body to have direct access and representation at the university. While working on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Cleese also collaborated on Les Dawson’s sketch comedy show, Sez Les.
Idle’s Writing Style
While most of the Pythons worked with a partner, Eric Idle wrote by himself and his work often focused on an obsession with language and communication. Many of the characters he developed had odd language habits, such as the man who spoke in anagrams (rearranging letters to form another word), the man who spoke words out of order, and the butcher who switches back and forth between being rude and being polite.
Many of Idle’s sketches included long monologues, such as the customer in the “Travel Agency” sequence who can’t stop talking about his terrible holiday experiences. Often, Idle would mock TV presenters who had unusual speech patterns.
Terry Jones’ Brand of Humor
Terry Jones was largely responsible for the stream-of-consciousness style format of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which fluidly meshed one sketch into another, abandoning punchlines and allowing the comedians some space to “breathe.” Jones was also very interested in the direction of the program and making scenes that were visually dynamic.
He felt that interesting settings helped, rather than hindered, the humor on the show. One of his most memorable contributions to the show were his depictions of middle-aged women. He was also known for his Charlie Chaplin-like physical comedy, as demonstrated in the sketch “Undressing the Public,” which contained no lines.
Terry Jones’ Dementia Diagnosis
In July of 2014 Terry Jones starting showing signs that his health might be declining. His fellow performers noticed he couldn’t remember his lines anymore, and soon his speech began to deteriorate. In September 2015 he was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, the area of the brain that controls social cues and language.
His daughter Sally told The Guardian, “For someone who lived by words and discussions this was tragic.” However, friends say he still enjoys life and loves having company over.
Michael Palin’s Characters
Michael played several roles with various temperaments in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He was a manic lumberjack in “Lumberjack Song” and a wild game show host in “Blackmail.” Then he would play it straight as the dead parrot vendor, cheese shop owner, and postal clerk.
Sometimes Palin would play nervous, socially inept people such as Arthur Putey, who sat quietly as his wife made love to their marriage counselor (played by Eric Idle) or as Mr. Anchovy, an accountant who dreamed of becoming a lion tamer. Palin was often used as a foil to many of the characters played by John Cleese.
The Controversial The Life of Brian
In 1979, the comedy group released the satire comedy film Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian. It centered on Brian Cohen (played by Graham Chapman), a man who was born on the same day and next door to Jesus Christ who was often mistaken for being the son of God. Funding for the film was dropped just days before production was about to begin.
But hope was not lost. Monty Python superfan George Harrison (yes, the guitarist and singer/songwriter from the Beatles) stepped in to help out by offering to finance Life Of Brian with his production company, HandMade Films. But not everyone supported the film.
So Funny, It Was Banned in Norway
Because The Life Of Brian was a religious satire, many people, including religious groups, protested the film at the time of its release, accusing it of being blasphemous. In the United Kingdom, 39 local authorities either outright banned the movie or gave it an X certificate. That prevented anyone under 18 from seeing it; however, it also prevented the film from being shown because distributors wouldn’t allow it to be released unless it carried an AA certificate.
Other countries also banned the film, including Ireland and Norway, and some of the bans lasted for many years. However, the filmmakers embraced the controversy and marketed posters in Sweden reading, “So funny, it was banned in Norway!”
Funniest Line Ever?
Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian is often listed as one of the greatest comedy films of all time. The movie is one of the best-reviewed comedies on Rotten Tomatoes and has a 96 percent approval rating. The film was the highest-grossing British film in North America and the fourth highest-grossing film in Britain during its release in 1979.
One film site claimed the line, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” is the funniest line in film history. The line was spoken by Brian’s mother Mandy to a crowd of people outside of their home.
Any BBC Repeats for the Future?
Michael Palin revealed in March 2017 that he was shocked the BBC has not shown repeats of the show for years. He told RadioTimes.com: “We had a notorious case in America in 1976 with ABC to stop them showing clips of Python without consulting us, and in the end the BBC settled with us and said we should have let you know, you are the writers and we will give you the rights to everything except the rights to television in the UK.
Presumably, the BBC still hold those rights.” When Palin was asked if he’d like the sketches to be aired again, he replied: “Yes. I am amazed it hasn’t been repeated. There must be a reason, but I don’t know what that could be.”
One Thing That “Astonished” Cleese about the Pythons
In a recent interview, John Cleese admitted that he had no idea Monty Python would continue to make an impact so many years after the comedy troupe conceived the concept. “I am astonished. We never thought it would have the life that it has had. It was experimental, cutting-edge comedy.
At first, we didn’t think it would get repeated. We did it, it was broadcast and we moved on. Then it developed a life of its own,” he told Ipswitch Star in February 2017. He left Flying Circus after season 3 but returned for Holy Grail and The Life Of Brian.
A Pythonesque Marriage Proposal
In February 2017, a couple that met on a dating website for fans of Monty Python got engaged — with a little help from Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam. British superfan John Wood created Pythonesque Dating in order to find a woman who shared his humor. Wood, 57, a social media manager, found his soulmate, Gemma Harris, on the website.
The comedians were part of a show called An Englishman and Indian and an American Walk into a Bar at the Roundhouse, and John proposed on stage just as the show ended. John and Gemma’s first date was the live Monty Python show at the 02 Arena. They also saw Spamalot and visited Scotland where the Holy Grail was filmed.
The Closest Thing to Python Comedy Today
John Cleese doesn’t think today’s comedy matches up to what the Pythons did, “People say to me all the time that Monty Python inspired them, but I have to say I see no evidence of it in their work. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but I see very few comedy programs that resemble Python. I don’t see any Python-esque comedy on television at all.
For me, the performer that has taken on that surreal Monty Python view of the world is my favorite comedian Eddie Izzard. He creates these surreal worlds which he inhabits which is the closest thing to Python that I have seen.”
The Monty Python Crew Made The Most Of Their Budget
This behind-the-scenes photo of the filming of The Monty Python and the Holy Grail shows how creative the cast and crew got with their tiny budget. In The Black Knight scene, a fight breaks out between Arthur and the black knight.
The bloody battle is one of the film’s most memorable, but many don’t know a puppet was actually used during filming! The photo above shows the crew dangling a puppet dressed like the black knight. The scene looks so convincing you can barely tell.