Oct 052015


On this date in 1969 Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast on BBC One for the first time. It lasted for 4 seasons and I saw every episode when it was aired originally. This took a lot of doing because I was an undergraduate at Oxford at the time, and in those days we had ONE television in the whole college. So we would all cram in to the television room to watch. It was a great way to see it for the first time – 80 students crowded into a tiny room, laughing like mad through it all. Memorable times.

My chief inclination in this post is simply to embed a bunch of my favorite clips and leave it at that. But perhaps I should ramble on a bit. The 1960s was a tremendously fertile period for British television comedy. The Pythons emerged from this incredible richness largely because their fortuitous coming together from other diverse shows, where they were both writers and actors, created a perfect blend. They also benefitted later from international syndication and by moving from television to film making. I was a fan of their work (separately) on such series as I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again (radio) [Cleese: cast member and writer] – [Idle and Chapman: writers],The Frost Report [Cleese: cast member and writer] – [Idle: writer of Frost’s monologues] – [Chapman, Palin and Jones: writers] At Last the 1948 Show [Chapman and Cleese: writers and cast members] – [Idle: writer], and Do Not Adjust Your Set [Idle, Jones, and Palin: cast members and writers] – [Gilliam: animation]. I really liked these shows, but Monty Python was clearly a step above – right from the start.

Following the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set, ITV offered Gilliam, Idle, Jones, and Palin their own late-night comedy series together. At the same time, Chapman and Cleese were offered a show by the BBC, who had been impressed by their work on The Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show. Cleese was reluctant to do a two-person show for various reasons, including Chapman’s supposedly difficult and erratic personality. Cleese had fond memories of working with Palin on How To Irritate People and invited him to join the team. With no studio available at ITV until summer 1970 for the late-night show, Palin agreed to join Cleese and Chapman, and suggested the involvement of his writing partner Jones and colleague Idle—who in turn wanted Gilliam to provide animations for the projected series. The Pythons were born.


From the outset the team was disciplined and organized (which Jones later ascribed to Cleese in a rather negative way). Script writing started at 9 am and finished at 5 pm. Typically, Cleese and Chapman worked as one pair isolated from the others, as did Jones and Palin, while Idle wrote alone. After a few days, they would join together with Gilliam, critique their scripts, and exchange ideas. Their approach to writing was democratic. If the majority found an idea funny, it was included in the show. The casting of roles for the sketches was a similarly egalitarian process, since each member viewed himself primarily as a writer, rather than as an actor eager for screen time. When the themes for sketches were chosen, Gilliam had a free hand in bridging them with animations.


While the show was a collaborative process, different factions within Python were responsible for elements of the team’s humor. In general, the work of the Oxford-educated members (Jones and Palin) 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 “con