Monty Python’s Flying Circus my have only run on television from 1969 through 1974 for a grand total of 45 episodes, but the influence spurred by its brand of surreal sketch comedy is immeasurable. Lorne Michaels counts the show as a major influence on Saturday Night Live and its legion of creative progeny include Sacha Baron Cohen, John Oliver, Rowan Atkinson, Seth MacFarlane, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Matt Groenig, and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Author Neil Gaiman compared the Pythons as being the comedic equivalent of The Beatles.
Originally shot for the BBC, the sextet of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, created a series of surreal situations, mixed with risqué and innuendo-laden humor, sight gags and observational sketches without punchlines. Gilliam used animation as segues to break up live-action bits centered on the idiosyncrasies of British life. The intellectual bent of this very Anglified brand of comedy nonetheless attracted a devoted American following, once the episodes started getting aired on PBS in the mid-1970s. Memorable sketches included “The Dead Parrot,” “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” “The Spanish Inquisition,” “Cheese Shop,” “The Undertaker,” “Nudge Nudge,” “Self Defense Against Fresh Fruit,” “Exploding Penguin” “The Fish-Slapping Dance,” “Spam,” “Fish License,” “The Lumberjack Song,” “The Piranha Brothers” and “Argument Clinic.”
While 1971’s And Now For Something Completely Different was the Pythons’ first foray into film via this compilation of sketches from the series, it wasn’t until the show wrapped up in 1974 that the troupe decided to embark on shooting their first proper film. The sophomore follow-up, 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail was funded by investments from members of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, was directed by Jones and Gilliam and was based on the Arthurian legend.
Released in 1979, the next film was Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a lampoon of the New Testament that focused on Brian Cohen, born at the same time in a neighboring stable to Jesus. Directed solely by Jones, the movie was financed by George Harrison of The Beatles.
In 1982, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl was released as a straight-up concert film. The following year, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life was released. Its string of sketches based on the ages of man from birth to death hearkened back to the dark, disturbing and surreal humor of the original television series.
With Chapman’s death in 1989, no full-on reunions of the troupe have prevented any official reunions, although members have gotten together for appearances. Among them were the five surviving Pythons and what was allegedly Chapman’s ashes receiving an AFI Star Award at the 1998 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, marking the first time they reunited on stage for the first time in 18 years. A live tour in 1999 was agreed to in principle before Michael Palin backed out.
The surviving five’s last outing together was Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go, a stage show held at The O2 in London in July 2014. Having lost a legal case to Holy Grail producer Mark Forester, the members owed him $994,600 in legal fees and royalties. The idea was to have a reunion to pay off this debt. The one show was expanded to 10 shows due to ticket demand. It was their first live performance together in 34 years, the first without member Graham Chapman, who died in 1989, and to date it has been their last.
The Cambridge University alum got his start as a scriptwriter and performer on The Frost Report after winning accolades at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Working with writing partner Chapman, Cleese often played absurd authority figures or foreigners with outlandish accents.
Often cast as the straight man, Chapman, who died in 1989 of tonsil cancer, frequently played authority figures like military figures, policemen or doctors. He also played leads in the Python films Holy Grail (King Arthur) and Life of Brian (title character Brian).
The sole American Python, Gilliam’s primary contributions were cut-out animations including the opening title of the iconic giant foot. That said, Gilliam appeared as a series of characters including The-Knight-Who-Hits-People-With-A-Chicken, Percy Bysshe Shelley in the “Michael Ellis” episode and Cardinal Fang in “The Spanish Inquisition.”
An Oxford University graduate, Jones worked with writing partner Michael Palin on Do Not Adjust Your Set and The Frost Report helping create Monty Python’s Flying Circus. A respected medieval historian, he is credited with being largely responsible for the show’s surreal structure of having sketches flow from one to the next without using punchlines.
Nowadays known more for his series of travel documentaries, Palin came to Monty Python by way of prior programs The Ken Dodd Show, The Frost Report and Do Not Adjust Your Set. He most often wrote with fellow Python member Terry Jones and was considered by his troupe mates as having the widest range.
The most musical of the troupe, Idle was not only a member of the parody rock band The Rutles and eventually won a Tony Award for Best Musical for writing music and lyrics for Spamalot, but penned many popular Python songs including “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” and “Galaxy Song.”