In 1969, the first episode of a show entitled Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on the BBC, introducing the world at large to the six so-called “Pythons” of Monty Python and beginning the story of one of the greatest comedy troupes of all time.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus would go on to run for four series, with 45 episodes being produced in total. The troupe would also produce three highly successful comedy films, as well as making many other appearances all over the globe, having a profound impact on comedy as we know it. This is the story of how it all happened.
The Pre-Python Days
Modern-day Python fans will be familiar with the six iconic members of the group: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. It’s impossible to imagine Monty Python being the same without any one of them. However, it was only by a series of chances and coincidences that the six met in the first place.
Jones and Palin met at Oxford University, while Chapman and Cleese both went to Cambridge and became friends there. Idle was at Cambridge as well, but in a separate year to the others, while Gilliam was an American with no notable ties to the other UK members of what would become Monty Python. Luckily, fate brought them together in various ways throughout the 1960s.
The Early Years of Graham Chapman
Graham Chapman was born on the 8th of January 1941 in Leicester, England. He was raised in the town of Melton Mowbray and enjoyed acting and comedy from an early age. He was also highly intelligent and originally began studying medicine at Cambridge in the hopes of being a doctor.
It was at Cambridge that he joined the Footlights Dramatic Club, met John Cleese, and decided to abandon his plans of becoming a doctor in order to pursue comedy. His brother, John, once said in an interview that Graham never really felt passionate about medicine but clearly had a calling for comedy.
The Early Years of John Cleese
John Cleese was born in October of 1939 in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare in England. He was the only child of his parents, and the family’s original name was actually “Cheese”, but John’s father, Reginald, decided to change it to “Cleese” out of embarrassment.
As a child, Cleese showed an aptitude for sports and art, and was also notable for his height, having reached six feet by the age of 13. He was also known as a troublemaker, playing pranks around the school to amuse himself and his friends, but still doing well academically. He taught for a couple of years before heading to Cambridge to study law. There, he joined the Footlights and met Graham Chapman.
The Early Years of Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam stands out for being the only American-born member of the group. He was born in 1940 in Minnesota. His father was a traveling salesman, so the family moved around a lot, and in 1952, they moved to Los Angeles, where Gilliam spent a large part of his youth. He was awarded “Most Likely to Succeed” in high school and went to Occidental College to pursue a degree in political science.
Gilliam quickly stood out in school for his artistic abilities and started his cartoonist career with Help! Magazine. There, he worked on a photo strip that featured John Cleese. After the magazine folded, he moved to Europe to work on a British show called Do Not Adjust Your Set, which also featured Idle, Jones, and Palin; establishing the connection between the group.
The Early Years of Eric Idle
Eric Idle was born in March of 1943 in South Shields, England. His father served in the Royal Air Force during World War II and tragically died in a road accident on his way home. Idle’s mother struggled to cope on her own, eventually sending him to a boarding school in the city of Wolverhampton. Idle found the school to be a cold and cruel place with a lot of abuse and bullying.
To cope with the challenges he faced, he often sneaked out of school to see a movie at the local cinema, developing his fondness for the movies. He then went to Cambridge University and joined the Footlights a year after Chapman and Cleese and went on to get a role in the TV show, Do Not Adjust Your Set, alongside some of his future Python partners.
The Early Years of Terry Jones
Terry Jones was born in February of 1942 in Colwyn Bay, Wales. Having been born during World War II, Jones was mostly raised by his mother in the early years of his life, with his father serving in the Royal Air Force. After the war, the family moved to Surrey in England.
In England, Jones excelled academically, becoming school captain at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford and continuing his education at Oxford University, where he studied English at first and then went on to study history. At Oxford, he joined the Oxford Revue, a comedy group, and met Michael Palin.
The Early Years of Michael Palin
Michael Palin was born in May of 1943 in Sheffield, England. He had his very first acting experience at the age of five, appearing as Martha Cratchit in a school performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. He continued to love acting as he grew older, once performing all the parts of a Shakespeare play to his mother.
After finishing school, he went to Oxford University and joined the Oxford Revue. At Oxford, he met Terry Jones and the pair quickly developed a friendship and started to write together. Together, they went to the BBC and started working on a variety of shows, eventually connecting with their fellow Pythons and forming the foundation of the group.
A Meeting of the Minds
As we can see, the various members of the Monty Python group were born in different places and had contrasting starts to life. They attended different schools and colleges, but they all found their way into the world of British comedy TV in the 1960s, and it was there that they all came together.
Gilliam, Idle, Palin, and Jones all enjoyed success on Do Not Adjust Your Set, while Chapman and Cleese had separately started to make names for themselves with the BBC on shows like The Frost Report. Various members of the group had met on other projects too. Slowly but surely, they were drawn together.
The Birth of Something Special
According to the official website and story of the group, Monty Python was born on the 11th of May 1969. It was just after a taping of Do Not Adjust Your Set, which Cleese and Chapman had also attended, despite not actually working on the show themselves.
After the taping, all six Pythons went to a tandoori restaurant in Hampstead and then continued to Cleese’s apartment in order to chat and discuss ideas with one another. They quickly learned that they all had similar visions and creative minds, and it was on that night that the foundations for one of comedy’s greatest stories were cemented once and for all.
Exciting Beginnings for the Group
Cleese and Chapman had been offered a show with the BBC and brought the other four members of their new group on board; And right from the start, the six Pythons had a clear idea about what they wanted to do with this opportunity. They all shared admiration for leading British comedians of the time like Peter Cook and Alan Bennett.
They also shared a view that sketch comedy with classic punch lines that needed some shaking up. With the Pythons belief that many sketches had weak endings, they made a group decision that their own sketches would have unusual or unexpected endings to surprise and entertain their audience. We can see examples of this in their later work, like a sketch in which the group decides to stop and walk off set halfway through.
Inspired by One of the Greats
Unfortunately, while the Pythons were putting the pieces of their early shows together and coming up with some innovative ideas, one of their great inspirations, Spike Milligan, beat them to it. He released the BBC series Q… which completely changed the face of comedy at the time, featuring many sketches that saw Milligan “giving up” halfway through.
The Pythons were therefore sent back to the drawing board. They didn’t want to make it seem like they were copying Q… and they worried that their show had lost its special hook. So, they got to work looking for a new unique touch to set their show apart.
Animation Changes Everything
After discussing and debating different ideas that could set their show apart, Jones remembered something: during the Do Not Adjust Your Set days, Gilliam had created a unique “stream-of-consciousness” animation for the show.
Jones felt that it could be a great idea to apply that same concept to the group’s sketch show, letting them flow from one sketch to the next in a more unique and fun way. Palin agreed and the three got to work on crafting the presentation side of Flying Circus. This proved to be a very profitable decision for the group, as Gilliam’s art became a hallmark of everything connected to the Monty Python name.
A Unique Way of Working
Since the Python group was relatively large when compared to typical comedy double-acts, the team had their own unique way of working. They would start writing at 9 am and finish at 5 pm, and they mostly worked in pairs: Jones and Palin wrote together, while Cleese and Chapman also wrote together. Idle wrote alone.
Then, after getting some ideas together, the group would meet with Gilliam to discuss their sketches and decide what to keep and what to cut. This was the cornerstone of their collaborative process, and it allowed them to keep only the finest materials assembled from their collective minds.
The Perfect Blend of Skills and Minds
The Pythons quickly learned that they each had their own unique skills to lend to the group, and this can be seen in the work they produced. The Oxford pair of Palin and Jones tended to focus more on visual gags and eclectic ideas, such as the famous Spanish Inquisition sketch.
Meanwhile, the Cambridge team of Cleese and Chapman tended to focus more on verbal, aggressive, confrontational ideas for sketches, and Eric Idle was particularly well-suited at creating quirky characters. Meanwhile, Gilliam’s artistic talents helped to bring the whole show together.
Naming the Show
Since the members of Monty Python were all creative people, they each had various ideas about what to name the show. During the pre-production and writing phase, it underwent many name changes, including Owl Stretching Time, A Horse, a Spoon and a Bucket, Vaseline Review, Bun, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble, and Boot.
In the end, Flying Circus was chosen after the BBC printed it in its schedules and didn’t want to change it. There’s a popular legend around the show’s origin which says that BBC executives thought the show’s name was ridiculous, but the group threatened to change the name every week unless it was accepted.
Naming the Group
Of course, “Flying Circus” was only one part of the show’s full name. The circus needed a circus master. Again, they had lots of different ideas about this. Palin suggested Gwen Dibley’s Flying Circus, in honor of a random woman he’d read about in the news. The group also considered Arthur Megapode’s Flying Circus and Baron Von Took’s Flying Circus.
In the end, they settled on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and would forever become known as Monty Python. The Pythons have different stories about how the name originated. The most consistent story is that Eric Idle suggested Monty as a tribute to Lord Montgomery, a general in World War II, while Python was chosen as the group wanted their character to have a “slippery” sort of surname.
A Show with a Unique Sense of Style
When they first started writing Flying Circus, the Pythons hoped to create a show that would change British comedy and provide something different to the shows that had come before. They weren’t afraid of innovation and this approach helped them pioneer many new comedic techniques.
Flying Circus helped to popularize the “cold open”, in which episodes started without any titles or announcements. The Pythons also played around with the format of the show, sometimes rolling the opening or closing credits halfway through. In one episode, the closing credits ran immediately after the opening titles. They also experimented with different ways of ending sketches, as well as using animation, as discussed earlier.
Not an Immediate Hit
Despite the show’s promise and the incredible legacy that it would eventually leave, it didn’t start off as one of the most successful stories in comedy. The first episode was broadcast on Sunday, the 5th of October 1969 at 10:50 pm.
About 3% of the UK population at the time tuned in, and the show also had the lowest Appreciation Index (a measure of public appreciation of TV and radio shows) of any BBC light entertainment show at the time. Several executives at the BBC also disliked the show immediately, with early episodes being edited and certain parts being cut.
Growing in Popularity
At first, things didn’t look too good for the show and its creators. The anger and distaste of many BBC executives was felt throughout the group, and even though the show had been granted a second series, John Cleese made an announcement that he probably wouldn’t go any further than that due to the general attitude around the BBC.
However, as time went by and more episodes aired, the popularity of the show started to surge. Iconic sketches were revealed and adored by the British public, and the show ran for an impressive total of 45 episodes overall, with Cleese sticking around for the third and leaving ahead of the fourth.
The Dead Parrot Sketch
One of the most famous sketches from the show has to be the Dead Parrot Sketch. It was originally called “Pet Shop Sketch” by the group and was written as a satire of poor customer service by John Cleese and Graham Chapman, with Cleese and Palin playing the two main roles.
The sketch shows a pet shop customer (Cleese) arguing with the shop’s owner (Palin) about a parrot that the customer has purchased, which seemed to be dead. The shopkeeper refuses to acknowledge the dead parrot, causing the customer to become more irate and agitated as the sketch goes on.
The Lumberjack Song
Another highly memorable sketch from Flying Circus is The Lumberjack Song. It appeared in the show’s ninth episode and went on to become one of the best-known songs associated with Monty Python, having been written by Palin, Jones, and Fred Tomlinson.
The sketch has been performed in various ways over the years, but originally featured Palin in the main role as a man with a regular job who reveals that he originally wanted to be a lumberjack. From there, he reveals a lumberjack shirt beneath his outfit and bursts into song, accompanied by a choir of singers dressed as Canadian Mounties. As the song goes on, the lyrics become increasingly surprising.
Spam is another iconic Monty Python sketch and song. It first appeared in the show’s 25th episode and was the final sketch in that episode. The sketch was written by Terry Jones and Michael Palin. It features two customers in a cafe where every item on the menu contains Spam.
By the end, a group of Vikings arrive and start to sing about Spam, and the original episode ended with the credits having been adjusted to feature Spam as part of the names of the cast and crew. This sketch was so successful that “spam” became the term for unwanted junk emails.
The Nudge Nudge sketch is another one that fans have rewatched again and again. It appeared in the third episode of Flying Circus and was written by Eric Idle, starring Idle and Jones as a pair of strangers chatting in a pub.
During the sketch, Idle’s character asks Jone’s character a series of cryptic romantic questions, repeating the phrases “nudge nudge” and “wink wink” to suggest that his questions have a deeper meaning. At the end of the sketch, an angry Jones asks Idle to be clear about what he means, and the sketch finishes on a genuine punchline, making it one of the Python’s best sketches to date.
The Spanish Inquisition
The Spanish Inquisition is a series of sketches throughout the second episode of the second series of Flying Circus. The sketches popularized the phrase “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”, which became one of the most quoted lines in the Python canon.
The sketches feature unrelated and seemingly innocuous scenes in which a character eventually says, “I didn’t expect a Spanish Inquisition”. At that point, a trio of men in red robes, representing the Spanish Inquisition, appear at the location to announce that “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
The Ministry of Silly Walks
Another sketch that is often talked about and ranks highly on the lists of best comedy sketches ever made is The Ministry of Silly Walks. This sketch appeared in the first episode of the show’s second series and relies heavily on Cleese’s size and physicality as he performs a series of amusing walks.
The concept behind the sketch is that Cleese’s character is an employee of a governmental ministry responsible for creating silly walks. The idea has been referenced and repeated in different aspects of popular culture, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world made their own little “silly walks” videos to brighten their spirits.
Success in America
Initially, the show didn’t make much of a splash “across the pond” in the US. At the time, the BBC worked with Time Life TV to distribute its shows in the US, but Time Life felt that the show’s humor was “too British” and declined to air it.
However, the Pythons’ American manager, Nancy Lewis, took it on herself to push the show in the US. She got in touch with PBS, who decided to air a few episodes of Flying Circus. From there, the show started to take off, becoming one of PBS’ biggest hits and giving the Pythons an American audience that would continue to grow over the years to follow.
The First Film: The Holy Grail
Between series three and four of Flying Circus, the Pythons got to work on their first feature-length original film: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They’d already released one film, entitled “And Now for Something Completely Different”, but that was simply a compilation of Flying Circus sketches.
Holy Grail was their first big original movie parodying the legend of King Arthur and his quest for the Holy Grail. It was a smashing success, earning more in the US than any British film of the time and being classed to this day as one of the greatest comedy motion pictures ever made.
The Second Film: Life of Brian
Monty Python’s Life of Brian was the second original film from the troupe. It was directed by Terry Jones, written by the whole cast, and released in 1979. The film parodies the story of Jesus Christ, telling the story of a man named Brian who was born on the same day as Jesus and is mistaken for the Messiah by hordes of people.
The film was another big success for the group, despite some controversy over its religious themes. It was one of the biggest grossing films in the UK at the time and made more in the US than any other British release.
The Final Film: The Meaning of Life
Monty Python’s final film as a collective was Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Commonly referred to as just The Meaning of Life, this musical sketch comedy movie was written and performed by the full troupe and directed by Terry Jones. It was released in June of 1983, and it was a bit different from the previous two films.
Holy Grail and Life of Brian both told mostly linear stories, but The Meaning of Life was more of a return to the roots for Monty Python, taking the form of a series of sketches all based around different stages and aspects of life. It wasn’t quite as big of a critical success as the other films but was still a box office success and often features in lists of the best cult and comedy films.
Influence Across the Globe
As well as being a success in the US, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and subsequent films have been enjoyed all over the globe. The troupe has fans as far and wide as Canada and Australia, with their work translated into dozens of languages and enjoyed across Europe, Asia, and beyond.
Countless successful comedians and performers cite the Pythons as inspirations too, including Seth Meyers, Rowan Atkinson, Trey Parker, Weird Al, Mike Myers, and Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons. Jim Carrey too, mentioned Monty Python as having a big influence on his own work.
A Whole New Word
The Pythons have enjoyed so much success and had such a big impact on comedy and general pop culture that there’s even a word in the English language dedicated to them. The word “Pythonesque” was created to refer to anything that was inspired by or stylized like the work of Monty Python.
The term Pythonesque is associated with surreal comedy and appears in the Oxford English Dictionary. It has also been used to describe Terry Gillian’s art style and similar works, such as South Park, with Pythonesque features and factors also appearing in cinema such as the Austin Powers movies.
An Unparalleled Legacy
The Pythons have influenced some of the greatest comedians of all time. Moreover, their sketches are ranked among the greatest ever made. So much has been named after them; astroids, films, shows, ice-cream flavors, drinks, a programming language (Python) named in honor of them, and books written about them.
The group’s work has changed the world as we know it. Their contributions to comedy are akin to the contributions the Beatles made to music, and their legacy lives on to this day with younger generations of comedy fans still rolling with laughter at classic sketches and cult moments.
Where Are They Now?
The Pythons got together back in the 1960s and enjoyed huge success through the decades that followed, influencing comedy in some huge ways while producing some of the most memorable scenes and films the world has seen along the way. But after The Meaning of Life, which was their last big project together, they went their separate ways.
The six were last seen publicly together in 1989 for a TV special. So what happened in the 90s and into the 21st century, and where are each of the Pythons nowadays? Let’s take a closer look at what all six members of the famous group have been doing in more recent times.
Graham Chapman in Modern Times
After The Meaning of Life, Graham Chapman set off on several college tours around the United States. He visited a range of different academic institutions and gave talks about Monty Python and other subjects like the Dangerous Sports Club. In 1988, he appeared in the music video for Iron Maiden’s “Can I Play with Madness?”
Chapman also made an appearance at the 41st British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) in 1988, along with Gilliam, Jones, and Palin, to accept an award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema. He’d been expected to appear in a Red Dwarf episode too, but he tragically passed away from cancer, which began in his tonsils and spread to his spine.
John Cleese in Modern Times
After The Meaning of Life, John Cleese continued to work in films, appearing in the James Bond series and starring in other movies like Fierce Creatures. He also appeared in the Harry Potter films as “Nearly Headless Nick,” delved into video game voice acting, and continued to write prolifically too.
He has toured many countries with various shows, as well as appearing in different ad campaigns and continuing to star or guest star in shows and films. He has written and released several books too, with the most recent release being Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide, which was published in 2020.
Terry Gilliam in Modern Times
The sole American member of the group has arguably been one of its biggest success stories since the split after The Meaning of Life. Terry Gilliam has directed several highly successful films and cult classics, including 12 Monkeys in 1995, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, The Brothers Grimm in 2005, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in 2009.
Still very active in the world of cinema, Gilliam has revealed in recent times that he’s working on several projects, including a TV series based on his successful movie, Time Bandits, as well as another show called The Defective Detective. He’s also been in talks with the animation studio, Laika, about creating his first animated film and has done a lot of charitable work as well.
Eric Idle in Modern Times
After his work with Monty Python, Eric Idle continued to appear in films and on TV, as well as pursuing his own songwriting work and getting involved with a wide range of other projects too. He became a prolific voice actor, lending his vocal skills to everything from The Simpsons to Shrek the Third.
He’s been on several tours around the world, narrated audiobooks, written his own plays, performed at the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony, and more. One of his greatest successes in recent times is as the writer of the book Spamalot and co-writer of the musical of the same name, which was based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It has been a big success on Broadway and other locations.
Terry Jones in Modern Times
After Monty Python split and went their separate ways, Terry Jones spent a lot of his time writing. He wrote many works, including books, screenplays, and history texts as he was always interested in history, particularly medieval and ancient. He was also a presenter for several history documentaries as well as writing for newspapers like The Guardian to share his views on politics and war.
He was credited as a writer on the likes of Blazing Dragons, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and Ancient Inventions, as well as making guest appearances on different TV shows and films. In 2006, he was diagnosed with cancer, but made a full recovery. But in 2015, he was diagnosed with a type of dementia and lost most of his power of speech in the years that followed, passing away in 2020.
Michael Palin in Modern Times
Sir Michael Palin is arguably best-known for his travel writing and documentary work after Monty Python split up. He began to travel all over the world, visiting both the North and South Poles, the Sahara Desert, the Himalayas, and many other locations, documenting and sharing a lot of his trips with fans from around the globe.
Some of his best-known travel shows include Pole to Pole with Michael Palin, Brazil with Michael Palin, and Michael Palin in North Korea. He’s written many books on travel too, as well as presenting and writing about art and history. In terms of film and TV work, he’s also appeared in the likes of Arthur Christmas and Worzel Gummidge.
Why Is Python Called Python?
The computer savvy among us know of Python programming language. In fact, it’s one of the most popular programming languages ever (because it’s easy to learn and use). And the reason it’s even called Python has to do with the series you know and love.
Python was implemented by Guido van Rossum, who at the time was reading the published scripts from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. If you ever read the Python documentation, you can see examples that are inspired by Monty Python, like mentions of spam, eggs, lumberjack, and knights, etc.