August 21, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

The movie bits are now classics: a pet-shop patron complains about a dead parrot; a barfly annoys a stranger — nudge-nudge, wink-wink — and a man plays a tape recorder that’s up his brother’s nose. But when the Monty Python troupe’s first film, And Now for Something Completely Different, opened Aug. 22, 1972, America didn’t quite know what to make of this brand of British anarchy.

The six Pythons — Brits John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and American Terry Gilliam — took loony English humor to a radical level of irrationality and bad taste. Something Different opens with ”How Not to Be Seen,” wherein people in hiding are shot on sight. Then it’s skits about killer jokes, a fey lumberjack, and the ”Upper-Class Twit of the Year” contest, linked by appearances from a commentator muttering ”And now for something completely different.”

That was the Pythons’ catchphrase, and while the movie was different from the humor most Americans were used to, it was largely a re-creation of skits from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the half-hour TV series that began on the BBC in 1969 (and didn’t reach the U.S. until it aired on PBS in ’74, the year production ended in Britain). When Victor Lownes of London’s Playboy Club decided to produce a film to introduce Python to the Yanks, a compilation made sense. ”Everything they’ve always done has been new,” says Roger Saunders, a Python spokesman. ”That was the only time they ever redid old stuff.”

But the film fizzled here and just broke even overseas. It took 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail to make the Pythons real movie stars, followed by Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983).

After going their separate ways in 1983, the five surviving Pythons remain active. Gilliam, 57, has directed eight films, including Brazil and The Fisher King. Palin, 55, costarred with Cleese, 58, in 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda and hosted a BBC travel series. Cleese starred with Palin in Fierce Creatures and will appear in the film Isn’t She Great. Jones, 56, wrote and directed Erik the Viking; Idle, 55, was in Nuns on the Run.

Chapman died in 1989, but his ”ashes” were present last March at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, where the Pythons appeared together on stage for the first time in 18 years. If a rumored 1999 reunion tour happens, America will be ready for the killer jokes this time.

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