On the night of Oct. 5, 1969 a strange sketch-comedy show called Monty Python’s Flying Circus debuted on the BBC. Perhaps strange is the wrong word. After all, the show opens with a shot of an old man with scraggly hair, a mangy beard, and tattered clothing walking out of the ocean. Was he a castaway? A comedian? Did he have anything to do with a circus whatsoever? As he staggered onto the beach and collapsed on the sand, he managed to mutter one strained word. . . ”It’s. . .”
Then, a voice-over announced, ”Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Absurd title animation unspooled. The rousing marching-band overture of ”The Liberty Bell” kicked in.
For the next 30 minutes, Monty Python rained a machine-gun fusillade of skits about Mozart, Genghis Khan, and men in Viking helmets with only the slightest of strings connecting them all. There was almost no laughter from the live audience. In fact, they had no clue what the hell they were witnessing. Monty Python was made up of five Cambridge and Oxford grads (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle) and one American (Minneapolis-born animator Terry Gilliam). And they knew more about television than they let on. They’d all been writers and performers on shows like David Frost’s The Frost Report and the kiddie program Do Not Adjust Your Set. Still, it wasn’t until the Pythons banded together during their four seasons on the BBC that they were able to desconstruct and reassemble TV comedy on their own terms, revolutionizing the medium — and comedy — forever.
Now, after three decades of nearly messianic devotion on both sides of the Atlantic, the Pythons are storming Broadway (though not in person) with Idle’s musical, Monty Python’s Spamalot, inspired by the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Here, the five remaining troupe members (Chapman died from a cancer-related stroke in 1989) relate the Python story in their own words.
Eric Idle John Cleese was already a star in England. And the BBC wanted him to do a show because he was on The Frost Report. John should by all accounts have done The John Cleese Show.
Terry Jones When we went in to the BBC, all the executives asked, ”Well, what’s the show going to be about?” Well, we don’t know. ”Well, who’s it going to be aimed at?” Well, we don’t really know. ”Is it going to have music in it?” Well, we don’t really know. ”Well, what’s it going to be called?” Well, we don’t really know. And then they said, ”Okay, we can only let you have 13 shows.”
Michael Palin It was on at 11 at night. In Britain, everyone’s gone to bed by nine. Insomniacs and burglars are the only people up at that time. But because no one was watching us, we could break rules. We didn’t have to have beginnings of sketches, or middles, or ends. We could run the titles upside down if we wanted to.
John Cleese I remember saying to Michael just before we went out to record that first show, ”We could be the first comedy team in history to record a program to complete silence.”