Monty Python's First Flight
The 'Flying Circus' came to town with silly walks and a dead parrot
Late on the night of Sunday, Oct. 5, 1969, British TV audiences were startled to see an animated montage that started with roses sprouting from a man’s head and ended with a nude woman being squashed by a giant foot. Viewers expecting what had been billed as ”satire” were quickly disabused. They watched Picasso engage Brancusi and Kandinsky in a bike race while painting; an Englishman teach Italian to a classroom of Italians; a gag writer think up a joke so funny it killed all who heard it. The skits took wildly unexpected detours, squealed off into non sequiturs, or merged into even more surreal skits, never to return. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was airborne.
Over 45 episodes, the Flying Circus performed comic loops and turns, launching aerial assaults on pomposity, authority, gentility, and the odd wet fish. Sketches ranged from dagger-sharp satire to outrageous playfulness — the Pythons were shamelessly willing to go in for utter nonsense. Like the Ministry of Silly Walks. Or Herbert Mental, who collected the eggs of bird watchers. Or Keith Maniac, who could hypnotize bricks: Handed a brick to hypnotize, Maniac grumbled that it was already in a trance. Asked how he could tell, he replied, ”Well, it isn’t moving, is it? It’s completely still.”
What made Python great was the creative tension between two contrasting yet complementary partnerships. The shorter, Oxford team of Michael Palin and Terry Jones wanted to rip up and rewrite all comedic conventions; the taller, Cambridge duo of John Cleese and Graham Chapman aimed to understand those conventions so that they could produce great work within them. ”There was really no reason we did things,” says Palin. ”But, of course, there was a reason we did things for no reason at all.”
The cleverest Python, Eric Idle, worked alone, though he generally sided with his Cambridge colleagues when it came to deciding which sketches to keep. It was left to the lone American, animator Terry Gilliam, to provide the unifying thread — ingenious collages of Edwardian prurience under attack from psychedelic illogic.
Dead parrots, Spam, and nudge-nudge-wink-wink gave way to The Holy Grail, Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life, Fawlty Towers, Brazil, A Fish Called Wanda, and The Fisher King. To paraphrase the Pythons’ immortal Reginald K. Denktash, ”We laughed until we stopped” — which was when they finally left the BBC on Dec. 5, 1974.
TIME CAPSULE / Oct. 5, 1969
The Archies’ ”Sugar, Sugar” stuck to the No. 1 spot like bubblegum, Mario Puzo was the best-seller list’s top don with The Godfather, the Cartwrights rode tall on Bonanza, and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid stole the screen.
A Fish Called Wanda