It’s been 50 years of lumberjacks, dead parrots, and Spam.
This month marks a half-century since the debut of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the influential sketch show starring John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam. Today, most American audiences know the Pythons for banging two coconuts together in The Holy Grail or encouraging us to always look on the bright side in Life of Brian. But the Pythons as we know them first assembled for the revolutionary BBC comedy series on Oct. 5, 1969. The show went on to run for four seasons, spawn the 1971 movie version And Now For Something Completely Different, and turn the six Pythons into comedy rockstars. (Now the show and other Python properties are streaming on Netflix.)
Over the last five decades, countless celebrities and comedians have cited the Pythons’ deranged style as an influence, from Stephen Colbert and Martin Short to Tina Fey and Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Many of the troupe’s most influential methods — breaking the fourth wall, mixing absurd animation with live-action sketches — date back to Flying Circus, which took the trappings of traditional British comedy shows and squashed them with a giant Renaissance-era foot. Characters regularly addressed the audience and wandered in and out of sketches, commenting on how things were going. Scenes almost never ended with a punchline, instead segueing into a new, even more nonsensical premise or devolving into one of Gilliam’s trademark trippy animations. When things went too far off the rails, a medieval knight might wander into a sketch and hit someone with a rubber chicken, or Chapman’s character “The Colonel” would rush in and shut things down for being “too silly.”
Watching Flying Circus 50 years later is an odd experience: As an audience member, you can see the bones that would go on to inspire modern comedians, but you also notice the show’s flaws. As is to be expected, many of the time’s topical jokes and pop culture references can feel dated. More damning is the show’s treatment of heavier topics: The Pythons may have excelled at skewering class and British social norms, but they were less successful on topics like race and gender. Flying Circus doesn’t regularly tackle race in its sketches, but when it does, the results are clumsy at best, downright offensive at worst. Meanwhile, women are frequently portrayed as ditzy sexpots or screeching old ladies. (An exception to the rule is Carol Cleveland, the show’s most-recurring female actress, who’s been frequently dubbed “the seventh Python.” Although Cleveland was usually tapped to play the straight woman to the Pythons’ antics, she also took the lead in some of the show’s funniest sketches.)
Despite the show’s blindspots, much of Flying Circus remains timelessly funny. Most of what made the show so popular in 1969 — its frustration with bureaucracy, its distrust of authority — still rings true in 2019. And besides, pure silliness will always be in fashion: Slapping someone with a fish was funny then, and it’s funny now.
Below, EW celebrates 50 years of Monty Python by rounding up 20 of the most iconic Flying Circus sketches.
20. Cheese Shop
Season 3, Episode 7: “Salad Days”
At first glance, “Cheese Shop” feels like a light ripoff of the show’s more famous “Dead Parrot” sketch: A customer (Cleese) grows more and more frustrated as he demands answers from an unhelpful shopkeeper (Palin). But what sets this sketch apart is its commitment to absurdity (the bouzouki soundtrack!) and two very serious performances from Cleese and Palin.
19. Dennis Moore
Season 3, Episode 11: “Dennis Moore”
This later-season standout stars Cleese as a bumbling, flower-thieving highwayman who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He even comes with his own theme song (which upon watching will be stuck in your head for the next few weeks, at least).
18. The Undertaker
Season 2, Episode 13: “Royal Episode 13”
A man makes funeral arrangements for his late mother, only for the undertaker (Chapman) to suggest some alternative methods for body disposal. Made all the better by the audience’s scripted but still funny reactions of horror.
17. Nudge Nudge
Season 1, Episode 3: “How to Recognise Different Types of Trees From Quite a Long Way Away”
This Idle classic is a rare Flying Circus sketch with an actual punchline — and a good one at that. Say no more!
16. Self Defense Against Fresh Fruit
Season 1, Episode 4: “Owl Stretching Time”
The Pythons frequently cast Cleese as an imposing, upstanding authority figure, but he did some of his best work when playing a completely unhinged lunatic — like this self-defense instructor who has devised his entire lesson plan around the dangers of fresh fruit.
15. Exploding Penguin
Season 2, Episode 9: “How to Recognise Different Parts of the Body”
The Pythons often dressed in drag to play so-called “pepperpots” — grouchy, matronly old ladies with a penchant for high-pitched shrieking. Here, Chapman and Cleese play two such women who sit down to watch telly — only to notice a large, unexplained penguin perched on top of their TV set.
14. The Fish-Slapping Dance
Season 3, Episode 2: “Mr. and Mrs. Brian Norris’ Ford Popular”
The entire sketch is less than 20 seconds, but it has endured as one of Monty Python’s most iconic. Man slaps other man with fish, high jinks ensue.
13. Hell’s Grannies
Season 1, Episode 8: “Full Frontal Nudity”
What could be more terrifying than a marauding band of ne’er-do-well grandmothers, nicking telephone boxes and spray-painting “Make Tea Not Love” graffiti?
Season 1, Episode 5: “Man’s Crisis of Identity in the Latter Half of the 20th Century”
What starts as a seemingly straightforward sketch about a vet visit quickly devolves into one of the show’s silliest bits: A highly trained group of military operatives attempt to cure a cat’s ennui through the power of confusion.
11. The Dirty Fork
Season 1, Episode 3: “How to Recognise Different Types of Trees From Quite A Long Way Away”
Chapman somehow manages to keep a straight face as a man who asks his waiter if he can replace a dirty fork — only for all hell to break loose.
10. Fish License
Season 2, Episode 10: “Scott of the Antarctic”
Another delightful instance of an unhinged Cleese. This time he plays a maniacal pet owner demanding a license for his fish Eric — not to be confused with his cat Eric, his dog Eric, and his fruit bat (also named Eric).
Season 2, Episode 12: “Spam”
This absurd, repetitive sketch — about a restaurant that almost exclusively serves canned Spam — is famously the reason we call junk email “spam.”
8. Upper Class Twit of the Year
Season 1, Episode 12: “The Naked Ant”
In which a number of posh, brainless Brits compete in an obstacle course, clearing hurdles like “walking along a straight line” and “waking the neighbor.” (Go, Nigel Incubator-Jones.)
7. The Lumberjack Song
Season 1, Episode 9: “The Ant, an Introduction”
Monty Python had its fair share of musical moments, from the joyous nihilism of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to the ridiculous “Every Sperm Is Sacred.” But ask any Python fan for their all-time favorite, and they’ll probably break into “The Lumberjack Song,” Palin’s rugged ode to chopping down trees and cross-dressing.
6. The Spanish Inquisition
Season 2, Episode 2: “The Spanish Inquisition”
A meme long before the internet was even invented. What Palin, Jones, and Gilliam’s bumbling inquisitors lack in skill or planning, they make up for in devoted fanaticism and a commitment to bursting in whenever they’re least expected.
5. The Piranha Brothers
Season 2, Episode 1: “Face the Press”
Formatted as a deep-dive documentary program called “Ethel the Frog,” this exposé introduces the notorious Piranha Brothers, two homicidal gangsters loosely based on the real-life Kray twins, who terrorized London several years earlier. Unlike the Krays, however, the Piranha brothers are bumbling sociopaths who take over London through a combination of “violence and sarcasm” — all while being terrified of an imaginary hedgehog named Spiny Norman.
4. The Killer Joke
Season 1, Episode 1: “Whither Canada?”
This lengthy bit comes from Flying Circus’ very first episode, about a joke that’s so funny it’s lethal to anyone who hears it. First it kills the unsuspecting joke writer, then his family, then the police who try to retrieve it. It’s later used in warfare, to devastating (and hilarious) results.
3. The Argument Clinic
Season 3, Episode 3: “The Money Programme”
A sketch that’s both erudite and ridiculous, as Palin and Cleese argue about the very nature of an argument. One of the series’ most beloved bits, thanks to its sharp writing and Palin and Cleese’s rapid-fire contradictions.
2. The Ministry of Silly Walks
Season 2, Episode 1: “Face the Press”
Few images are as widely associated with Monty Python as a lanky, bowler-clad Cleese, his legs outstretched at a bizarre angle. Sure, you could read “The Ministry of Silly Walks” as a scathing commentary on British bureaucracy, but mostly it’s just fun to watch Cleese make a fool of himself.
1. The Dead Parrot
Season 1, Episode 8: “Full Frontal Nudity”
Could anything else be No. 1? The endlessly quotable “Dead Parrot” is widely hailed not only as one of Monty Python’s most influential sketches, but as one of the most iconic comedy bits of all time. Palin and Cleese have performed it countless times on TV and in live shows (they even brought it to Saturday Night Live in 1997), and they’ve said that whenever they do, they can see audience members mouthing the words. The parrot may be dead, but its sketch lives on.