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Monty Python at 50: Greatest Hits and Dead Parrots

October 5th 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Monty Python troupe’s collective debut, with the first episode of the television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus airing on BBC1 at 11pm on October 5th 1969. There was little fanfare and the Radio Times entry at the time suggests little anticipation or excitement. But from such an inauspicious start, six very clever men, by being very, very silly (in a clever way, obviously), changed the understanding of what comedy could be and in turn created one of the finest comedic/cultural institutions there has ever been.

Yet what’s surprising is that a show as challenging and stream-of-consciousness as Flying Circus, that set its stall out from the beginning to break boundaries and be disruptive of comedic televisual norms, should become such a cuddly, well-loved, well respected, much-quoted cornerstone of the cultural establishment.

How does something like Python, which was surely destined for cult status at best, become an institution without diluting itself and its material in some way to make itself more accessible to a wider audience?

Well, as we shall see, in the case of Monty Python the answer is a case of complex connections, just as their comedy could be, and the starting point, surprisingly, is rock and roll and the late 1960s’ counter-culture…

And Now For Something Completely Different

The roots of Python were born of a mutual respect between John Cleese and Graham Chapman of At Last The 1948 Show and Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam of Do Not Adjust Your Set. These were both shows that, while still set in traditional sketch show formats, were pushing at the doors of originality and the surreal that Python would exploit much more fully.

Out of all the future Pythons John Cleese was identified as the one with a real bright future ahead of him and as such, in 1969, the BBC approached Cleese about working for them, where he in turn agreed that he would if he could work alongside Chapman and the Do Not Adjust Your Set gang, who Cleese considered “the funniest people around.” [1]

Curiously, considering the BBC’s assessment of his future, Cleese also insisted that the show should not be a star vehicle for him. Not only that, but the group identity would come first before the individual. Cleese had seen too many talents subdued by the dominance of the star at the front of the star-vehicle and he believed that if the group came first, the talent within it would all get a chance to shine.

The Monty Python's Flying Circus logo against animated flowers

 

But what show to make? While the burgeoning Pythons couldn’t put their fingers on what they wanted, they were keenly aware of what they did not want to make. For John Cleese, he felt “quite frustrated – not in a desperate, emotional sense, but held in – by the format of sketches, by the tyranny of the punchline.” [2]

Animator Terry Gilliam defined why the punchline and traditional sketch format was such a problem:

“I think it was more like saying ‘no’ to certain things, and the first thing was ‘no’ to punchlines, which is a really critical thing. We’d seen Peter Cook and Dudley Moore doing so many really great sketches where they traditionally had to end with a zinger, and the zinger was never as good as the sketch. The sketch was about two characters, so in a sense it was more character-driven than plot-driven, [but] time and time again you’d see these really great sketches that would die at the end – they wouldn’t die, but they just wouldn’t end better [than] or as well as the middle bits. So very early on we made a decision to get rid of punchlines.” [3]

The benefit of eradicating the punchline was to allow the show to transition when a sketch had peaked, meaning that in theory it would cut away all the comedy fat, leaving a lean show that more consistently hit the bullseye in terms of laughs. It also allowed for the flow of the show to be disruptive, surreal and unexpected so as to appeal to the tastes of members of the group who felt a sketch show should not deter experimentation.

Spike Milligan, spiritual Godfather of the Python group through his work on the legendary Goon Show (something incidentally that several of the Pythons were fans of) provided the key that unlocked the door of what Python could be. Terry Jones recalled:

“I saw [Spike] Milligan’s Q5, and I thought, ‘Fuck! Milligan’s done it!’ He did a show [where] one sketch would start and drift off into another sketch, things would drift into one another; he made it so clear that we’d been writing in clichés…Milligan was messing around with this and doing something totally different. I suddenly thought, ‘That’s what we could do: we can do what Milligan’s done with breaking up the sketch format and just do a whole thing that’s stream-of-consciousness, and Terry’s animations can go in and out and link things, and the whole show would just flow like that.” [4]

And so the format of the Flying Circus was born, where a melting pot of schoolboy silliness, surreal nonsense, intellectual high-culture references, and comedy that poked fun at the pretences of both the upper/middle class establishment and the working class was spread across a structure that switched sketches in an irrational, confrontational way, like a Dadaist prank that was as exhilarating in its freedom as it was hilarious in its nonsense.

Outside of the work of Spike Milligan, the British general public had never seen a comedy TV show like it. The question was: would they stay with it?

“But Will They Understand It In Bradford?”

While the Pythons were ecstatic with their new found freedom and the results thereof, there was a question of what kind of audience they could draw and sustain with such a show.

Although the Pythons themselves didn’t seem that concerned, perhaps resigned to becoming a cult attraction in exchange for their freedom, there were questions raised about the worth and longevity of such approach by those in positions of power in the BBC.

John Cleese remembered working on At Last The 1948 Show and making other members of the team roar with laughter at one surreal idea or another, only for the producer Jimmy Gilbert to ask “will they understand it in Bradford?” [5] The implication being that people outside of Metropolitan, cultured London, in provincial working class outposts just like Bradford in the north, would not be intellectual enough to appreciate the nuances, theories, and ideas underpinning such surrealist humour.

This, of course, fails to acknowledge a few crucial factors. It conveniently forgets that London has its own fair share of working class people, as there are also middle class and establishment people across other parts of the country.

Not only that, the class snobbery implicit in the Bradford line, which heavily implies that northern working class people are not intelligent enough to understand intellectual concepts, is not only offensive but is not even correct. It ignores years of ‘self-improvement’ and literacy within the British working class, often self-arranged in the face of the lack of other opportunities, certainly at the time of the Pythons, to learn and develop personal interests outside of school. I come from a reasonably traditional working class background myself and I can certainly understand Python.

A further point, often forgotten: you do not have to necessarily understand something to find something funny or to even appreciate it. The intellectual is only one ‘sense’ that can be applied to an appreciation of art. There is also the aesthetic, for example. Humour itself is not always grasped with the brain but is often felt at a gut level. You can intellectualise Gumby, for example, all you want as he arranges flowers in a vase by bashing them in but at base it works at a gut level, the sight and sounds of this ridiculous man using violence to arrange flowers requiring no intellectual consideration to find humour in it.

Michael Palin as Gumby prepares to stuff flowers violently into a vase

In a way, this approach to Python reminds me of James Joyce’s Ulysses. With Ulysses, it undoubtedly helps if you understand the framework Joyce was using (the colours and body organs for chapters, references to Homer’s Odyssey, the styles of writing being parodied and played with, an intimate knowledge of the geography of Dublin etc). But although Ulysses might seem daunting without this knowledge, perhaps not even fully understood, it can still be enjoyed, appreciated. The complex humanity of the Bloom’s inner worlds and monologues, the depth of Dublin, the joy and excitement of the variety of writing on display – ultimately does it matter if you can’t bring a working knowledge of Homer’s Odyssey to bear such wonderful writing?

With Python, like Ulysses, you might appreciate and understand the humour more if you have a working knowledge of certain people and concepts: Jean-Paul Sartre, Proust, the Masons, various philosophers and Sam Peckinpah, to name but a few. But ultimately it is not needed to find the sketches funny and appreciate them on that level (which ultimately is the aim of a comedy show anyway).

We must consider this idea of a gut-level appreciation of humour to understand Python’s humour. But there was another factor at work in their burgeoning popularity that perhaps no-one at the BBC or in the Pythons themselves would have expected: the rock and roll counter culture.

“It’s All Natural Stuff!”

As we’ve shown quite recently with our Summer of ’69 series, the late sixties was a hotbed of radical ideas and activism. The feminist movement, the peace movement, Black Power, sexual politics, socialism, changing attitudes to drugs: they all informed and helped to create what became known as the counter-culture, an alternative to the failures, prejudices and general conservatism of mainstream society.

One of the most common meeting grounds for this diverse group of interests was the arts, in particular pop music and the burgeoning rock scene. The music matched the passion and excitement of how the counter-culture thought about and wanted to experience the world, while the visual-performance element and the lyrics to songs allowed for bands to project (or for audiences to project onto them) their obsessions, desires fears and beliefs. The shared interest in drugs didn’t do any harm to the attraction either.

Sometimes this was positive (the writing of such an inclusive song as Imagine), sometimes negative (the Manson family’s reading of Helter Skelter as a prophecy of Armageddon) and sometimes just plain daft (that fact that people genuinely believed Mick Jagger was a radical rather than an opportunist after Street Fighting Man.)

Humour, like anything, contains and suggests values, and to a radical new young generation, sick of the bowties, punchlines and routine deliveries of their parents comedians, Python, with its off the wall silliness that seemed to chime well with the non-sequitur humour of the counter-culture, seemed the perfect antidote. The stream of consciousness approach of Python seemed in line with Lewis Carroll’s great nonsense tale Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (Alice had already been adopted by the hippy movement as a figurehead) and the mockery of the pretensions and traditions of the establishment ticked all the right boxes. It was clear to those in the counter-culture: the Pythons must have been deep into the underground arts scene and a part of the counter-culture itself.

 

Eric Idle lies in bed playing guitar while being caressed by a beautiful woman

There was just one problem with an assumption like this, however reasonable it might be: the Pythons, to a man, were all establishment born and bred. They had all been to the key British universities, Oxford and Cambridge, and had cut their performing teeth in the famous university revues there (Footlights at Cambridge, and The Oxford Revue). John Cleese would go on, as a lucrative side-line, to record corporate training videos, whilst Eric Idle was not adverse to appearing in the occasional advert. Not exactly the gestures of a bunch of radicals.

What Python did share with the counter-culture was a love of experimentation, of disposing of tired, empty structures and ultimately lampooning an establishment they saw as ridiculous, even if they grew closer to it with time. As David Sherlock, Graham Chapman’s partner, has said, “Cleese as he’s got older has become more conservative, but when they first started out Python was really quite left-wing; it was considered by some to be commie and subversive.” [6]

It is interesting that the Pythons never really lampooned the counter-culture, perhaps because they felt they were too removed from it, or perhaps they did see the affinity even though they weren’t really a part of it. The counter-culture audience, however, were possibly guilty of unintentionally lampooning Python in their way by projecting their own values onto the troupe. Terry Gilliam considered how the Pythons were viewed by the counter-culture: “All the underground press were convinced I was an acidhead, they thought all of us were on drugs but me in particular, and we weren’t – it’s all natural stuff!” [7]

The idea of Michael Palin and John Cleese in particular turning on, tuning in and dropping out whilst at a happening is ridiculous but the idea persisted. Eric Idle recalled:

“When we got to North America it was extraordinary to find that everybody assumed that we were totally stoned all the time while making it up. You had to point out to people that actually you can’t write comedy when you’re stoned, you can’t find the typewriter, but a lot of people still say to this day, ‘Oh, when I was a college kid, man, we’d just get a joint and we’d watch Python and we’d laugh and laugh.’ And you think, ‘Well, actually you didn’t need Python, you could actually just look at the wallpaper!’ Python has always been office hours, nine to five, even writing the movies we’d do that, we never wrote late or late nights…but the audience, I think, were very stoned!” [8]

But as Idle was quick to admit, having a counter-culture audience certainly had its uses: “The viewers in Canada were our first loyal audience and the first ones to come out and demonstrate when CBC took it off the air. They came and patrolled the streets, complaining, which was really great for us. That was the first time we knew we had some influence and people were prepared to come out and picket.” [9]

It is clear then that the popularity of Python was initially born between its establishment and counter-culture aspects. And as we’ll see, it is this tension that will pave the way for the Pythons to hit big with the mainstream, as they hit the stage and face the rock and roll audience.

‘Somehow Quite Cool’

From the very beginning Monty Python had quite an appreciative, if unlikely, relationship with rock and pop artists. Michael Palin has previously stated how, when the Pythons were writing, he considered the Beatles to be making ‘the greatest and most exciting examples of pop music around.’ [10] Apparently the feeling was mutual. According to Palin, Paul McCartney would stop recording in the studio when the show came on so he could watch and show it to others. Famously, though, George Harrison was the Beatle most enamoured with the Pythons and would come to be very influential in their future, helping to finance their most successful film, ‘Life of Brian.’

Palin, while quite clearly baffled by the attention from the music world, has since spoken of it in proud terms:

“Right from the very start there was this connection between the best band in the world and our little band of comedy thesps. Then gradually one began to hear more and more stories about bands and musicians who loved Python and felt a kinship with Python for some reason or another…I think they thought it was somehow quite cool, it was a cult thing…the label on which we did most of our albums was basically a rock and roll label, so we were closely intertwined with rock music from very early on.” [11]

There was a mutual sympathy between the rock and roll counter-culture and the Pythons on the grounds of experimentation, surreal silliness and the establishment targets they chose to mock. Because of this it was very easy, rightly or wrongly, for the counter-culture to take Python in as one of their own.

The next step in this evolving relationship was made by the Pythons, following rock and roll into an area it had made fresh and exciting for young, hip fans: live performance.

Live comedy performance was nothing new, of course. But in the UK at least there had been no progress for a long time, meaning young people were subjected to the entertainments of their parents, and not something fresh that spoke to them. A lot of evolutions in youth culture come from this generational tension between differing values, where the young don’t want to inherit hand-me-downs but to have something they can call their own. This feeling was particularly intense in the late ’60s.

So it can easily be appreciated then how young audiences of that time were turned off by the same old entertainments: ‘end of the pier’ seaside shows and provincial theatre tours that still doffed their cap respectfully at the Victorian music hall, working men’s clubs full of cheap beer, racism and mother-in-law jokes, and tuxedoed MC’s in dining and after hours clubs that they mostly couldn’t afford to go to anyway. It is easy to see how live rock and roll performance filled a gap that more traditional entertainments couldn’t at the time.

By the late sixties live rock and roll had moved away from smiling boys in suits bowing at the end of the concert to something more natural and as confrontational as the personalities making it. Oftentimes it would be a kind of performance art, whether it intended itself to be not. I’m thinking of The Who as a whirling dervish destroying their instruments, the early Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd using multimedia and light shows and atonal noise to create strange intense atmospheres, or even Dave Davies of The Kinks walking out on stage with his testicles hanging out of his trousers (shocking to some, amusing to others I’m sure).

It’s clear then that Python, of a shared sensibility with rock and roll, could find a natural audience on the live circuit. But how to transmute their rule-breaking stream of consciousness from the small screen to the stage?

‘A Guaranteed Winner’

The problem with transferring Python to the stage was threefold: what sketches could be done on stage and which were physically impossible? Out of those which were the best quality sketches to present? And how could they catch the disruptive spirit of their TV show without the aid of film and quick, disorientating editing?

Right from the off Python, for all their experimentation, had a strong idea of what their strongest material was and how to distribute it across the TV shows. This held them in good stead when choosing the best performable material for their stage show and, when the tastes of the artists matched the tastes of their audience, opened up a space for a concept of a Python ‘Greatest Hits.’ Michael Palin recalls:

“We’d block out six or seven shows and put in each one a kind of banker, like a ‘Parrot Sketch’ or ‘The Piranha Brothers’ or something like that. That would become a banker, a guaranteed winner. We wouldn’t put those in the same show necessarily. Then we would gradually spread other material around them, the material that we thought was sort of good but not great, and then a few little things that were quite experimental and might or might not work…they were shaped quite carefully. That was most of the collaborative writing, trying to work out the balance of material in each show.” [12]

Its clear then that the Pythons had a clear idea of the strongest material and therefore had a strong finite group of material they could narrow down from to create a show of performable material.

While this didn’t disclude challenging or surreal material (the full-on verbal onslaught of ‘The Travel Agent sketch’ is certainly a challenge against keeping your brain from exploding under a never-ending stream of hilarious, petty moaning), it did mean that performable sketches were more likely to be static, i.e. fixed to one location, without the chopping and changing of editing to further disorientate the material.

This helped to feed into the Python greatest hits, and not only because there were only so many top level sketches to perform. When Python toured in 1971, fans weren’t able to refer back to recorded copies of the TV show, the VHS recorder only becoming domestically available in 1977 (Betamax before it became available in 1975.) Unless they were lucky enough to capture repeats, and have a good enough memory, the only way Python fans would be able to see a sketch again would be to see the troupe live.

As the Pythons toured or appeared on stage in the UK at least three times up to and including 1974, not forgetting a tour of Canada and a residence of Manhattan (not unlike The Clash some years later), there was opportunity for the Python fan with the time and the money to hear certain sketches several times. And as the Pythons pretty much kept their live set the same across tours with only a few changes here and there—a set based on both quality and the ability to be performed live—the likelihood was that such a fan would become very familiar with this handful of sketches available.

Terry Jones and Eric Idle performing on stage, dressed as a respectable man and a spin respectively

There was one other way, though, that the Python fan might access to the sketches. A further way in which the Pythons held sympathy with the Rock and Roll world. There may not have been videos, but at least the Python’s had records.

‘I Scratched The Record’

While it was not unusual even then for comics to put out records, they tended to be one of two things: a recording of a live set by a successful show (Beyond The Fringe, for example) or stand-up, or else audio recordings taken from a hit TV or radio show compiled for home listening. Python was different in that they could see the potential in and had the energy to make their albums as standalone products in themselves.

Again, there seems to have been no master plan other than to see what the potential of Python could be and the curiosity to attempt work in different media. As Terry Gilliam reflected, “That’s the great fun of Python: we were doing television stuff, we were doing records, we were doing books, we were doing stage shows, and we were able to teach ourselves all these jobs. And it was exciting because we didn’t know where it was all leading, it was just good fun, and we were having a wonderful time just being silly, making ourselves laugh.” [13]

What helped give the Pythons genuine rock and roll authenticity was that their records were put out by Charisma Records, a genuine rock record label. The records also embodied the stream of consciousness surrealism of the TV Flying Circus, which give them that sense of anarchy that appealed to the rock fan.

In the spirit of the Beatles and everybody who followed in the wake of albums like Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, and also the likes of Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Pet Sounds, the Pythons were also happy to use the opportunities the LP format gave to experiment with sound. Sometimes it didn’t work (Graham Chapman on their first record tried to demonstrate stereo at a live performance by walking from one side of the stage to the other, only to find the recording set up on the night couldn’t replicate the stereo in the recording.) Sometimes it worked very well (their second album, Another Monty Python Record, featured “a trick continuous runout groove at the end of Side 1 where the sound of a record scratch is followed by Michael Palin’s exclamation of “I scratched the record” repeated ad infinitum, at least until the listener chooses to lift the stylus off the vinyl”). And sometimes it was as strange and creative as you might expect (their fourth album, Matching Tie and Handkerchief, “was mastered with two concentric grooves on side two, so that different material would be played depending on where the stylus was put down on the record’s surface. For this reason it is sometimes referred to as a “three-sided” record”).

Yet for all the surrealism and experiment with sound, the records further helped to develop the idea of Python as a greatest hits unit. Whilst the albums did feature new material, there was a large amount of material from the TV shows as well, although admittedly made fresher by being performed anew and re-established in a new structure.

Still, by a selection of what was considered top level material by the Pythons, it gave their audience the opportunity to be familiar with a range of sketches outside of the confines of the highly structured TV shows. This lent the sketches a familiarity when performed live that worked to in their favour as it enhanced the audience enjoyment.

John Cleese recalls:

“London was very puzzling to play because on the first night we came out and did the first few lines, and there was a tremendous reception as if we’d scored the winning goal of the Cup Final. Whoosh! Wow! Yeah! And then we would play the sketch to complete silence and then do the last line, and it was Whoosh! Wow! Yeah! again. And I was very puzzled and I came off and said to a stagehand, “What is going on here? They’re not laughing.” And he said, “Come and look,” and he took me to the curtain…and I looked, and somebody else was on stage doing a sketch and the audience were looking intently and mouthing the words. They were doing the lines to themselves along with the performers. “You have to see,” he said, “this is not a show, this is like a rock concert, they know the songs, they know the sketches, they’re just coming to celebrate being with you.””

The live shows then cast the greatest hits in amber, with the best-selling recordings of two of their shows, Live at Drury Lane and Live at the Hollywood Bowl functioning as audio and video documents of the hits played out in front of rapturous audience that knew every last word, like Stones fans at the feet of Jagger screaming along to ‘Jumping Jack Flash.’

The TV show would be repeated, of course, and released on VHS and DVD. But outside of the films, which warrant an article themselves, it was the live recordings of the Drury Lane and Hollywood Bowl shows set in stone for a large number of people the idea of what Python actually was. And while that idea wasn’t really true, it wasn’t really false either…

A Python For Everybody

So the question remains: what is the preferable version of the Python story?

For any other comedians, the concept of a greatest hits would not be a problem. But Python had set their stall out from the beginning to be, pardon the pun, completely different.

It’s not that Python have a greatest hits per se that seems to be the bone of contention, rather that, stripped of the stream of consciousness logic that made the TV show so vital and presented on stage with bare-bones props and costumes, the sketches lost the disorientating, confrontational, surreal power that made Python so special and what they set out to do when they joined forces back in 1969.

And yet. Live at Drury Lane is one of my favourite Python releases. Ever. Because for all the talk of disruption and stream of consciousness, one truth about the Pythons remains above all: they were exceptionally funny. Even taken out of their original, irrational context, Python’s sketches still have me rolling with laughter and that is as much a testament to the Pythons as their innovations. Whatever version of Python you prefer, there is bound to be one out there for you. No wonder we’re celebrating 50 years of Python. I’m sure we’ll be celebrating 50 years more.

And Now For Something Completely Different (Again)

I’ve talked a lot about the Python Greatest Hits but I haven’t disclosed what those hits actually are. I’m sure as you’ve been reading certain sketches have jumped into the mind.

Well, whether you are new to Python or are a long time Gumby, I present a selection of the hits here for your entertainment and to celebrate the greatness of Python.

Enjoy!

Parrot Sketch

Nudge Nudge

Albatross

Argument

The Lumberjack Song

 

 

[1] Morgan David. Monty Pythons Speaks!. London, 4th Estate, 2019.

[2] Morgan David. Monty Pythons Speaks!. London, 4th Estate, 2019.

[3] Morgan David. Monty Pythons Speaks!. London, 4th Estate, 2019.

[4] Morgan David. Monty Pythons Speaks!. London, 4th Estate, 2019.

[5] McCabe, Bob. The Python’s Autobiography. London, Orion, 2005.

[6] McCabe, Bob. The Python’s Autobiography. London, Orion, 2005.

[7] McCabe, Bob. The Python’s Autobiography. London, Orion, 2005.

[8] McCabe, Bob. The Python’s Autobiography. London, Orion, 2005.

[9] McCabe, Bob. The Python’s Autobiography. London, Orion, 2005.

[10] McCabe, Bob. The Python’s Autobiography. London, Orion, 2005.

[11] McCabe, Bob. The Python’s Autobiography. London, Orion, 2005.

[12] McCabe, Bob. The Python’s Autobiography. London, Orion, 2005.

[13] Morgan David. Monty Pythons Speaks!. London, 4th Estate, 2019.

[14] Chapman, Graham. Idle, Eric. Monty Python Live!. London, Simon & Schuster, 2009.


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Chris Flackett

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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