Monty Python is a British comedy troupe, featuring some very well-educated clowns.
Deadpan Snarker John Cleese, Straight Man Graham Chapman and musician Eric Idle met at Cambridge University where they were members of The Footlights, a celebrated performing society. Panto-style actor Terry Jones and his writing partner, Nice Guy Michael Palin, had been similarly occupied at Oxford at about the same time. Cleese met cartoonist/animator Terry Gilliam — the one American in the group, then working for the humor magazine Help!? — during the US tour of "The Footlights Revue".
All save Gilliam were recruited as television writers straight out of college. In the amorphous melting pot that was British radio and TV comedy in the late 1960's — where alliances drawn from the same talent-pool were constantly formed for short-lived projects and then dissolved — meetings in various combinations ensued for our heroes, and considerable mutual respect was earned. In 1967 Idle, Palin, Jones and Gilliam wrote and starred in the UK children's TV series, Do Not Adjust Your Set. At the same time Cleese and Chapman joined together with Tim Brooke-Taylor et al. to produce At Last the 1948 Show, and in 1968 the two provided additional material for the unruly satire The Magic Christian, also making cameos in the film. Cleese, Chapman, Palin and Brooke-Taylor then collaborated for the one-off TV special How to Irritate People later that year.
The following year, Cleese and Chapman were offered a show of their own. Who would join them in the new troupe was initially unclear; Brooke-Taylor, later of The Goodies, was seriously considered (Cleese and the three Goodies had been mainstays of much-loved radio comedy sketch-show I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again), as was jobbing comic actor David Jason (also from Do Not Adjust Your Set). But Cleese really wanted to work with Palin, and Palin's three cohorts were ready to move on to more ambitious fare as well, so in the end it all fell into place naturally.
The brash young sextet stormed into a pitch meeting with BBC executives and told them that they had absolutely no idea what they wanted to do, let alone come up with a title for it. In their heads, though, it was going to be really really cool and groundbreaking and just generally nothing the comedy world had ever seen before - like The Goon Show had been, only more so. Incredibly enough, the execs took a flyer on them. The net result was Monty Python's Flying Circus, and a sketch-comedy troupe for the ages was born.
Writing chores tended to fall along well-established lines: Cleese with Chapman (which Cleese described as mostly him feverishly typing while Chapman smoked his pipe and occasionally tossed out a totally random—but usually brilliant—idea), Palin with Jones, Idle on his own. Gilliam later noted that there seemed to be a further division in comedic sensibilities between the taller, more "aggressive" Cambridge men and the shorter, lighter-humoured Oxford men, the latter of whom Gilliam identified with most closely. He himself worked separately on animations and hence appears only very rarely before the camera.
In terms of acting, the Pythons traded roles constantly throughout the show's run, allowing them to show off their impressive acting ranges—but due to their slightly differing delivery styles, some of them gravitated toward certain types of characters more often than others. In the popular imagination, Cleese is generally remembered as "The Snarky One", Palin as "The Cheery One", Chapman as "The Straight Man", Idle as "The Goofball", and Jones as "The Crossdresser" (all of them played female characters at various points, but Jones' impression of a middle-aged woman is the most iconic).
Over the course of the series, they also acquired a loyal and long-running supporting cast: the unofficial seventh and eighth members of the troupe are British-born/American-raised actress Carol Cleveland and comedic musician Neil Innes, with other frequent guest players including Cleese's then-wife (and future Fawlty Towers collaborator) Connie Booth, actor-writer Ian Davidson, and singing troupe The Fred Tomlinson Singers. Douglas Adams was brought on board for the final season, writing some material and appearing in two episodes as well.
In addition to the Flying Circus show itself (which ran on the BBC from 1969 to 1974), they made a number of films that are almost universally considered classics. They also had several comedy albums, live stage shows, video games, and participated in a number of fund raisers called the Secret Policeman's Ball shows.
The troupe more or less dissolved into its component parts after their last film, and fell apart definitively when Graham Chapman died in 1989. The last time all six were seen together live was in a brief spot in the 20-year reunion special Parrot Sketch Not Included, where host Steve Martin revealed they were all being kept in a closet, including a visibly-ailing Chapman seated in the middle; the special aired the day after his death that October. The survivors (particularly Cleese and Palin) still do occasionally perform either on stage or in each other's films. All five held a 1998 reunion in Aspen, Colorado (with Eddie Izzard in tow) and in mid-2014, they took one last collective bow, in a short series of London-based performances characteristically entitled ''Monty Python (Mostly) Live: One Down, Five to Go''. Originally intended as a single one-off held at London's O2 arena in order to raise money to pay for a lawsuit the group lost related to royalties for Spamalot, demand for tickets was so high, they ended up filling the stadium for a week, with the final show filmed and beamed to movie theatres and broadcasters.
Most other things "Monty Python" nowadays (such as Spamalot) fully involve only Eric Idle, with the others as occasional drop-ins: Terry Gilliam now mainly works as a director; Michael Palin makes travel documentaries (earning himself a knighthood in the process); John Cleese is still the grumpy old face of British comedy (having appeared in the James Bond films as the second Q and as Nearly Headless Nick in the Harry Potter films); Terry Jones was a novelist who battled a form of dementia—which was noticeable during the run of the O2 concerts—before passing due the complications it caused on January 21, 2020note , joining Graham Chapman, who has continued to remain dead...
...although Graham did return for a brief bit in order to record vocal parts for a feature film adaptation of his 1980 "autobiography", A Liar's Autobiography.note The film, which also featured four of the other five members (Idle is not involved; when asked why this was Terry Jones responded simply with "He's pissed at us"), was given a limited theatrical release worldwide in 2012, and aired on American TV channel Epix on November 2 of that year. Chapman has, of course, since gone back to the afterlife, presumably due to prior commitments.
The group was also famous for their rather impressive range of academic and professional interests outside comedy, contributing to their general image as renaissance men. Cleese studied law, Chapman was a medical doctor, Idle is a singer and musician, and Jones was a respected medieval historian who published several books on Geoffrey Chaucer.
The Pythons have established a YouTube channel as well. Which is available worldwide!
Full motion pictures
- And Now For Something Completely Different (1971): Essentially The Movie of the Flying Circus, produced and released while the original series was still in production. A collection of their best sketches from the show, reshot on film to introduce the team to American audiences, who didn't catch on quite yet.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): King Arthur and his knights search for the Holy Grail, infamous for such scenes as the Taunting French Knight and the Knights who say Ni. Adapted into a Broadway musical, Spamalot!. Cleese, who quit the Flying Circus series before its final season in order to make the sitcom Fawlty Towers, rejoined the troupe with this film.
- Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979): The life (and death) of a man whose life is suspiciously similar to Jesus, famous for The Long List scene "What have the Romans ever done for us?". Now adapted by Eric Idle into an oratorio, of all things, entitled Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy), which premiered with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
- Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982): A live show, recorded in 1980, recreating some of the most famous sketches and songs (often with a twist), and adding new material (as well as some footage from the German episodes). Reportedly this film was made as a way of the troupe to overcome writer's block suffered while creating...
- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983): A guide from birth to death, all the important stages of human life. The last of the trilogy of non-show related movies.
- Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go (2014): Live show conceived as a farewell; the 10th and last show was recorded and released as a film.
All of which are also scathingly satirical and hilarious.
(Note: you will sometimes see the Terry Gilliam-directed film Jabberwocky included in lists of Python films. This is due to it being promoted as Monty Python's Jabberwocky in some regions at the time of its original release, much to Gilliam's objections. Although it does feature some Python members in the cast, it is not correctly considered a Python film.)
- Monty Python's Flying Circus (1970)note
- Another Monty Python Record (1971)note
- Monty Python's Previous Record (1972)note
- The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973)note
- Monty Python Live at Drury Lane (1974)note
- The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)note
- Monty Python Live at City Centre (1976)note
- The Monty Python Instant Record Collection (1977)note
- Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)note
- Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album (1980)note
- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)note
- The Final Rip Off (1988)note
- Monty Python Sings (1989)note
- The Monty Python Instant Record Collection, Volume 2 (1991)
- The Ultimate Monty Python Rip Off (1994) / The Instant Monty Python CD Collection (1994)note
- Spamalot (2005)note
- The Hastily Cobbled Together for a Fast Buck Album (unreleased)note
- Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)
- One Down (Five to Go)
- Monty Python's Flying Circus (1990)
- Monty Python's Complete Waste of Time (1994)
- Monty Python & the Quest for the Holy Grail (1996)
- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1997)
- The scripting language Python, while not developed by any member of the cast, was named after them. The standard IDE for Python, IDLE, was similarly named after Python member Eric Idle. And the documentation for said language outright encourages Monty Python references!
Tropes / Indexes named after Monty Python sketches:
- And There Was Much Rejoicing
- The Coconut Effect
- Drop the Cow
- Does Not Like Spam
- Help! Help! This Index Is Being Repressed!
- Holy Hand Grenade
- Inherent in the System
- I Shall Taunt You
- Killer Rabbit
- The Knights Who Say "Squee!"
- My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels
- Not Quite Dead
- Only a Flesh Wound
- Only a Model
- Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer
- Silly Walk
- Some Call Me "Tim"
- Something Completely Different
- Strange Pond Woman
- There Is No Rule Six
- These Questions Three...
- Upper-Class Twit
- We ARE Struggling Together
- With This Herring
Tropes about Monty Python:
- The Alcoholic: Graham Chapman's unfortunate history with alcoholism is well-documented. Other members of the troupe have recounted days when shooting of Flying Circus would be held up due to Chapman trying to sneak in a drink before carpooling with the others to the set. It hindered his acting abilities while filming Holy Grail, notably the Bridge of Death, forcing the filmmakers to use a stunt double despite Chapman being an experienced mountaineer. Palin claimed that the others only became aware of what bad shape he was in while filming And Now For Something Completely Different, when he saw that Chapman's briefcase only contained the script (which he was looking in there to get) and a 3/4s empty bottle of tequila, which had been full that morning.
- Boisterous Bruiser: John Cleese is most definitely this out of the group, being not only the tallest, but also the loudest and most intimidating of them all, as seen in the "Self-Defence Against Fresh Fruit" and "Dirty Fork" sketches.
- City Shout Outs: In Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl, the Straight Man in the Nudge Nudge sketch claims his wife was born in Glendale (and gets a huge cheer for it).
- Fake Brit: The lone American in the group, Terry Gilliam often affects a British accent when he appears in sketches.
- The "Fun" in "Funeral": Graham Chapman's funeral went about as you'd expect:John Cleese: Graham Chapman, co-author of the Parrot Sketch, is no more. He has ceased to be, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky. And I guess that we're all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, of such capability for kindness, for such unusual intelligence, a man who could overcome his alcoholism with such truly admirable single-mindedness, should now so suddenly be spirited away at the age of only forty-eight before he'd achieved many of the things in which he was capable, and before he'd had enough fun. Well, I feel that I should say, "Nonsense! Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries!" And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me if I didn't. If I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste. I could hear him whispering in my ear last night as I was writing this, "Alright, Cleese," he was saying, "You're very proud of being the very first person ever to say 'shit' on British television; if this service is really for me — just for starters — I want you to become the first person ever at a British memorial service to say 'fuck'."
Eric Idle: I'd just like to be the last person at this meeting to say "fuck"...
- After that, Eric Idle sang "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".
- Jack of All Trades: According to Eric Idle, out of the six regular Python members, Michael Palin has the most talent to be able to play the widest variety of characters out of them all, from the brainless Gumby to "manly" lumberjacks to boring civil servants to zealous Spanish inquisitors.
- Larynx Dissonance: If any of them could do a convincing woman's voice, they certainly didn't try it, since it wouldn't be as funny. Except Idle, who did sound like a middle-aged woman and was even funnier for it.
- Signature Style: In the early days, the team used to joke that you could tell who wrote any given sketch; any sketch involving Hurricane of Euphemisms or violent authoritarian figures was Cleese/Chapman, any sketch with large amounts of location filing was Jones/Palin and any sketch with a long monologue descending into gibberish was Idle.
- Straight Gay: Graham Chapman, who passably played his share of aggressively heterosexual characters. In one sketch, he shoots another character for being gay.
- Surreal Humor: This was their trademark, the term "Pythonesque" being coined to describe this sort of humor.
- Token American: Terry Gilliam, referred to on the back of the first Flying Circus DVD as the "imported American animator."
- Viewers Are Geniuses: As mentioned above, the British members were all graduates of Oxbridge (and Gilliam was hardly a dunce, either). As such, many of their skits contain overt references to everything from world politics to classical western philosophy and literature.
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Oh so very much averted. John Cleese has said that the reason Michael Palin rarely plays a woman in sketches is that he actually looks good dressed in women's clothes, and that's much less funny than obvious mennote trying to pass for women.