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Monty Python's Flying Circus

By Sean Axmaker

In 1969, five overeducated British comics and an American illustrator invaded the homes of unsuspecting BBC viewers with a brand of comedy that was, at the very least, odd. "Absurd," "bizarre," and "incomprehensible" are other descriptions that jump to mind. Nonetheless, this wacky sextet inaugurated an absurd tradition that continued through three and a half seasons of half-hour TV episodes, a series of live performances, a handful of movies, and a legacy of dead parrots and upper-class twits.

Episodes 1-6:

Monty Python's Flying Circus, Set 1 features the first episodes foisted on a still-reeling public, introducing running gags ("And now for something completely different") and recurring characters (an armor-clad Terry Gilliam wielding a rubber chicken, Graham Chapman's pompous Colonel intruding on sketches he deems simply too silly, and of course Michael Palin's "It's a Man" wandered through the entire season). Among the sketch highlights in the first three shows are Nudge Nudge, the Funniest Joke in the World, How to Defend Yourself from a Man Attacking You with Fresh Fruit, How to Confuse a Cat, and The Dull Life of a City Stockbroker, all interspersed with various and sundry cut-out animation sequences by Terry Gilliam. These early episodes may lack the consistency and stream-of-consciousness flow of their later, more assured work, but they're packed with some of the most memorable moments of the group's brief but brilliant history. --Sean Axmaker

Episodes 7-13:

Michael Palin, haggard and exhausted under a scraggly beard and wild hair, crawls out of the ocean (or the forest or a side of a mountain) and croaks the now-infamous "It's...." Suddenly, the "Liberty Bell" march pounds over the cut-out animation of Terry Gilliam. It's another episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. No comedy has inspired such a fanatical following before or since, and the 45 episodes turned out by the group in their all-too-brief three and a half seasons have become classics. This set presents the final seven episodes of their inaugural season, a time of trial and error for the group as they perfected the elusive free-association structure that would define the wacky comedy. Connecting such all-time classics as the Lumberjack Song, the Dead Parrot sketch, and the epic Science Fiction sketch (featuring the tennis mad Blancmanges from outer space) are the ubiquitous letters to the BBC, Terry Gilliam's whimsical and ridiculous animated inserts, and John Cleese announcing, "And now for something completely different" with all the authority of a BBC announcer who suddenly finds his news desk hijacked by mobsters. The Pythons hit their first-season stride in the middle episodes, in which brilliant sketches and strange and wonderful linking gags come together with an absurd logic, but if the final episodes of the series flag compared to their comic peak, their brand of comic madness infects every episode with moments of pure lunatic magic.  --Sean Axmaker

Episodes 14-19

What do you do for an encore after confounding the general public with something completely different? Simple: give them something more completely different, from a semaphore version of Wuthering Heights to the last meeting of the Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things (you were expecting the Spanish Inquisition?). This two-volume set contains for the first time on DVD in chronological order the first six episodes from Monty Python's second season. No sophomore slump here. Episodes 14-19, which originally aired in 1970, contain the signature Python sketches The Ministry of Silly Walks and The Spanish Inquisition. Also in the Python pantheon are the documentary about The Piranha Brothers and their reign of violence and sarcasm, The Architect Sketch, and the scandalous game show Blackmail. While the sketches, filmed bits, and Terry Gilliam animations are enduringly silly, Monty Python's Flying Circus remains a loony marvel in the way it shattered television convention. In Episode 15, a clueless Graham Chapman character is recruited to be the straight man in a sketch, but is not given the punch line. In the same show, the dreaded, but tardy, Spanish Inquisition races to make its entrance before the closing credits run their course. All three volumes are indispensable for Python completists. --Donald Liebenson

Episodes 20-26

More "humorous vignettes and spoofs" from the second groundbreaking season of Monty Python's Flying Circus. This set contains episodes 20 through 26, available for the first time on DVD in chronological order. Included are signature sketches that were adapted for the Pythons' first film, And Now for Something Completely Different, such as How Not to Be Seen, Conrad Poohs and His Dancing Teeth, the camped-up military drill, and the alleged English-Hungarian phrasebook (the Hungarian phrase meaning "Can you direct me to the station?" is translated by the English phrase "Please fondle my bum"). Also on the menu are such tasty classics as Spam; the Lifeboat and Undertaker cannibalism sketches and spam; spam, spam, the Man Who Says Things in a Very Roundabout Way and spam; Spam, spam, the Hospital for Over-Acting and spam; spam, The Exploding Version of the Blue Danube and spam; The Death of Mary Queen of Scots and spam. "And, of course, there's sport." Not content with forgoing traditional punch lines, Monty Python further subverted television convention with these episodes. In Episode 23, for example, the credits don't appear until midway through. They further demonstrate why Entertainment Weekly ranked Monty Python No. 77 (only 77th?) among the top 100 entertainers of the last half of the 20th century. --Donald Liebenson

Episodes 27-32

This set contains six "persistently silly" episodes from Monty Python's third and final full season (the ones introduced by Terry Jones's naked keyboardist). The quality of the sketches is not as consistent as it was in the first two seasons, but no Monty Python collection is complete without such series benchmarks as Njorl's Saga, an exciting Icelandic tale appropriated by the North Malden Icelandic Society; a courtroom burlesque featuring Eric Idle as a very apologetic mass murderer; the Argument Clinic sketch; Gumby brain surgery; and the Fish-Slapping Dance, which Michael Palin is on record as saying is his personal favorite bit of Python nonsense. A warning to more sensitive viewers: There is "material that some may find offensive, but which is really smashing," as well as blatant violations of something called the "Strange Sketch Act." Chief among these is the one in which Terry Jones appears as a pitiable man whose every utterance reduces listeners to hysterical fits of laughter; the ill-fated expedition to Lake Pahoe (located at 22A Runcorn Avenue); and an in-person documentary about the sex life of the mollusk, from the scallop ("second in depravity only to the common clam") to the whelk ("gay boy of the gastropods"). Episode 30 has the distinction of featuring two of the most hilariously annoying characters Monty Python ever perpetrated on the public: John Cleese as Miss Anne Elk, who has a theory on brontosauruses, and Idle as the extremely loquacious Mr. Smoke-Too-Much. --Donald Liebenson

Episodes 33-39

Six more opportunities to "Spot the Looney." This boxed set contains the final six episodes from the third and last full season of Monty Python's Flying Circus. More discriminating Monty Python fans are directed to episodes from seasons 1 and 2, also available on VHS and DVD. But completists can fast-forward or click through clunkers such as Prices on the Planet Algon or the rather obvious game-show sketch Prejudice to such beloved sketches from the Python pantheon as The Cheese Shop, a fermented curd variation on the famed Parrot Sketch, in which John Cleese is unable to get any "cheesy comestibles" from woefully under stocked proprietor Michael Palin; the extended epic Cycling Tour, perhaps Palin's finest half-hour; the increasingly surreal Tudor Jobs Agency, in which an intrepid smut confiscator (Palin again) finds himself seemingly transported back to Elizabethan times, where he turns "the tide of Spanish porn"; Cleese's lupin-stealing highwayman Dennis Moore; the Oscar Wilde Sketch, in which Wilde (Graham Chapman), Whistler (Cleese), and Shaw (Palin) match wits in an escalatingly profane game of verbal one-upmanship ("Your Highness is like a stream of bat's piss....") and the self-explanatory Dirty Vicar Sketch. --Donald Liebenson

Episodes 40-45

Don't expect the Spanish Inquisition in these six episodes from the fourth--and final--half-season of Monty Python's Flying Circus. By this time (1974), John Cleese had departed. His absence is keenly felt, but Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam--with invaluable assist from Carol Cleveland, Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), and songwriter Neil Innes--pick up the slack with some of the most surreal material Python ever produced. Like the third season's Cycling Tour, several of these episodes, including The Golden Age of Ballooning, Michael Ellis (set mostly in a very silly department store), and Mr. Neutron, are extended, near-program-length sketches. But there are memorable bits throughout: some indecipherable RAF Banter ("Bally Jerry hanged his kite right in the how's-your-father"); a Hamlet tired of people wanting him to recite "To Be or Not to Be"; a parade of bogus psychiatrists; a doctor whose nurse keeps stabbing, shooting, or garroting his patients; and The Most Awful Family in Britain competition, which achieves "the really gross awfulness that we're looking for." These episodes do not loom large in the Python legend, except perhaps as the basis for a lawsuit the troupe filed in 1975 against ABC, which aired them during late night in severely tampered-with versions. While, literally speaking, no Monty Python collection is complete without this box set, initiates are bound to watch these episodes with a disappointed, "Well, what's all this then?" --Donald Liebenson

 

Share Your Memories In Our Forums!

Check out our Monty Python's Flying Circus forum! Do you have a favorite episode of the show? What do you remember about the series? Do you have any questions about it or its stars? Now you can post comments and questions directly to our TV forums! Click here to see what other Monty Python's Flying Circus viewers have said or to post your own comments about the show!

Your Memories Shared!

For me the Pythons defined abstract comedy. As goofy as they often were, the sketches maintained an internal consistency of logic. Their characters were continually true to themselves and the focus of whatever skit they appeared in. This total dedication to twisted logic made the skiots "believable" in an absurd manner. John Cleese showed his comic genius in Falwty Towers, which he did with the same type of madcap aplomb after Python. Also, I think the show lost some of its edginess afyer his departure. Monty Python's Flying Circus should go down in the annals of television as one of the most inventive and envelope-pushing comedy creations of all time. For it to have ben rated as only the 77th best showm as was done by Entertainment Weekly, is as absurd as any skit the troupe ever did.

--GoldenLancer

Note: This is just a random sample of the Monty Python's Flying Circus messages in our TV forums! Click here to see what others have said or to post your own comments!

 

TV TIDBITS

Aired: 1969-1974

Cast: John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam

Network: BBC, PBS

Genre: Comedy

Theme song

Image courtesy of the BBC


   
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