Monty Python

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Television

Monty Python
The Python teamBack row: Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam. Front row: Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin
The Python team
Back row: Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam.
Front row: Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin
Medium Television, Film, Theatre,
Audio Recordings Books
Nationality British (5 members)
British, formerly American (1 member)
Years active 1969-1983
Genres Sketch comedy, Surreal humour
Influences The Goons, Spike Milligan
Influenced Virtually all of later British comedy and Sketch Comedy; Douglas Adams and Eddie Izzard are widely seen as their most direct heirs.

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone

Notable works and roles Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974)
And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)
Members Graham Chapman
John Cleese
Terry Gilliam
Eric Idle
Terry Jones
Michael Palin
Website PythOnline

Monty Python, or The Pythons, is the collective name of the creators of Monty Python's Flying Circus, a British television comedy sketch show that first aired on the BBC on 5 October 1969. A total of 45 episodes were made over four series. The Python phenomenon developed from the original television series into something much larger in scope and impact, spawning touring stage shows, five theatrically-released films, numerous albums, several books and a spin-off stage musical, and launching the members on to individual stardom.

The television series, broadcast by the BBC from 1969 to 1974, was conceived, written and performed by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Loosely structured as a sketch show but with an innovative stream-of-consciousness approach (aided by Terry Gilliam's animations), it pushed the boundaries of what was then considered acceptable, both in terms of style and content.

The group's influence on comedy has often been compared to The Beatles' influence on music. A self-contained comedy team responsible for both writing and performing their work, they changed the way performers entertained audiences. The Pythons' creative control allowed them to experiment with form and content, discarding the established rules of television comedy. Their influence on British comedy of all kinds has been apparent for many years, while in America it has coloured the work of many cult performers from the early editions of Saturday Night Live through to more recent absurdist trends in television comedy. ' Pythonesque' has entered the English lexicon as a result.

There are differing accounts of the origins of the Python name although the members agree that its only 'significance' was that they thought it sounded funny. In the 1998 documentary Live At Aspen the group implied that 'Monty' was selected as a gently-mocking tribute to Field Marshal Lord Montgomery, a legendary British general of World War II; requiring a "slippery-sounding" surname, they settled on 'Python'. On other occasions Idle has claimed that the name 'Monty' was that of a popular and rotund fellow who drank in his local pub; people would often walk in and ask the barman, "Has Monty been in yet?", forcing the name to become stuck in his mind. These explanations aside, some believe that ' Monty Bodkin', the name of a character in several books by humourist P. G. Wodehouse, served on some level as an inspiration.

In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, three of the six members were voted among the top 50 greatest comedians ever, by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. Palin was at number 30, Idle was voted 21st and Cleese was at two, just beaten to the top by Peter Cook.

Before Monty Python

Palin and Jones first met at Oxford University, while Cleese and Chapman met at Cambridge. Idle was also at Cambridge, but started a year after Cleese and Chapman. Cleese met Gilliam in New York while on tour with the Cambridge University Footlights revue Cambridge Circus (originally entitled A Clump of Plinths).

Chapman, Cleese and Idle were all members of the Footlights, which at that time also included the future Goodies Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden—as well as Jonathan Lynn (co-writer of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister). During the time of Idle's presidency of the Club, feminist writer Germaine Greer and broadcaster Clive James were also members. Recordings of Footlights revues (called "Smokers") at Pembroke College include sketches and performances by Idle and Cleese. They are currently kept in the archives of the Pembroke Players, along with tapes of Idle's performances in some of the college drama society's theatrical productions.

Variously, the Python members appeared in or wrote, or both, for the following shows before being united for Monty Python's Flying Circus. In particular, The Frost Report is credited as first uniting the British Pythons and providing an environment in which they could develop their particular styles:

  • I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again (radio) (1964–1973) [Cleese: cast member & writer
    — Idle and Chapman: writers]
  • The Frost Report (1966–1967) [Cleese: cast member & writer
    — Idle: writer of Frost's monologues — Chapman, Palin & Jones: writers]
  • At Last the 1948 Show (1967) [Chapman & Cleese: writers & cast members — Idle: writer]
  • Twice a Fortnight (1967) [Palin & Jones: cast members & writers]
  • Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967–1969) [Palin, Jones & Idle: cast members & writers
    — Gilliam: animation — Bonzo Dog Band: musical interludes]
  • We Have Ways of Making You Laugh (1968) [Idle: cast member & writer — Gilliam: animation]
  • How to Irritate People (1968) [Cleese & Chapman: cast members & writers — Palin: cast member]
  • The Complete and Utter History of Britain (1969) [Palin & Jones: cast members & writers]
  • Doctor in the House (1969) [Cleese & Chapman: writers]

Several of these also featured other important British comedy writers or performers, or both, including Ronnie Corbett, Ronnie Barker, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie, Marty Feldman, Jonathan Lynn, David Jason and David Frost.

Following the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set (originally intended to be a children's programme) with the adult demographic, ITV offered Palin, Jones, Idle and Gilliam their own series together. At the same time Cleese and Chapman were offered a show by the BBC, having been impressed by their work on The Frost Report and At Last The 1948 Show. Cleese was reluctant to do a two-man show for various reasons, including Chapman's supposedly difficult personality. Cleese had fond memories of working with Palin and invited him to join the team. With the ITV series still in pre-production Palin agreed and suggested the involvement of his writing partner Jones and colleague Idle—who in turn suggested that Gilliam could provide animations for the projected series. Much has been made of the fact that the Monty Python troupe is the result of Cleese's desire to work with Palin and the chance circumstances that brought the other four members into the fold.

Monty Python's Flying Circus

Development of the series

The Pythons had a very definite idea about what they wanted to do with the series. They were all great admirers of the work of Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore on Beyond the Fringe, and had worked on Frost, which was similar in style. They also enjoyed Cook and Moore's sketch show Not Only... But Also. However, one problem the Pythons perceived with these programmes was that though the body of the sketch would be strong, the writers would often struggle to then find a punchline funny enough to end on, and this would detract from the overall quality of the sketch. They decided that they would simply not bother to 'cap' their sketches in the traditional manner, and early episodes of the Flying Circus series make great play of this abandonment of the punchline (one scene has Cleese turn to Idle, as the sketch descends into chaos, and remark that "This is the silliest sketch I've ever been in" - they all resolve not to carry on and simply walk off the set). However, as they began assembling material for the show, the Pythons watched one of their collective heroes, Spike Milligan, recording his new series Q5 (1969). Not only was the programme more irreverent and anarchic than any previous television comedy, Milligan would often "give up" on sketches halfway through and wander off set (often muttering "did I write this?"). It was clear that their new series would now seem somewhat less original, and Jones in particular became determined the Pythons should innovate further.

After much debate, Jones remembered an animation Gilliam had created for Do Not Adjust Your Set called "Beware of the Elephants", which had intrigued him with its stream-of-consciousness style. Jones felt it would be a good concept to apply to the series: allowing sketches to blend into one another. Palin had been equally fascinated by another of Gilliam's efforts, entitled "Christmas Cards", and agreed that it represented "a way of doing things differently." Since Cleese, Chapman and Idle were less concerned with the overall flow of the programme, it was Jones, Palin and Gilliam who became largely responsible for the presentation style of the Flying Circus series, in which disparate sketches are linked to give each episode the appearance of a single stream-of-consciousness (often using a Gilliam animation to move from the closing image of one sketch to the opening scene of another).

Each day of writing started at 9am and finished at 5pm. Typically, Cleese and Chapman worked as one pair of writers isolated from the others, as did Jones and Palin, while Idle wrote alone. After a few days of working in this configuration, they would all join together with Gilliam, critique their scripts and exchange ideas. Their approach to writing was democratic. If the majority found the idea to be humorous, it would be included in the show. The casting of roles for the sketches was a similarly unselfish process, since each member viewed himself primarily as a writer, rather than an actor desperate for screen time. When the themes for sketches were finally chosen, Gilliam had carte blanche to decide how to bridge them with animations, armed with his camera, scissors, and airbrush.

While the show was a collaborative process, different factions within Python were clearly responsible for different elements of the team's humour. In general, the work of the Oxford-educated members was more visual, and more fanciful conceptually (e.g. the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition in a suburban front room), while the Cambridge graduates' sketches tended to be more verbal and more aggressive (for example, Cleese and Chapman's many "confrontation" sketches, where one character ends up intimidating or hurling abuse at another, or Idle's characters with bizarre verbal quirks, such as The Man Who Speaks In Anagrams). Asked about this, Cleese has confirmed that "most of the sketches with heavy abuse were Graham's and mine, anything that started with a slow pan across countryside and impressive music was Mike and Terry's, and anything that got utterly involved with words and disappeared up any personal orifice was Eric's." Gilliam's animations, meanwhile, ranged from the whimsical to the savage (the cartoon format allowing him to create some astonishingly violent scenes without fear of censorship).

Several names for the show were bandied about before the title Monty Python's Flying Circus was settled upon. Some of the more memorable were "Owl Stretching Time", "The Toad Elevating Moment", "Vaseline Review" and "Bun, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot". "Flying Circus" stuck when the BBC explained to the group that it had already printed that name in its schedules and was not prepared to amend it, leaving the Pythons no choice in the matter. Many variations then came and went. Gwen Dibley's Flying Circus was named after a woman Palin had read about in the newspaper, thinking it would be amusing if she were to discover she had her own TV show. Barry Took's Flying Circus (also Baron Von Took's Flying Circus) was an affectionate tribute to the man who had brought them together. Arthur Megapode's Flying Circus was suggested, then discarded. Cleese then added "Python", liking the image of a slippery, sly individual that it conjured up. The specific origin of "Monty" is somewhat confused (see above).

Style of the show

Flying Circus pioneered some innovative formal techniques, such as the cold open, in which an episode began without the traditional opening titles or announcements. An example of this is the "It's" man: Palin in Robinson Crusoe garb, making a tortuous journey across various terrains, before finally approaching the camera to state, "It's...", only to be then cut off by the title sequence and the theme song. On several occasions the cold open would last until mid show, after which the regular opening titles would run. Occasionally the Pythons would attempt to trick viewers by rolling the closing credits halfway through the show, usually continuing the joke by fading to the familiar globe logo used for BBC continuity, over which Cleese would parody the clipped tones of a BBC announcer. On one occasion the credits ran directly after the opening titles. They also experimented with ending segments by cutting abruptly to another scene or animation, walking offstage, addressing the camera (breaking the fourth wall), or introducing a totally unrelated event or character. A classic example of this approach was the use of Chapman's "Colonel" character, who walked into several sketches and ordered them to be stopped because things were becoming "far too silly." Another favourite way of ending sketches was to drop a cartoonish "16-ton weight" prop on one of the characters when the sketch seemed to be losing momentum, or a knight in full armour (played by Terry Gilliam) would wander on-set and hit characters over the head with a raw chicken, before cutting to the next scene. Another innovative way of changing scenes was when John Cleese would come in as a radio commentator and say "And now for something completely different"

The Monty Python theme music is The Liberty Bell, a march composed by John Philip Sousa, which was chosen among other reasons because the recording was in the public domain.

The use of Gilliam's surreal, collage stop motion animations was another innovative intertextual element of the Python style. Many of the images Gilliam used were lifted from famous works of art, and from Victorian illustrations and engravings. The giant foot which crushes the show's title at the end of the opening credits is in fact the foot of Cupid, cut from a reproduction of the Renaissance masterpiece Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time by Bronzino. This foot, and Gilliam's style in general, have come to be considered the visual trademarks of the series.

The Pythons built on and extended the great British tradition of cross-dressing comedy. Rather than dressing a man as a woman purely for comic effect, the (entirely male) Python team would write humorous parts for women, then don frocks and makeup and play the roles themselves. Thus a scene requiring a housewife would feature one of the male Pythons wearing a housecoat and apron, speaking in falsetto. These women were referred to as pepperpots. While this accentuated the humour, it was not, in itself, the joke (had a woman played the role, the lines would have had the same comic effect). Generally speaking, female roles were only played by a real woman (usually Carol Cleveland) when the scene specifically required that the character be sexually attractive (although sometimes they used Eric Idle for this). In some episodes and the later Monty Python's Life of Brian they took the idea one step further by playing women who impersonated men.

Many of the sketches have become extremely well-known outside the hardcore of Python fans, and are still widely quoted to this day. "The Dead Parrot", " The Lumberjack Song", " Spam", " Nudge Nudge", " The Spanish Inquisition", " Upper Class Twit of the Year", " Four Yorkshiremen sketch", " Cheese Shop" and " The Ministry of Silly Walks" are just a few examples.

The end of Flying Circus

Having considered the possibility at the end of the second series, Cleese finally left the Flying Circus at the end of Series Three. He claimed he felt he was merely repeating himself, that he had nothing fresh to offer the show and that many of his sketches in the third series were merely rewrites of his earlier work. He was also finding Chapman, who was at that point in the full throes of alcoholism, increasingly difficult to work with. According to an interview with Eric Idle "it was on an Air Canada flight on the way to Vancouver, when John (Cleese) turned to all of us and said `I want out.' Why? I don't know. He gets bored more easily than the rest of us. He's a difficult man, not easy to be friendly with. He's so funny because he never wanted to be liked. That gives him a certain fascinating, arrogant freedom." Cleese said in an interview years later that he had wanted to leave after the second series but was talked into staying by the other Pythons. He said that he thought they did only two original sketches in the Third Series ("Dennis Moore" and the "Cheese Shop"), and that the other sketches were bits and pieces from previous work cobbled together in slightly different contexts.

The rest of the group carried on for one more series (dropping the "Flying Circus" from the show's title, which became just "Monty Python") before calling a halt to the programme in 1974. The name "Monty Python's Flying Circus" appears in the opening animation for Series Four, but in the end credits the show is listed as simply "Monty Python". Despite Cleese's officially leaving the group, he made a cameo appearance in the fourth series. Several episodes credit him as a co-writer since some sketches were recycled from scenes cut from the "Holy Grail" script. While the first three series contained 13 episodes each, the fourth was cut short at only six.

In 1975 the series was first broadcast in the United States and soon gained a cult following. Ron Deveiller, an executive from PBS television station KERA in Dallas, Texas found Monty Python episodes on a shelf when searching for programming for his station. He watched one episode, then another, and before he was done he had acquired the entire series to put on the air. The series was eventually aired on PBS stations across the country, and by this chance event Python invaded America. A couple of sketches ("Bicycle Repairman" and "The Dull Life of a Stockbroker") aired in 1974 on the NBC series ComedyWorld, a summer replacement series for The Dean Martin Show.

Life after the Flying Circus


And Now For Something Completely Different (1971)

This was the Pythons' first feature film, composed of some of the best sketches from the first two series of the Flying Circus, re-shot on an extremely low budget (and often slightly edited) for cinema release. Some famous sketches included are: the "Dead Parrot" sketch, "The Lumberjack Song", "Upperclass Twits", "Hell's Grannies", and the "Nudge Nudge" sketch. Financed by Playboy's UK executive Victor Lowndes, it was intended as a way of breaking Monty Python in America, and although it was ultimately unsuccessful in this, the film did good business in the UK. The group did not consider the film a success, but it enjoys a cult following today.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

The group (including Cleese) reformed in 1974 to write and star in their first feature film of new material. The film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, was based on Arthurian Legend and directed by Jones and Gilliam, the latter also drawing the film's linking animations and opening credits. Along with the rest of the Pythons, Jones and Gilliam performed several roles in the film, but it was Chapman who took the lead as King Arthur. Holy Grail was filmed on a budget of nearly £150,000; this money was raised in part with investments from rock groups such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin - and UK music industry entrepreneur Tony Stratton-Smith (founder/owner of the Charisma Records label for which the Pythons recorded).

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Following the success of Holy Grail, a reporter asked Idle for the title of the next Python film, despite the fact that the team had not even begun to consider a second movie. Idle flippantly replied "Jesus Christ - Lust for Glory", which became the group's stock answer once they realised that it shut reporters up. However, they soon began to seriously consider a film lampooning the life of Christ in the same way Holy Grail had lampooned King Arthur. Despite being non-believers, they agreed that Jesus was “definitely a good guy” and found nothing to mock in his actual teachings; on the other hand, they shared a distrust of organised religion, and decided to write a satire on credulity and hypocrisy among the followers of a spurious “Messiah”.

The focus therefore shifted to a separate individual born at the same time, in the neighbouring stable, who is subsequently mistaken for the messiah. When Jesus does appear in the film (as he does on two occasions, first in the stable, and then later speaking the Beatitudes - Matt 5:1-48), he is played straight (by British actor Kenneth Colley) - the comedy begins when members of the crowd mishear his statement “Blessed are the Peacemakers” (“I think he said, 'blessed are the cheesemakers'”).

The film's combination of comedy and religious themes attracted some controversy upon its release, but it is consistently ranked as one of the greatest comedy films of all time.

Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)

Filmed at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles during preparations for The Meaning of Life, this was a concert film in which the Pythons performed sketches from the television series in front of an audience. The film also incorporated footage from the German television specials and live performances of several songs from the troupe's then-current Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album.

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

Python's final film returned to something closer to the style of Flying Circus, a series of sketches loosely followed the ages of man from conception to death. Directed again by Jones, The Meaning of Life is embellished with some of Python's most bizarre and disturbing moments, as well as various elaborate musical numbers. The film is by far their darkest work, containing a great deal of spectacular violence and black humour: at the time of its release, the Pythons confessed their aim was to offend "absolutely everyone". A short film by Gilliam - The Crimson Permanent Assurance - originally planned as a sketch within the film, eventually grew so ambitious that it was cut from the movie and used as a supporting feature in its own right (on video and DVD, and also in television screenings, this section is tagged onto the start of the film as a prologue).

Crucially, this was the last project that all six Pythons would collaborate on, except for the 1989 compilation Parrot Sketch Not Included where we see the Python cast sitting in a closet for 4 seconds - which would also be the last time Chapman was filmed on screen with the rest of the Pythons.

The Secret Policeman's Ball benefit shows

Various members of Monty Python have contributed their services to multiple charitable endeavors and causes over the years - sometimes as an ensemble - at other times as individual members. The cause that has been the most frequent and consistent beneficiary of Monty Python's generosity has been the human rights work of Amnesty International. Between 1976 and 1981, the troupe and/or its members appeared in four major fund-raisers for Amnesty - known collectively as the Secret Policeman's Ball shows - which were turned into multiple films, TV shows, videos, record albums and books. These benefit shows and their many spin-offs raised considerable sums of money for Amnesty, raised public and media awareness of the human rights cause and influenced many other members of the entertainment community (especially rock musicians) to become involved in political and social issues. Among the many musicians who have publicly attributed their activism - and the organisation of their own benefit events to the inspiration of the work in this field of Monty Python are U2, Bob Geldof, Pete Townshend and Sting. The shows are also credited by Amnesty with helping the organisation develop public awareness in the USA where one of the spin-off films was a major success.

Two of the six Pythons - Cleese and Jones - had an involvement (as performer, writer and/or director) in all four Amnesty benefit shows. Palin was involved in three, Chapman in two and Gilliam in one. Eric Idle did not participate in any of the Amnesty shows. Notwithstanding Idle's lack of participation - the other five members (together with two "Associate Pythons" - Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes - all appeared together in the first Secret Policeman's Ball benefit - the 1976 A Poke In The Eye (With A Sharp Stick) performing several Python sketches and in this first show, they were collectively billed as Monty Python. ( Peter Cook deputised for the errant Eric Idle in one major sketch The Courtroom). In the next three shows, the participating Python members performed many Python sketches - but were billed under their individual names rather than under the collective Python banner. After a six-year break, Amnesty resumed producing Secret Policeman's Ball benefit shows in 1987 (sometimes with, and sometimes without variants of the iconic title) and by 2006 had presented a total of twelve such shows. The shows since 1987 have featured newer generations of British comedic performers - including many who have attributed their participation in the show to their desire to emulate the Python's pioneering work for Amnesty. (Cleese and Palin made a brief cameo appearance in the 1989 Amnesty show - but apart from that, the Python members have not appeared in any of the shows after the legendary first four shows.)

Going solo

Each member pursued other film and television projects after the break-up of the group, but often continued to work with one another. Many of these collaborations were very successful, such as Fawlty Towers (written by and starring Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth), and A Fish Called Wanda (1988) (also written by Cleese, and in which he starred along with Palin). The latter pair also appeared in Time Bandits (1981), a film written by Gilliam and Palin, and directed by Gilliam. Gilliam also directed and co-wrote Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), which featured Palin and Idle respectively. Gilliam has now become a cult director; he often struggles to find the money for his work because his films tend to go over-budget and fail at the box-office. Palin and Jones wrote the comedic film series Ripping Yarns, starring Palin with an assortment of British actors. Palin's BBC travel series have also proved extremely popular as have Jones' historical documentaries. In terms of numbers of productions, John Cleese has had the most prolific solo career, having appeared in 59 theatrical films, 22 TV shows or series (including Cheers, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Will & Grace), 23 direct-to-video productions, six video games, and a number of commercials.

Idle enjoyed critical success with Rutland Weekend Television in the mid-70s and as an actor in Nuns on the Run (1990) with Robbie Coltrane. He also had a UK #3 single with " Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." However, it is the theatrical phenomenon of Spamalot that has made Idle the most financially successful of the troupe post-Python. Spamalot, "lovingly ripped off" from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail and written by Idle, was an enormous hit on Broadway, in London's West End and also Las Vegas.

Post-Python reunions

The Pythons' last full work together as an ensemble was the film The Meaning of Life in 1983. Since then, they have often been the subject of reunion rumours. The final reunion of all six members occurred during the Parrot Sketch Not Included - 20 Years of Monty Python special. The death of Chapman in 1989 (on the eve of their 20th anniversary) seemed to put an end to the speculation of any further reunions. However there have been several occasions since 1989 when the surviving five members have gathered together for appearances - albeit not formal reunions.

In 1991, Eric Idle performed Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life on the BBC's weekly music programme, Top of the Pops without the surviving members. The song had been revived by Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 1, and was consequently released as a single that year.

In 1998 the five remaining members, along with what was purported to be Chapman's ashes, were reunited on stage for the first time in 18 years. The occasion was in the form of an interview (hosted by Robert Klein, with an appearance by Eddie Izzard) in which the team looked back at some of their work and performed a few new sketches. One of the show's more memorable moments occurred when what were supposed to be Chapman's ashes were "accidentally" spilled - the person responsible for upsetting the urn was Gilliam – then hurriedly cleaned up with a mini-vacuum cleaner and a broom and dustpan. A significant amount of the ashes were also brushed under the rug.

On 9 October 1999, to commemorate 30 years since the first Flying Circus television broadcast, BBC2 devoted an evening to Python programmes, including a documentary charting the history of the team, interspersed with new sketches by the Monty Python team filmed especially for the event; the program appears, though omitting a few things, on the DVD The Life of Python. Though Eric Idle's involvement in the special is limited, the final sketch marks the only time since 1989 that all surviving members of the troupe appear in one sketch, albeit not actually in the same room.

In 2002 four members of the Python team, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam performed The Lumberjack Song and Sit on my face for George Harrison's Memorial concert. The reunion also included regular contributors Neil Innes and Carol Cleveland, with a special appearance from Tom Hanks.

In an interview to publicise the DVD release of The Meaning of Life, Cleese said a further reunion was unlikely. "It is absolutely impossible to get even a majority of us together in a room, and I'm not joking," Cleese said. He said that the problem was one of business rather than one of bad feelings.

A sketch appears on the same DVD spoofing the impossibility of a full reunion, bringing the members “together” in a deliberately unconvincing fashion with modern bluescreen/greenscreen techniques.

Idle has responded to queries about a Python reunion by adapting a line used by George Harrison in response to queries about a possible Beatles reunion. When asked in November 1989 about such a possibility, Harrison responded: "As far as I'm concerned, there won't be a Beatles reunion as long as John Lennon remains dead." Idle's version of this was that he expected to see a proper Python reunion, "just as soon as Graham Chapman comes back from the dead", but added, "we're talking to his agent about terms."

2003's The Pythons Autobiography By The Pythons, compiled from interviews with the surviving members, reveals that a series of disputes in 1990 over a Monty Python and the Holy Grail sequel conceived by Idle may have resulted in the group's permanent fission. Cleese's feeling was that The Meaning of Life had been personally difficult and ultimately mediocre, and for this and other reasons did not wish to be involved. Apparently Idle was angry with Cleese for refusing to do the film, which most of the remaining Pythons thought reasonably promising. A still-smarting Idle refused to appear in what he saw as the Cleese-dominated reunion show a few years later (his place was taken by Eddie Izzard).

The members have continued to appear in each other's films. Terry Gilliam has directed Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones and Eric Idle in various non-Python pictures, Graham Chapman worked with John Cleese and Eric Idle in Yellowbeard and Michael Palin and John Cleese worked together in the acclaimed A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures. Terry Jones' 1996 adaptation of The Wind in the Willows featured all the surviving Python members, except for Terry Gilliam, who was going to play The River but could not find space in his schedule. More recently, Shrek the Third features both John Cleese and Eric Idle in voice-over roles, although they don't share any scenes (Cleese had a starring role, while Idle had a guest star role).

March 2005 saw a full, if non-performing, reunion of the surviving cast members at the premiere of Eric Idle's musical Spamalot, based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It opened in Chicago and has since played in New York on Broadway, and is currently entertaining audiences in Toronto, Ontario. In 2004, it was nominated for 14 Tony Awards and won three: Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical for Mike Nichols and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for Sara Ramirez, who played the Lady of the Lake, a character specially added for the musical. John Cleese played the voice of God.

Owing in part to the success of Spamalot, PBS announced on July 13, 2005, that the network would begin to re-air the entire run of Monty Python's Flying Circus, as well as new one-hour specials focusing on each member of the group, called Monty Python's Personal Best. Each episode was written and produced by the individual being honoured, with the five remaining Pythons collaborating on Chapman's programme.

The Pythons

Graham Chapman was born in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, England on 8 January 1941, Chapman was originally a medical student, but changed to theatre when he joined Footlights at Cambridge (he did in fact complete his medical training and was legally entitled to practise as a doctor). Chapman is best remembered for taking the lead roles in The Holy Grail, as King Arthur, and Life of Brian, as Brian Cohen. Besides starring in Monty Python features, Chapman appeared in films such as The Odd Job (which he also produced) and Yellowbeard (which he co-wrote), also making several appearances on Saturday Night Live. He died of spinal and throat cancer on 4 October 1989. He is now lovingly referred to by the surviving Pythons as "the dead one." At Chapman's memorial service, Cleese delivered the irreverent speech he felt his co-writer would have wanted: having been the first person to say “shit” on British television, Cleese announced, Chapman would never have forgiven him had he missed the opportunity to become “the first person ever at a British memorial service to say 'fuck'.” In an XM radio interview of Cleese he explained that he was planning on doing a serious speech but he could imagine his friend being disgusted at what he was writing. Cleese went on to claim that the fellow Pythons got into the spirit and went to giving a more humorous speech. Furthermore, Cleese recited all the synonyms for being deceased, from the infamous Dead Parrot Sketch. Cleese also remarked in an interview with Michael Parkinson that, in a heartfelt reference to Chapman's tendency towards lateness, Palin remarked at the funeral "Graham Chapman is with us today...or at least he will be in twenty-five minutes". Chapman was survived by partner of 24 years, David Sherlock and adopted son, John Tomiczek, who later married an American girl and died in 1992 of heart trouble.

John Cleese was born on 27 October 1939 in Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset, England making him the oldest Python. Cleese’s family surname had originally been Cheese. His father, however, had it changed to Cleese when he joined the army during World War I. Cleese attended Clifton College, Bristol where he developed a taste for performing by appearing in house plays, then moved on to Cambridge, where he met his future Python writing partner, Graham Chapman. Cleese recently played Q's assistant ("R") and finally the new Q himself in the James Bond films. He also has done work for Shrek 2, and appeared in the first two Harry Potter films (as Nearly Headless Nick), Rat Race, and several Saturday Night Live episodes. He also voiced the King in Shrek the Third alongside fellow Python Eric Idle.

Terry Gilliam was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, on 22 November 1940. He is the only non-British member of the troupe, though he married a British citizen, makeup and costume designer Maggie Weston, and held dual American-British citizenship for 38 years before renouncing the former. He started off as an animator and strip cartoonist for Harvey Kurtzman's Help! magazine, one issue of which featured Cleese. Moving from the USA to England, he animated features for Do Not Adjust Your Set and then joined Monty Python's Flying Circus when it was created. He co-directed Monty Python and The Holy Grail and directed short segments of other Python films (for instance " The Crimson Permanent Assurance", the short film that appears before The Meaning of Life). Gilliam has gone on to become a celebrated and imaginative film director of such notable titles as Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Image:Nudge nudge.PNG
Idle (left) and Terry Jones in the sketch " Nudge Nudge" from Monty Python's Flying Circus

Eric Idle was born on 29 March 1943 in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, England. When Monty Python was first formed, two writing partnerships were already in place: Cleese and Chapman, Jones and Palin. That left Gilliam in his own corner, operating solo due to the nature of his work - and Idle. Idle's solo career faltered in the 1990s with the failures of his 1993 film Splitting Heirs (written, produced by and starring Idle) and 1998's Burn Hollywood Burn (in which he starred) - which was awarded five Golden Raspberry "Razzie" Awards including 'Worst Picture of the Year'. He revived his career by returning to the source of his success from the 1970s - and adapting Monty Python material for other media. He is the writer of the Tony award-winning Broadway musical Spamalot, based on the Holy Grail movie. He also collaborated with John Du Prez on the music for the show. He has written another Monty Python-derived stage musical, Not the Messiah that will premiere in Montreal in summer 2007. He is a voice talent in Shrek the Third along with fellow Python member, John Cleese.

Terry Jones was born on 1 February 1942 in Colwyn Bay, Conwy, Wales. The mildest member of Python, he has rarely received the same attention as his colleagues, but has been described by other members of the team as the “heart” of the operation. Python biographer George Perry has commented that should you "speak to him on subjects as diverse as fossil fuels, or Rupert Bear, or mercenaries in the Middle Ages or Modern China... in a moment you will find yourself hopelessly out of your depth, floored by his knowledge." Many others agree that Jones is characterised by his irrepressible, good-natured enthusiasm, which is perhaps the reason for his unflagging loyalty to the preservation of the group. However, Jones' passion often led to prolonged arguments with other group members — in particular Cleese — with Jones often unwilling to back down. Since his major contributions were largely behind the scenes (direction, writing), and he often deferred to the other members of the group as an actor, Jones' importance to Python was often underrated. Recent Python literature has highlighted his lead role in maintaining the group's unity and creative independence. He was diagnosed with bowel cancer in October 2006.

Michael Palin was born on 5 May 1943 in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. The youngest Python by a matter of weeks, Palin is often lovingly referred to as "the nice one". He attended Oxford, where he met his Python writing partner Jones. The two also wrote the series Ripping Yarns together. Palin and Jones originally wrote face-to-face, but soon found it was more productive to write apart and then come together to review what the other had written. Therefore, Jones and Palin's sketches tended to be more focused than that of the others, taking one bizarre, hilarious situation, sticking to it, and building on it.

Associate Pythons

Several people have been accorded unofficial "Associate Python" status over the years. Occasionally such people have been referred to as the 7th Python - in a style reminiscent of associates of the Beatles being dubbed "The 5th Beatle." The two collaborators with the most meaningful and plentiful contributions have been Neil Innes and Carol Cleveland. Both were present and presented as Associate Pythons at the official Monty Python 25th anniversary celebrations held in Los Angeles in July 1994.

Neil Innes was born on December 9, 1944, in Danbury, Essex, England, is the only non-Python besides Douglas Adams to be credited with writing material for the Flying Circus. He appeared in sketches and the Python films, as well as performing some of his songs in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. He was also a regular stand-in for absent Pythons on the rare occasions when they appear to re-create sketches. For example, he took the place of Cleese when he was unable to appear at the memorial concert for George Harrison. Gilliam once noted that if anyone qualified for the title of the "Seventh Python," it would certainly be Innes. He was one of the creative talents in the off-beat Bonzo Dog Band, appreciated for such nutty compositions as "The Intro and the Outro" and "I'm The Urban Spaceman." He would later portray Ron Nasty of the Rutles and write all of the Rutles' compositions for All You Need is Cash. By 2005, an unfortunate falling out had occurred between Eric Idle and Innes over additional Rutles projects, the results being Innes' critically acclaimed Rutles "reunion" album The Rutles: Archaeology and Idle's undistinguished, straight-to-DVD Rutles sequel The Rutles 2: Can't Buy Me Lunch, each undertaken without participation from the other. According to an interview with Idle carried by the Chicago Tribune in May 2005, his attitude as a result of the dispute is that he and Innes go back "too far. And no further." Innes has maintained a diplomatic silence on the dispute.

Carol Cleveland was born January 13, 1942 in London, England and commonly referred to as the "Seventh Python," or the "Python Girl," Carol Cleveland was the most important female performer in the Monty Python ensemble. Originally hired by producer/director John Howard Davies for just the first five episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus, she went on to appear in approximately two-thirds of the episodes as well as in all of the Python films, and in most of their stage shows as well. Her common portrayal as the stereotypical "blonde bimbo" eventually earned her the sobriquet "Carol Cleavage" by the other Pythons, but she felt that the variety of her roles should not be described in such a pejorative way.

Other contributors

John Cleese's ex-wife Connie Booth, who went on to write and star with him in Fawlty Towers, was probably the only other significant female performer. She appeared in, amongst others "The Lumberjack Song" and as the "witch" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Douglas Adams was "discovered" by Graham Chapman when a version of the Footlights Revue (a 1974 BBC2 television show featuring some of Adams' early work) was performed live in London's West End. The two formed a brief writing partnership, and Adams earned a writing credit in one episode (episode 45: "Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Liberal Party") of Monty Python's Flying Circus for a sketch called " Patient Abuse". In the sketch, a man who had been stabbed by a nurse arrives at his doctor's office bleeding profusely from the stomach, when the doctor makes him fill out numerous senseless forms before he can administer treatment (a joke Adams later incorporated into the Vogons' obsession with paperwork in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). Adams also contributed to a sketch on the album for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He had two "blink and you miss them" appearances in the fourth series of Monty Python's Flying Circus. At the beginning of Episode 42, "The Light Entertainment War," Adams is in a surgeon's mask (as Dr. Emile Koning, according to the on-screen captions), pulling on gloves, while Michael Palin narrates a sketch that introduces one person after another, and never actually gets started. At the beginning of Episode 44, "Mr. Neutron," Adams is dressed in a " pepperpot" outfit and loads a missile onto a cart, driven by Terry Jones, who is calling out for scrap metal ("Any old iron..."). The two episodes were first broadcast in November 1974. Adams and Chapman also attempted a few non-Python projects, including Out of the Trees.

Stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, a devoted fan of the group, has occasionally stood in for absent members. When the BBC held a "Python Night" in 1999 to celebrate 30 years of the first broadcast of Flying Circus, the Pythons recorded some new material with Izzard standing in for Idle, who had declined to partake in person (Idle taped a solo contribution from the US). Izzard hosted a history of the group entitled The Life of Python (1999) that was part of the Python Night and appeared with them at a festival/tribute in Aspen, Colorado, in 1998 (released on DVD as Live at Aspen).


Monty Python casts a considerable shadow over modern comedy. As such, the term 'pythonesque' has become a byword in surreal humour. However, this is perhaps somewhat misleading, since the humour of Monty Python, whilst certainly nonsensical and surreal, is still strongly characterised by a preoccupation with sociological concepts such as the British social class system. These themes cannot be said to be essential to surrealist comedy as a whole.

The term has also been applied to animations similar to those constructed by Terry Gilliam (e.g. the music video to Franz Ferdinand's " Take Me Out"); some say that "Gilliamesque" would be more accurate.

Things named after Monty Python

  • The Python programming language by Guido van Rossum is named after the troupe, and Monty Python references are often found in sample code created for that language. Additionally, a 2001 April Fool's Day joke by van Rossum and Larry Wall involving the merger of Python with Perl was dubbed "Parrot" after the Dead Parrot Sketch. The name "Parrot" was later used for a project to develop a virtual machine for running bytecode for interpreted languages such as Perl and Python.
  • In 1985, a fossil of a previously unknown species of gigantic prehistoric snake from the Miocene was discovered in Riversleigh, Queensland, Australia. The Australian palaeontologist who discovered the fossil snake was a Monty Python fan, and he gave the snake the taxonomic name of Montypythonoides riversleighensis in honour of the Monty Python team. (Translated from Greek to English, Montypythonoides means "like Monty Python").
  • The term spam, as used to denote unsolicited email, comes from Monty Python's "Spam" sketch.
  • In 2006, Ben & Jerry's introduced a new flavour: "Vermonty Python", a coffee liqueur ice cream with a chocolate cookie crumb swirl & fudge cows. The name "Minty Python" had been suggested before, according to a Ben and Jerry's tour guide.
  • Each member of Monty Python has an asteroid named after him ( 9617 Grahamchapman, 9618 Johncleese, 9619 Terrygilliam, 9620 Ericidle, 9621 Michaelpalin, and 9622 Terryjones).
  • The band Toad the Wet Sprocket took its name from an intentionally ridiculous band name in an Eric Idle monologue from 1980.
  • In the book A Series of Unfortunate Events: Book The Second: The Reptile Room, the orphans' new Father is named Monty, who has a love for reptiles, especially the python.
  • In 1999, Black Sheep Brewery released an ale named Monty Python's Holy Grail Ale.
  • The L.A. rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis wrote a song entitled Purple Stain, available on their 1999 hit album Californication. In the lyrics of the song it says: "Python the power straight from the monty, celluoid loves got a John Frusciante"
  • The character Monty in the comic strip with the same name, created by Jim Meddick, is named after Monty Python. The bizarre and unpredictable humour in the strip is clearly inspired by Monty Python.

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