On Oct. 5, the famous British comedy troupe Monty Python celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first airing of their groundbreaking sketch comedy show, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Since its debut in 1969, “Flying Circus” has gone on to be remembered for its silly sense of humor, formula breaking comedy and deadpan delivery of absurd material. The show not only garnered fame in the U.K., but it also found a devoted audience in the U.S. where reruns were played on PBS. Monty Python has grown to be a cult comedy classic all over the world as countless fans from different countries enjoy Python’s unique sense of humor.
After working together on the British comedy series “The Frost Report,” the young comedians went on to star in and write for other successful comedy programs of their era. After a successful run on “Do Not Adjust Your Set,” Thames Television offered Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam (the sole American of the group) their very own show. Likewise, the BBC offered John Cleese and Graham Chapman their very own comedy program after their success on “At Last the 1948 Show.” Not interested in doing a two-man comedy series, Cleese sought out Palin and offered him a role in their new show who in turn extended the offer to Idle, Jones and Gilliam. Once the group was together, they were tasked with the arduous job of pitching a new show to the BBC without a clear idea of what they wanted. As stated by Idle years later, “we hadn’t a clue, but we knew what we didn’t want to do.” Despite an ambiguous pitch, the BBC relented and gave the troupe their very own show which they titled “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
Upon its release, “Flying Circus” was immediately recognized as something different. In fact, many in Python were afraid that it was too different and no one would find their humor funny. The show went on to become a hit and lasted for four series and provided the group with enough success to begin a film career as well. The show’s success can likely be attributed to its revolutionary and often chaotic take on comedy. Formulaic comedy with set-ups, punch lines and clear transitions were thrown out in favor of the chaotic, silly and random. This gave the shows its own unique style that felt wholly different from everything that came before it. The show flowed like a chaotic stream of consciousness as sketches were cut short before a punchline and then woven together with random interjections and bizarre animations. Often times, “Flying Circus” transitioned to different sketches by either inserting one of Gilliam’s surreal cartoons or by directly breaking the fourth wall. The most iconic instance of this was when Chapman’s uptight colonel would interrupt a sketch if it got too silly or ran too long and command the comedians to “Get on with it!”
During the shows’ 45-episode run, “Flying Circus” produced many of the cast’s most iconic bits. Such famous sketches include the Ministry of Silly Walks, Argument Clinic, The Fish Slapping Dance and Pet Shop Sketch. Each of these sketches show off what made Monty Python so new and unique. The Fish Slapping Dance is literally what the title implies and is as absurd as it sounds. The genius in Monty Python is that it is often silly and bizarre, but their deadpan delivery and refusal to break character makes the weirdness of it all hilarious. Furthermore, skits like Pet Shop Sketch and Argument Clinic show that even when Python is absurd it can still be intelligent. These two iconic sketches display the quality of writing that often goes into Python sketches. The comedians pull off long and historical feats of verbal gymnastics as they spit off joke after joke in their patented straight-faced way, of which Cleese is a master. For example, in Pet Shop Sketch, Cleese tries to convince a pet shop owner how the parrot he was sold was dead upon purchase and rattles off every conceivable way to articulate the point to an oblivious employee. These sketches are but a few of the countless others that have since become classics. As such, they have endured through the past 50 years and have been quoted and referenced by countless fans, new and old alike.
As much as Python may have been great once, it is a true testament to their comedic ability when you see how much their work has inspired and endured. The success of “Flying Circus” carried over to Monty Python’s film achievements. Movies like “The Life of Brian,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “The Meaning of Life” are loved by fans and continue to be quoted endlessly. Even more telling is how much they have inspired today’s comedians and entertainers. Countless celebrities have expressed their love of Monty Python and how much it influenced their work. Such celebrities include Matt Greonig (“The Simpsons”), Matt Stone and Trey Parker (“South Park”), Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead”), Seth Macfarlane (“Family Guy”) and countless more. The intellectually absurd and chaotic nature of their work, their deviance from norms and the breaking of the fourth wall has continued to inspire artists and fans 50 years after their first appearance on television. Their fans are devoted as ever as the surviving members of Monty Python’s single night live performance turned into 10 shows due to high demand.
Monty Python was and continues to be one of the greatest comedy groups of all time. Their success can be measured in how they continue to make people laugh even today after decades off the air. Their timeless material keeps them relevant and easily accessible to new viewers (not to mention the recent addition of “Flying Circus” to Netflix). It is hard to understate just how impactful they have been to comedy as their unique and groundbreaking style continues to influence entertainment today.