Monty Python “It's not pinin', it's passed on. This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It's a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn't nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.

— John Cleese as Mr. Praline,
Monty Python's Flying Circus

Python ProfilesThe Monty Python Canon

They're endlessly quoted by chortling nerds everywhere, they inspired the most common term for unsolicited bulk e-mail, and their style is so distinctive and influential that they have added a new adjective to the Oxford English Dictionary: Pythonesque. Much respect to the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and the original cast of Saturday Night Live, but no other comedy team ever has been or ever will be as hilarious as Monty Python. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin engineered a towering monument of hilarity that will never be surpassed. By comparison, aside from the few noble contenders like Arrested Development, South Park and The Daily Show, most of what passes for comedy these days is a joke.

I possess a vast library of books of the subject of Monty Python and I've seen all the documentaries and interviews, so I know all the mythology behind the group backwards and forwards. Instead of going on for tedious paragraphs about the standard biographical details that you can already find on a thousand other web sites, I'll cover this territory as concisely as possible.

Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle were the ones from Cambridge. Chapman and Cleese got their start together on comedy programs like At Last The 1948 Show in 1967. Terry Jones and Michael Palin were the ones from Oxford. They teamed up with Idle and got their start together on comedy programs like Do Not Adjust Your Set in 1968-1969. Terry Gilliam was the one from America. He did animations for Do Not Adjust Your Set, and met Cleese while working on a humor magazine. All these guys admired each other's shows, and Cleese wanted to work with Palin. That's the way they all became the Python bunch.

The free-flowing Python style resulted from the group's boredom with the conventional comedic pattern of set-up, punch line, link to the next sketch, repeat. The absurd, stream-of-consciousness style of an early Gilliam animation called "Elephants" inspired Jones to insist that they should do an entire program that way. Visionary BBC producer Barry Took was so confident in the abilities of Cleese that he gave the group a 13-episode commitment in 1969 without even seeing a script or interfering in the production. And the rest is history.

Right, now let's get the requisite profiles of the Python team members out of the way in a similarly efficient manner:

Graham Chapman
Graham Chapman Marks of distinction: The gay one and the lazy one
Role in group dynamics: Wrote with Cleese; group's primary contributor of random surrealism
Stock characters: Earnest straight men; stern authority figures; doctors; military generals; loonies
Scandals and gossip: A notorious alcoholic; suffered delirium tremens and botched his lines throughout the filming of The Holy Grail
Famous line: "No, no, no, it's spelt Raymond Luxury Yach-T, but it's pronounced 'Throatwobbler Mangrove'."
Finest Python moments: Confuse-A-Cat; Mr. Neutron; King Arthur; Brian; "Find the Fish"
Finest non-Python achievement: Yellowbeard
Career low point: Dying of cancer in 1989

John Cleese
John Cleese Marks of distinction: The tall one and the angry one
Role in group dynamics: Wrote with Chapman; performed best when paired with Palin; endlessly fought with Jones
Stock characters: Loud, infuriated psychotics; dissatisfied customers; upper-class twits
Scandals and gossip: Egomaniac; demanded the suppression of the notorious "lost" Python sketch, "Wee-Wee Wine Tasting"; quit the Flying Circus after the third season because he felt they were repeating themselves
Famous line: "Goooood a-night, a ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!"
Finest Python moments: The Ministry of Silly Walks; the Dead Parrot; the Fish-Slapping Dance; Dennis Moore; Mr. Praline; Tim the Enchanter
Finest non-Python achievement: Fawlty Towers
Career low point: Rat Race and The Out-of-Towners (tie)

Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam Marks of distinction: The American and the animator
Role in group dynamics: Did his animations by himself with complete creative freedom; performed whatever minor roles no one else wanted; stirred animosity among the others in his role as co-director on The Holy Grail
Stock characters: Drooling, monosyllabic idiots; quiet guys in the background
Scandals and gossip: Not very skilled with the English language, according to Cleese; probably, like, smoked a lot of weed, dude
Famous line: "We've got lumps of it round the back."
Finest Python moments: The opening animations; Cardinal Fang; bean-eating enthusiast Kevin Garibaldi; Patsy
Finest non-Python achievement: Brazil
Career low point: The collapse of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Eric Idle
Eric Idle Marks of distinction: The cheeky one and the musical one
Role in group dynamics: Wrote by himself; most skilled with clever wordplay and songs; in group meetings, sided with Gilliam by default against the other two pairs
Stock characters: Lascivious playboys; news reporters; showbiz phonies
Scandals and gossip: Moved to Los Angeles and became a real-life showbiz phony; forever shamelessly finding new ways to milk Python for cash while the rest of the group is ready to let it go already
Famous line: "Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more!"
Finest Python moments: Mr. Smoke-Too-Much; Michael Ellis; Stan Called Loretta; "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"
Finest non-Python achievement: The Rutles
Career low point: Nuns on the Run

Terry Jones
Terry Jones Marks of distinction: The Welsh one and the best one in drag
Role in group dynamics: Wrote with Palin; endlessly fought with Cleese; highly concerned with the technical aspects of comedy
Stock characters: Middle-aged "pepperpot" ladies; city gents in suits and bowler hats
Scandals and gossip: Control freak and self-appointed steward of Python creative integrity
Famous line: "We use only the finest baby frogs, dew-picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in finest-quality spring water, lightly killed, and then sealed in a succulent Swiss quintuple smooth treble cream milk chocolate envelope and lovingly frosted with glucose."
Finest Python moments: The Bishop; Ron Obvious; Harry "Snapper" Organs; the Virgin Mandy; Mr. Creosote
Finest non-Python achievement: The Wind in the Willows
Career low point: Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book

Michael Palin
Michael Palin Marks of distinction: The nice one and the most versatile one
Role in group dynamics: Wrote with Jones; performed best when paired with Cleese
Stock characters: Smarmy scumbags and swindlers; meek, boring milquetoasts; obsessive nerds; handkerchief-headed "gumbies"
Scandals and gossip: Reportedly, the only time he ever lost his amiable demeanor was during extended retakes of a Holy Grail scene that required him to keep eating dirt until he wanted to kill Gilliam and Jones
Famous line: "Doctor! Doctor! Doctor! My brain hurts!"
Finest Python moments: Ken Shabby; The Lumberjack Song; Luigi Vercotti; Mr. Pither; lisping Pontius Pilate
Finest non-Python achievement: Ripping Yarns
Career low point: Abandoning comedy to do all those damn travelogue shows

It's impossible for me to recall exactly how I first encountered the comic stylings of these six extraordinary gentlemen. Monty Python was something I remember hearing about as a young kid, a mysterious and forbidden presence that has been in the background my whole life. In fact, Monty Python's Flying Circus debuted on the BBC in October 1969, just four months after I was born. Of course, I wouldn't have had an opportunity to see the program until PBS began airing it in 1975, and I actually have a foggy memory of seeing Terry Gilliam's third season opening animation when I was a wee lad. (I'm sure I would have lost interest at that age once the "cartoon" part was over.) I think I also saw or heard about the infamous ABC broadcast of the censored fourth season episodes, and at some point I remember seeing the "Olympic swimming for the deaf" film segment from Live at the Hollywood Bowl. As a pre-teen I began to learn more about this obscure Monty Python "guy," whom I gathered was some sort of burlesque British comedian like Benny Hill. Classmates whispered tales of silly walks, singling lumberjacks, and a cow being catapulted from the battlements of a castle.

Finally, when I was about 13, I got seriously hooked on the PBS Flying Circus reruns. I learned that Monty Python was not one guy but six, and I quickly figured out all their names (although for a while I had Eric Idle and Michael Palin backwards, perhaps owing to my early delight with Idle's "Michael Ellis" character). It was a perfect time for me to adopt a subversive new interest like Monty Python, when I was getting ready to move up to high school and Return of the Jedi had temporarily dashed my childhood obsession with Star Wars. Monty Python was a cool new adult thing to be into, with a level of sophistication and satire that I was now ready to grasp -- even if many of the jokes were still going over my head.

My Python mania reached new heights when my family bought our first VCR in 1984. I developed an obsessive compulsion for videotaping the Flying Circus every Saturday night, anxiously fearing that the VCR would malfunction or my PBS affiliate would drop the broadcasts before I could record them all. Which ultimately they did, leaving me with about three-quarters of the series until MTV started running the show years later. I'll never forget the time I stayed up all night to record a 3:30 a.m. broadcast of The Meaning of Life on HBO. You better believe I was flaming furious about "The Crimson Permanent Assurance" until I figured out that this pirate accountant thing was actually part of the movie! I swear, my friend Joey and I watched that Meaning of Life video after school every single day for weeks on end. At the time, I thought it was simply the best movie ever made. I recruited another friend to record Life of Brian off some pay channel I didn't get, and he had to keep it on the down low because his parents told him the movie was "sacrilegious." I believe The Holy Grail was the last of the Python films that I saw, and oh brother, did that one throw me for a loop.

When most people think of Monty Python, it's The Holy Grail that gets the bulk of the attention. "Bring out your dead," "It's only a flesh wound," the Knights Who Say Ni, the killer rabbit, etc. Sometimes it's as if Monty Python has existed only to do this one film about the Knights of the Round Table, and the remainder of their body of work is an incidental curiosity. While I consider Monty Python and the Holy Grail a true classic, it's far from being my favorite Python production. I think Life of Brian is their best film -- it may not be as gutbustingly hilarious as the best parts of The Holy Grail, but it stands as the group's most sustained and cohesive artistic statement. In contrast with the conceptual fragmention typically inherent in the Python modus operandi, Life of Brian has a beginning, a middle and an end, depicting a fully developed theme about religious fanaticism and mob mentality... and yet it avoids taking itself too seriously and becoming a pompous "message" movie.

And yet, to me, all of the Python films put together can't match the sheer achievement of their collaboration that started it all, the immortal Monty Python's Flying Circus television series. When I'm in the mood for Python, I'm most likely to reach for my Flying Circus DVDs. And considering all the agony I went though to record those episodes on shitty VHS, you kids today don't know how lucky you are to have the whole series at your fingertips in digital format. It's the best program ever created in the history of television, and I never get tired of watching it. A big reason why the Flying Circus is so much better for casual viewing is that the movies have become overly familiar for the hardcore fan. Brilliant thought they are, at a certain point you can get weary of seeing the French Taunter and "Every Sperm Is Sacred" over and over. When you stack up the films' six or so hours against nearly a full 24 hours of the TV show, the Flying Circus more readily bears intense levels of repeat viewing.

But it's so much more than just quantity that makes the classic series Monty Python's masterpiece. It's the endless creativity, the explosion of daring ideas, the pitch-perfect sense of absurdity, the self-assurance to drop a joke the instant before it gets worn out, and the implicit cooperation and mutual respect between performers and audience in the entire ridiculous enterprise. Watching these shows, I'm dumbfounded to think that these guys cranked out this level of excellence on a weekly basis. And that they managed to accomplish so much on a tiny production budget, squeezing maximum potential from the cheap and cheesy sets, props and "special effects." And that the BBC actually let them get away with it, virtually unhindered. These 45 episodes are a miracle, a landmark of human ingenuity that shall never be duplicated in the history of the universe. And God dang, they're funny!

Like the Beatles before them, Monty Python had a magical, elusive chemistry together that far exceeded the sum of its parts. It's surprising and maybe even a tad disappointing that the team's individual members have created so little work of a caliber that can even compare to the Python canon, with the rare exceptions of Cleese's Fawlty Towers and Gilliam's Brazil. I used to fantasize about a Python reunion, dreaming that The Meaning of Life would not be the end. Those hopes came crashing down on October 4, 1989, on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the first Monty Python's Flying Circus broadcast, when Graham Chapman died from throat cancer.

Chapman was actually the only Python I have ever seen in person, to date. In his latter years Chapman often made speaking tours of American universities, and he came to my University of North Carolina about a year before his death. Giddy with anticipation, I made an effort to schedule an interview with Chapman for a student magazine where I was on staff as an essayist. As a confirmed non-journalist, I can say this is the only time in my life when I ever sought to interview anyone, but this was a member of Monty Python, for crying out loud. To my chagrin, my interview request didn't pan out, and I had to watch Chapman's lecture from the audience. He gave a brief question and answer session at the end of his presentation. I had managed to prepare a potential query, although it was pretty lame, which was: "When the Monty Python guys were working together, which one of you guys would eat the most?" But upon that fateful moment when Chapman asked if there were any more questions, I froze in self-doubt and allowed him to say good night. It was a stupid question, but how I hate myself for not having the balls to stand up and spit it out, because Chapman might have come up with a really hilarious answer and an extended anecdote on Python dining habits never documented elsewhere. But now I'll never know.

While any prospects of a true Python reunion died with Chapman, we've had a number of near misses. Among other projects, Time Bandits, Yellowbeard and A Fish Called Wanda have featured effective mini-pairings of Python alumni, and Terry Jones's 1996 Wind in the Willows scored the unmatched coup of all the surviving Pythons but Gilliam. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1999, all five living Pythons got together (although Eric Idle was filmed separately) for a BBC special called "Python Night." And they did new sketches. This sounded like the makings of an ultimate wet-dream fantasy come true, but the reality was actually a bit depressing. While there were a few nice parts, this historic event mostly made the Python lads look old, fat and severely diminished in wit and comic timing. It was the sort of mildly embarrassing spectacle that makes me respect the hell out of Paul Weller for never reuniting The Jam.

Unexpectedly, the most admirable Python revival in recent years features no performances by any of the surviving members. Eric Idle adapted Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Spamalot, a Broadway musical loaded with new songs and references to other classic Python bits. It could have been a recipe for disaster, considering Idle's track record of whoring out the Python legacy to make a buck, but Spamalot proved to be a huge critical success. While I haven't had the opportunity to see the show, the soundtrack album demonstrates what a stellar job Idle did of expanded and updating the group's most celebrated film while remaining true to the spirit of the original.

Still, there ain't nothing like the real thing. No matter how many times I watch them and improve my rote memorization of every line, every song and every expression, those 45 flawless episodes and three classic films will always remain something completely different.

The Monty Python Canon
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)

Major Python-Related Projects
At Last The 1948 Show (1967)
Starring and co-written by Graham Chapman and John Cleese
Do Not Adjust Your Set (1968-1969)
Starring and co-written by Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones
Animations by Terry Gilliam
How to Irritate People (1968)
Co-written by Graham Chapman and John Cleese
Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Michael Palin
Romance with a Double Bass (1974)
Starring and co-written by John Cleese
Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)
Starring and co-written by John Cleese
Jabberwocky (1977)
Directed and co-written by Terry Gilliam
Starring Michael Palin
The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)
Starring, written and co-directed by Eric Idle
Cameo appearance by Michael Palin
Ripping Yarns (1977-1979)
Written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones
Starring Michael Palin
Time Bandits (1981)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam
Starring John Cleese and Michael Palin
Yellowbeard (1983)
Written by Graham Chapman
Starring Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and John Cleese
Brazil (1985)
Directed and co-written by Terry Gilliam
Starring Michael Palin
Clockwise (1986)
Starring John Cleese
A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Co-written by John Cleese
Starring John Cleese and Michael Palin
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1986)
Directed and co-written by Terry Gilliam
Starring Eric Idle
Erik the Viking (1989)
Written and directed by Terry Jones
Starring Terry Jones and John Cleese
The Wind in the Willows (1996)
Written and directed by Terry Jones
Starring Eric Idle, Terry Jones, John Cleese and Michael Palin
Fierce Creatures (1997)
Co-written by John Cleese
Starring John Cleese and Michael Palin
From an idea by Terry Jones and Michael Palin
Spamalot (premiered 2004)
Written by Eric Idle

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