Monty Python’s Flying Circus has had as much impact on Western pop culture in the last half century as … oh, I don’t know … the Beatles or Jesus Christ.
Of course that’s a stretch. The Pythons probably haven’t had as great an impact as the Beatles. But they’ve certainly been a bigger influence on the way we see and process the world than the Rolling Stones or Bay City Rollers or the Kardashians. Even bigger than The Simpsons.
Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more.
So it should have come as no surprise that, when the five living Pythons announced a few months ago that they were reuniting for a one-off, end-of-the-line live show at London’s O2 Arena on July 1, tickets sold out in 43 seconds.
The “one down, five to go” line refers to the Pythons’ won-lost record in the great game of life. Sorry to be a downer, but I think it’s safe to say that the prospect of incipient, inevitable death hangs over everything the Pythons now do at their advanced age.
Pleasantly surprised but still feeling like they were pushing their luck, the Pythons added four more shows at the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena on July 2, 3, 4 and 5. And those shows sold out immediately.
So (crossing their fingers and closing their eyes) the old codgers added five more shows on July 15, 16, 18, 19 and 20. What do you think happened? Of course those shows sold out.
As John Cleese said at the time: “The response to our planned reunion has been very, very silly. But we’re all touched that so many fans still want to see such old people perform.”
And old they are, relatively speaking. After all, Monty Python’s Flying Circus first aired on the BBC on Oct. 5, 1969 — almost 45 years ago — and the “boys” were already rather well-known radio and TV comedy writers and sketch performers by the time they got their own show.
Cleese (born Oct. 27, 1939) is the oldest at age 74. Terry Gilliam (Nov. 22, 1940) is 73. Terry Jones (Feb. 1, 1942) is 72. Eric Idle (March 29, 1943) and “baby” Michael Palin (May 5, 1943) are 71.
Graham Chapman — the Python who died of cancer in 1989 at age 48 — would be 73 if he were still alive.
But he’s not, of course.
He’s dead. Passed on. No more. Ceased to be. Expired. Gone to meet his maker. A stiff. Bereft of life. Resting in peace. Pushing up daisies. History. Kicked the bucket. Shuffled off his mortal coil. Run down the curtain. Joined the bleeding choir invisible. He is, in other words, an ex-Python.
The remaining still-coiled, unshuffled and very mortal Pythons carry on in relatively good shape and they’ll be performing many of their most famous sketches live on stage at The O2 over the next couple of weeks: The dead parrot, of course, and Spam and the Spanish Inquisition, the aforementioned nudge-nudge-wink-wink and — oh joy, oh joy — the Lumberjack Song.
But one classic routine will not be featured — at least not performed by the man who created it.
“I can’t do the Ministry of Silly Walks because of a knee replacement,” Cleese said in a recent interview. “It was done in 1985 and the hip was done a few years ago.”
(The idea for the Silly Walks sketch, by the way, came from Cleese’s writing partner, Graham Chapman, who “saw an elderly man struggling to walk up Southwood Lane near his home in London,” according to Chapman’s biography. BUT … Chapman and Cleese were too busy working on other bits to flesh out the Silly Walks piece. SO … that other set of writing partners, Palin and Jones, wrote the actual sketch based on Chapman’s idea which was eventually performed by Cleese. What a tangled web …)
Most of the other old favourites will be trotted out — with some surprises and embellishments. “I’ve got one or two (surprises) up my sleeve that will absolutely freak people out,” Eric Idle said in another interview earlier this month.
Idle has taken the lead in pulling together the O2 shows (budgeted at $3.5 million) because of his experience and success with Spamalot, the musical-comedy stage show he wrote and produced based on the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
And, because of that Spamalot experience, the July live shows will be more than “five old guys on a stage doing old sketches,” Idle said. There will be projected film footage from the TV series and Python movies, of course, and Terry Gilliam’s stop-action animations. But there will also be a live orchestra and an ensemble of 20 singers and dancers.
“Who wants to look at a bunch of old guys? Put some attractive young people onstage,” Idle said. “That’s my Broadway background. It’s what I learned from Spamalot.”
The Pythons in rehearsal. That’s Terry Gilliam suspended in mid-air below.
In another magazine interview, Idle said: “There’s no new material, but there are new ways of doing things, and there are sketches we’ve never done live before. You can’t write better Python sketches than the best of Python. Nobody could, because they get better in memory. It’s the cream of the material, and the others are saying how happy they are with it.”
(As a result of the large-scale staging, the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena will be reconfigured to seat about 15,000 for each of the Python live shows, bringing the total audience for the 10 shows to somewhere just over 150,000. Then there will be the hundreds of thousands more — millions, actually — who see the final, July 20 show beamed live to more than 2,000 theatres around the world, including Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Cineplex. The July 20 show will also be broadcast live on a comedy cable TV channel in the UK.
(That live-to-the-world show is, of course, also sold out everywhere. But there will be more theatrical screenings of The Last Night of Monty Python throughout July and August. Then you’ll be able to watch the whole thing to your heart’s content on DVD, probably by Christmastime.)
In the final run-up to the O2 live shows, the Pythons have launched the Monty Python Spam Club — which they call “the worst-run fan club in the world.” Here’s a link to it.
Speaking of Spamalot (as we were five paragraphs and a few photos ago), that stage show was the main impetus for the upcoming O2 reunion extravaganza.
Although Eric Idle wrote and produced Spamalot, the other four Pythons also made a substantial amount of money from royalties accruing to the original Holy Grail movie.
And then Mark Forstater, producer of 1975′s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, sued for his share of the royalties. And won. Big time.
So by the fall of 2013 the Pythons owed Forstater a ton of money. And they had run up an enormous legal bill fighting Forstater’s suit. And serial marrier John Cleese had just been stung badly in a $20-million divorce from his third wife, Alyce Faye Eichelberger ($13 million up front and $1 million a year for seven years). Thus from adversity was this summer’s O2 show born, overcoming the many self-created obstacles that had thwarted previous attempts to stage reunion shows.
(Of course, in typical Python fashion, the O2 plan almost blew up when Terry Gilliam criticized John Cleese for being a silly old man when Cleese married for the fourth time — despite his prior expensive failures. Eventually necessity was the mother of conciliation and the two bickering Pythons put their differences aside to get on with the show.)
I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!
Joining the Pythons on stage in London will be their old gal pal, Carol Cleveland.
The Pythons with Carol Cleveland in the early 1970s, above, and in 2013, below.
But another longtime Python collaborator, Neil Innes, will be missing.
Neil Innes, upper right above, was one of the Knights of the Round Table — Brave Sir Robin — in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, among his many, many contributions to the Monty Python canon.
Innes, sometimes known as the Seventh Python, is currently seeking his share of royalties for his contributions to the music for Spamalot and a certain amount of bad blood has resulted from the dispute. Sigh. I’m saddened but not surprised. I know there’s some relevant quote about friendship and money, but it’s too disheartening to rummage around to find it.
There, there. Have a nice cup of tea and everything will seem much better.
So now I’m going to tell you at least 25 things you might not know about Monty Python.
I figure there are probably 20 or 30 things in the above paragraphs that you might not have known before, so that brings us up to about 45 already. And, although I’m only numbering 25 things below, there will be multiple bits and pieces of information in each listing. So, in reality, the headline would probably have been safe as simply “100 Things You Might Not Know About Monty Python.”
Remember, I said “Might Not Know.” I’m sure there are lots of people out there who know half of the things I’m mentioning here and there might even be one or two strange, obsessive weirdos who know everything I’m about to tell you — and more. To them I say: “Get a life and please don’t contact me. You scare me.” I don’t know this stuff off the top of my head, after all — I had to look it up.
1. The very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus — ever— was titled Whither Canada? Canada was not mentioned once — not once — in the episode. According to Michael Palin’s book Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, Whither Canada? was one of the name considered for the show’s overall title — along with Owl Stretching Time; Toad Elevating Moment; Ow! It’s Colin Plint; and A Horse, A Spoon And A Bucket — and a few other equally absurdist nonsense titles.
The accepted story for how the name Flying Circus stuck is that BBC had already printed that suggested title in its monthly listings guide and was adamant the name should stand. The Monty Python part was added shortly thereafter. It’s impossible to think of the show by any other name now.
2. The first 13-episode season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus ran on the BBC from Oct. 5, 1969, to January 11, 1970. Despite the expectations of both the BBC and the Pythons, the show was a hit and a second 13-episode season was commissioned. Season 2 aired weekly on BBC from Sept. 15, 1970 to Dec. 22, 1970.
Hard to believe, but this was the CBC-TV logo in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
3. During the spring and summer 1970 hiatus between Season 1 and Season 2, the CBC picked up broadcast rights to Monty Python’s Flying Circus for Canada. The CBC was Monty Python’s first overseas sale and, as a result, the Pythons say they have always had a soft spot for Canada.
4. The CBC added Monty Python’s Flying Circus to its Thursday night schedule and began showing the first season’s shows at 10 p.m. on Sept. 17, 1970. The rest of the CBC Thursday lineup consisted of The Odd Couple at 7:30 p.m., The Interns (sort of a Grey’s Anatomy for the ’70s) at 8 p.m., a short-lived drama anthology called Theatre Canada at 9 p.m. and a live orchestral programme (described at the time as “middle-aged music”) called Music Album at 9:30 p.m. A weird lead-in but at least Monty Python was on the air in North America.
Here’s what TV columnist Blaik Kirby wrote in the Sept. 18 Globe & Mail under the headline “Flying Circus zany, brilliant”: “The CBC unveiled its secret weapon last night, and it was devastating. The title was Monty Python ‘s Flying Circus, and it turned out to be a sort of English Laugh-In — only much, much funnier.”
5. When the 13 episodes of Season 1 were done, the CBC immediately rolled out the first six episodes of Season 2. And then … nothing. In mid-January 1971, the CBC yanked Monty Python from its broadcast schedule.
6. Why? I do not know. I’m hoping someone can write in and give us a definitive answer to that one (not you scary people who know everything, of course.). It may have been because the cross-dressing Lumberjack Song, which came in Episode 9 of Season 1, offended certain overly constrained Canadian sensibilities.
LUMBERJACK: I cut down trees, I skip and jump, I like to press wild flowers. I put on women’s clothing, And hang around in bars.
MOUNTIES: He cuts down trees, he skips and jumps, He likes to press wild flowers. He puts on women’s clothing And hangs around … in bars?
CHORUS: He’s a lumberjack, and he’s okay, He sleeps all night and he works all day.
LUMBERJACK: I chop down trees, I wear high heels, Suspenders and a bra. I wish I’d been a girlie Just like my dear papa.
Or it may have been because of other offended sensibilities, such as expatriate Scot John Cameron, who wrote to the Toronto Sun a few years later to complain about the “racist garbage” of the show: “The English government is responsible for this anti-Scottish poison and it is their deliberate policy to try to destroy the Scottish character by ridicule, portraying Scots as mean and miserly so that we will be ashamed of our racial origin, and more easily assimilated into the English Empire …The CBC is a government of Canada body, paid for by the taxpayers of Canada and this proves that our Canadian government is nothing more than a stooge for the English government and this country takes its orders from England and is a partner in these criminal activities against the Scottish people.”
The Pythons did, of course, take great delight in mocking the Scots — and the English and the upper class and the military and everyone else. Whether or not that derision constituted “racist garbage,” I leave to someone more politically correct than I am to determine. For my part, I found it all hilarious — and I have a lot of Scottish blood running in my veins.
For some reason, Michael Palin often ended up playing the Scottish characters.
My old, dearly missed pal Peter Worthington responded to Cameron’s Sun letter with the comment “We think Monty Python is very subversive — as CBC brass thinks too.”
Whether or not Peter was serious, I don’t know. I do know from later experience that Peter didn’t necessarily think “subversive” was a bad thing — he was, after all, the ultimate rebel and shit disturber — and I do know he enjoyed some aspects of Monty Python, although much of the absurdist nihilism left him cold.
7. And then, finally bowing to unrelenting pressure from the fanatical legion of Python fans that arose across Canada, the CBC put the last seven episodes of Season 2 back on air as a summer replacement, scheduled to begin on Thursday, Aug. 5, 1971 at 9:30 p.m.
And — in typical fashion — CBC coverage of that year’s Pan Am Games pushed the re-launch back a week to Aug. 12.
8. The movie And Now For something Completely Different arrived in Toronto in early March 1972 for an exclusive run at Cinecity (then occupying the lovely old post office building on the north-east corner of Yonge and Charles — now home to a Starbucks and a McDonald’s). That run finally ended in May, after which it moved around the suburban theatre circuit through the summer before settling in as part of the Roxy’s regular repertoire for the next couple of years.
9. And then another hiatus before the CBC slipped Season 3 of MPFC back on the air at 10:30 p.m. Friday, May 25, 1973, again as s a summer replacement.
It followed MASH, All In The Family, the Tommy Hunter Show and Singalong Jubilee — a much more amenable lineup, all in all, but still — Singalong Jubilee as the lead-in to Monty Python? That was the early ’70s, man … you had to be there to understand.
Here’s another thing that doesn’t make sense: The CBC ran Season 3 out of order. The episode that kicked off the new season on May 25 was actually the third episode of the BBC’s Season 3, known as The Money Programme, with Queen Elizabeth I on a motorcycle, the argument clinic, hitting-on-the-head lessons and the song “There is nothing quite so wonderful as money.” Perhaps we’ll never know why the flip in order, but it did happen.
10. But at least the TV show was on again — and just in time to welcome the six Pythons to Toronto for real. They kicked off their first North American tour with three sold-out shows June 4, 5 and 6, 1973, at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre.
Of course the Toronto shows and the tour were a roaring success (although some reviewers didn’t really know what was going on) — but it was also the beginning of the end for the television version of the Pythons.
11. In a 2006 interview with the Star’s Richard Ouzounian, Eric Idle said, “It was on an Air Canada flight on the way to Toronto, 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.”
Despite his arrogant freedom from the TV series, Cleese was an enthusiastic and contributory participant in the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the spring and early summer of 1974, following immediately by the five Pythons sans Cleese returning to production of Season 4 of the TV series.
12. Graham Chapman had come out of the closet in 1967 but kept the issue of his sexuality relatively low-key in the early days of the Python TV show. By 1974, however, Chapman was an outspoken gay rights activist. That summer, a TV viewer wrote to the BBC complaining that she had heard one of the Pythons was homosexual, adding that the Bible said any man who lies with another man should be stoned to death.
Somehow the letter of complaint came into the possession of Eric Idle, who wrote a reply to the irate viewer: “We’ve found who it was and we’ve taken him out and had him killed.”
In a posthumous 1997 memoir called Graham Crackers, Chapman noted that Season 4 — minus John Cleese — went on air shortly after Idle responded to the woman and he always wondered if she assumed Cleese’s disappearance from the cast was an act of Biblical retribution.
13. The BBC wanted a full 13 episodes, but the Pythons — who dropped “Flying Circus” from their title when Cleese left the TV troupe — were exhausted, both physically and creatively, and insisted that six episodes was all they had left in the tank.
14. CBC, by the way, began airing the six episodes of Season 4 in the fall of 1975 — at the strange time of 6:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Monty Python filled that time slot through the winter of 1975-76 and into the early spring.
How they did that with six episodes I don’t know. Did the CBC keep running Season 4 over and over again or did they re-run an earlier season after the six Season 4 shows were over? I’m hoping you can tell me.
And that was it for the TV show — 45 episodes in all made between the summer of 1969 and the summer of 1974.
15. After that the Pythons continued to exist as an active, functioning creative entity for another decade, churning out movies — Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983) — and live shows and records and books before going their separate ways in the mid-1980s.
You know how their solo careers went — Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda, the Amnesty International benefits, the various films directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, Spamalot, Michael Palin’s televised travel diaries and so on. And every once in a blue moon, the five surviving Pythons coalesce in various formations for collaborative efforts of various kinds.
16. The latest of those projects — after the July O2 shows — will be the movie Absolutely Anything, directed by Terry Jones and scheduled for release next year, in which a sadsack teacher (Simon Pegg) suddenly develops the magical power to make any wish come true.
Also starring will be Kate Beckinsale and Robin Williams (as the voice of a talking dog) — and the five Pythons as the voices of a quintet of extraterrestrials. (I don’t know why Eric Idle’s name is not on this early promotional poster — he definitely voiced one of the ETs — but perhaps he just hadn’t signed on yet when the poster was done.)
Speaking of space aliens …
That’s Douglas Adams behind the surgical mask in the fourth season of Monty Python.
17. Douglas Adams — who went on to write Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy among other things — was one of only two non-Pythons to receive writing credits for the show. (The other was Neil Innes, of course.) Adams is credited with writing one sketch — “Patient Abuse” — in episode 45 of the final season, although he partnered with Graham Chapman in writing several other uncredited sketches. He also appeared on-camera twice in cameo roles in the final season.
18. In 1998, Douglas Adams designed a space-aliens-meet-humans computer game called Starship Titanic. In conjunction with the release of the game, Terry Jones published a book based on the fantasy universe his friend had created. The book is variously called Starship Titanic: The Novel! and Douglas Adams’s Starship Titanic: The Novel.
The book is available free online at this link BUT (and this is a very big “but”), as the website warns you on the title page, it is “The whole text! Every single word! In alphabetical order!”
This photo of the website’s first page may explain why “Every Single World! In alphabetical order!” is not a great way to read a novel.
If you really want to read Starship Titanic (in non-alphabetical order), it’s still available — at a price — elsewhere as an e-book.
Terry Jones, by the way, says he wrote the novel entirely in the nude.
19. E-mail spam is, in fact, so named because of the 1970 Monty Python “Spam” sketch, which presented Britain’s ubiquitous post-war canned “meat” product as something unwanted but unavoidable.
Pythons on the beach at Cannes, 1983.
20. The Meaning of Life took the Grand Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. The film was, however, banned in Ireland for supposedly mocking the Catholic Church. Ireland had already banned the Life of Brian (for supposedly poking fun at Jesus — although it did no such thing). Norway banned Life of Brian too. Who knows why, apart from the proven fact that Norwegians have no sense of humour. The Pythons used “Banned in Norway” as the tagline for The Meaning of Life promotional campaign in Sweden.
21. The Monty Python theme song is a march called The Liberty Bell by John Philip Sousa. The Pythons chose the song because it was in the public domain — and thus free.
22. The giant foot that crushes the show’s title in the opening credits is the foot of frisky Cupid in Florentine artist Agnolo Bronzino’s Renaissance masterpiece Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time. (As above, Terry Gilliam usually flopped the foot from its original right-facing orientation.)
The original foot artwork used by Terry Gilliam to create his animations is up for sale at auction in England on July 12. Gilliam signed it and gave it to animation cameraman David Brookman in 1971. It’s expected to fetch about £600 — which seems awfully cheap to me.
23. The “16-ton weight” that often ended a sketch by landing on one of the participants was introduced in Episode 4 of Season 1 (the episode known as Owl-Stretching Time), dropping on Terry Jones as he attacked John Cleese with a raspberry in the “Self-defence Against Fresh Fruit” sketch. The “weight” was a hollow, light, fibreboard construction that was big enough to conceal an actor — if he ducked. In a later episode, Michael Palin did not duck fast enough and his head smashed through the top of the prop when it was dropped on him.
24. Graham Chapman died of cancer of Oct. 4, 1989. According to Jim Yoakum, co-author of Graham Crackers, Chapman’s last words were to a nurse: “Sorry for saying fuck.” And then he died. Michael Palin and John Cleese, who were in Chapman’s hospital room at the time along with family members and Chapman’s partner, David Sherlock, were overcome with grief and had to be helped from the room.
Cleese used a variation of the Dead Parrot sketch when he delivered the main eulogy at a memorial service for Chapman in December 1989. And then he brought the house down when he added “Good riddance, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries.” Here’s a link to Cleese’s eulogy (it’s only about two minutes long.)
25. The castle used to portray Winterfell in the pilot episode of Game of Thrones was the same castle — Doune in Scotland — used extensively in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Pythons used Doune for the first castle approached by the knights, for the Swamp Castle courtyard and great hall, for the Frenchmen’s castle, and for Camelot interiors. (Game of Thrones switched to using Castle Ward in Northern Ireland for Winterfell after the pilot.)
Here comes the Trojan Rabbit.
I could tell you about the two specials the Pythons did for German television in 1971 and 1972 — in German … or the fact that Graham Chapman’s middle name actually was Arthur … or the origins of the Dead Parrot sketch being something of a cross between a 1,600-year-old Greek joke and a rather sketchy London mechanic Michael Palin used to deal with … or more details about John Cleese’s extraordinarily acrimonious and expensive 2009 divorce (“It was worth every penny. Think what I’d have had to pay Alyce if she’d actually contributed anything to the relationship.”) … or the Monty Python inside joke (in the invented Low Valyrian language) inserted into Game of Thrones by series creator Dan Weiss and the show’s linguist, David Peterson … but I won’t.
That’s enough for now. This monster has gone on far too long as it is.
And now for something completely different …