And now for something completely different… Five Brits Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin and lone American Terry Gilliam joined forces to bring the mix of surreal, absurd, intellectual and slapstick comedy on Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974). It became one of the most groundbreaking and influential comedy series not only in Britain, but on the American TV-scape as well. It has provided fresh inspiration for the next generation of comedians.
Legendary British comedian Spike Milligan was a major influence on the Monty Python members. Milligan co-created, co-wrote and co-hosted the surreal radio program The Goon Show (which was also The Beatles’ favorite, by the way) before moving on to TV with the groundbreaking series Q…. The first series, Q5, debuted less than a year before Flying Circus. Obviously, it made a huge impact on the Python members. It led Palin to meet one of Q5’s director’s Ian MacNaughton, who went on to work with the Pythons in The Flying Circus.
Before settling on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the members had considered several potentials for the title. They include: Owl Stretching Time; Whither Canada?; The Toad Elevating Moment; A Horse, a Spoon, and a Bucket, and Baron von Took’s Flying Circus as a gesture to Baron von Took, who was credited with bringing the Pythons to the BBC.
The opening theme of the Flying Circus is “The Liberty Bell” a military march by the American composer John Philip Sousa. The Pythons chose this theme because, among all other reasons, the music was in the public domain and therefore it was free to use.
Cleese said he wanted to move forward, saying that he would like to be a part of the group, but he didn’t “want to be married to them.” He had to be coaxed to continue with the series after the first round of episodes.
The Flying Circus‘ ratings were so low, that BBC considered cancelling it. Not to mention that the network bigwigs called the show “disgusting.” But despite the low ratings and the criticisms, the Flying Circus, thankfully, managed to persist for three and a half seasons more.
The ABC network acquired the American rights to broadcast two 90-minute late-night Monty Python’s Flying Circus specials. Some of the episodes were heavily re-edited. When the Pythons saw how these episodes were being treated, they sued the network. At first, the court declared that ABC had indeed violated the Pythons’ artistic control, but later ruled in the network’s favor anyway. However, the troupe eventually gained control of all the episodes for their subsequent US broadcasts.
One of the famous Python sketches is “Spam” where everything in the menu has Spam in it. This led to the coining of the Internet/computing term “spam,” which refers to unwanted junk e-mails, as much as the canned luncheon meat is generally unwanted.
This catchphrase, now famously associated to Monty Python, came from an actual phrase used by the BBC in its television and radio broadcasts.
The “Dead Parrot” is one of the most popular Monty Python sketches. It is about a customer who complains to the pet shop owner that the parrot he has bought is actually dead. The pet shop owner refuses to accept the customer’s claim, saying that the parrot is simply “resting,” “stunned” or “pining for the fjords.”
The “Dead Parrot” sketch was inspired by the “Car Salesman” sketch from the hour-long TV broadcast How to Irritate People (which predated The Flying Circus). In the sketch, Palin is a car salesman who contradicts the claims of his customer (played by Chapman) that the car he has bought is falling apart.
The iconic giant foot in the show’s opening credits belongs to Cupid from Brozino’s 16th-century painting “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” (also known as “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid”)