We’re big fans of Monty Python around here (and really, who isn’t?) and were reminded of their greatness when tickets were posted for a few shows featuring Python members John Cleese & Eric Idle. But rather than rehashing what makes Monty Python and the Holy Grail the standard by which all comedic films since have been judged, we’re offering up 10 things you probably don’t know about Monty Python. Or maybe you do, whatever.
10. Terry Gilliam et al., v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (1976)
Monty Python helped bring about a piece of legislation relating to how performers and networks deal with creative works. In 1975, while Monty Python’s Flying Circus was still on the air from the BBC, the team attempted to stop ABC (The American Broadcasting Company) from airing a special edition of Flying Circus on American television. Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam went before the court claiming that ABC’s edits of their work, e.g. that the network stiffs had “cut out all the rude bits,” and caused the resultant sketches to be soundly unfunny. And while the duo didn’t get a favorable ruling in time to stop ABC from massacring their work on air, by showing the original sketches followed by the edited versions to the court, they proved their point and set a landmark legal precedent: creative owners of a project now have protected rights and their works cannot be butchered simply because of what network executives decree. In essence, the precedent protects the integrity of creative works.
9. There were no horses in ‘Holy Grail’ for a reason
The producers couldn’t afford them. The Python lads fell back on an old radio trick of banging coconuts together, which evolved into one of the most famous gags from the film. African or European?
8. The Rock and Roll Comedians
While on the topic of ‘Holy Grail,’ it’s important to highlight that roughly 90% of the film was funded by British musicians like Pink Floyd, Elton John, and Led Zeppelin who were actually seeking reportable tax losses. (The ‘70s were a heady time for British musicians and tax, um, finagling; consider the Stones in Exile, for instance.) Of course, the musical connection didn’t end there. George Harrison’s Handmade Films production company backed Terry Gilliam’s 1985 opus Time Bandits. For which I humbly present the Greatest Movie Trailer of All Time:
7. Margaret Thatcher Once Performed the Dead Parrot Sketch
I’m going to just leave this right here.
6. Oxbridge Style with a Dash of Idle (and a pinch of Gilliam)
John Cleese and Graham Chapman attended Cambridge together, while Michael Palin and Terry Jones were Oxford students. As such, the different pairs evolved different styles of comedy sketches. The Cambridge lads tended to write wordy sketches that upped the discomfort and scandal. Think “The Dead Parrot” and the “Argument Clinic.” Palin and Jones went for more physical comedy that took the absurd to the next level. Their more notable sketches are the Spam song and “The Spanish Inquisition.” Eric Idle, on the other hand, who was also a Cambridge student, brought in more musical and cheeky bits, like “Nudge Nudge – Wink Wink” and wrote such musical classics as “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” for The Life of Brian. Only Terry Gilliam stands alone, first as the sole American in Python, but also due to his more subtle and surreal humor that was most often reflected in the cut-out animation he created for Flying Circus.
5. Whither Canada?
The very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was titled ‘Whither Canada?’ despite the word “Canada” never once being mentioned in the entire episode. The term “Whither Canada” had been tested as the possible name for the entire group, as had many others, including “The Toad Elevating Moment” and “Ow! It’s Colin Plint,” among several other absurd titles. “Flying Circus” was apparently their tester when the BBC printed up their show listings guide and the name stuck. The “Monty Python” bit was stuck on the front a while later.
4. They’re Huge in France
And not just Jerry Lewis huge. A single cinema in France ran Monty Python and the Holy Grail regularly from the time it was released in 1975 until The Life of Brian was released in 1979. To be fair, had VHS been available during that period, this would have been the pattern in my parents’ house, as well.
3. Python Gets Political in 2010
And this was entirely incidental to their own political leanings. Chris Christie, then gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey, used a clip of Michael Palin from a Flying Circus sketch. In the sketch, Palin played a newsreader asking viewers if they suffered from déjà vu, and Christie used the clip without their permission in a particularly aggressive campaign ad aimed at incumbent John Corzine.
In regard to the issue, Palin stated, “I’m surprised that a former U.S. Attorney isn’t aware of his copyright infringement when he uses our material without permission. He’s clearly made a terrible mistake. It was the endorsement of Sarah Palin he was after — not that of Michael Palin.” And fellow Python Terry Jones added, “It is totally outrageous that a former U.S. Attorney knows so little about the law that he thinks he can rip off people. On the other hand — another of Bush’s legal appointees was Alberto Gonzales and he didn’t seem to know much about the law either…” (Jones: 1, Gonzales: 0)
The Christie camp quickly removed the ad from broadcast and their YouTube channel, but the Python points stand. These gentlemen already proved they don’t mess around with copyright infringement in 1976, things hadn’t changed by 2010.
2. John Cleese: Beloved Jerk
Eric Idle once deemed himself “the fifth nicest Python,” which meant someone was last in line. Those in the know indicate this individual was almost certainly John Cleese. Many have ascribed his astounding knack for humor to the fact that he just never cared about being liked at all, and as such presented his comedy with both arrogance and profligacy. He even quit Flying Circus without warning, just abruptly informing his fellow troupe members that he was out of the group on a transatlantic flight in 1974. In addition to his ability to be “bored faster than the rest of us,” as Idle put it, Graham Chapman’s burgeoning alcohol problem did not encourage Cleese to stick around. That said, quitting Flying Circus didn’t mean he was done with Python, just sketch writing and performing, and continued to be integral in Holy Grail and other Python films.
Cleese was also soundly acerbic during fellow Python Graham Chapman’s eulogy in 1989. To quote Cleese, “Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries. And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me if I didn’t, if I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him, but mindless good taste.” Let’s hope Chapman is still laughing about that jab from his old, possibly sociopathic, friend.
And for good measure, here’s a bit of the funerary proceedings. Enjoy (no, really, it’s funny!):
1. Chapman Was a Staunch Gay Rights Advocate
Graham Chapman had officially come out as early as 1967, but was relatively mum about it during his early days in Flying Circus. He had become a much more outspoken advocate for gay rights by the mid-‘70s.
According to Chapman’s posthumous memoir, Graham Crackers (1997), in the summer of 1974, a woman had written in to the BBC complaining that she had heard one of Python’s members was homosexual and quoted that passage from Leviticus about men lying with men as they do women, etc. In an odd turn of events, Eric Idle managed to get his hands on the letter and fired off a reply to the complainant that read to the effect of, “We’ve found who it was and we’ve taken him out and had him killed.” Chapman muses in his memoir that Cleese left the group the same summer Idle replied to the complaint and wondered if the letter writer assumed that Cleese’s departure was some good old fashioned fire and brimstone reckoning.