Let's Reminisce: 50 years of irreverent humor
By Jerry Lincecum
Oct 16, 2018
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I was shocked to learn that my favorite comedy troupe, Monty Python and the Flying Circus, got started 50 years ago.  It was enjoyable to watch an interview with Eric Idle, one of the group’s founders, and reminisce along with him as their history was reviewed.  Their sketch comedy show began airing on the BBC in 1969, and a total of 45 episodes were made over four seasons. 

In the summer of 1974 it was our local PBS-TV station (KERA) that was first to air the Pythons’ comedy shows in this country.  Ratings shot through the roof, providing an encouraging sign to the other 100 PBS stations that had signed up to begin airing the show in October 1974—exactly five years after their BBC debut.

In addition to Idle and the group’s cofounder John Cleese, there were four other Pythons: Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones. Their TV show became a launching pad for something much larger in scope and impact, including touring stage shows, films, numerous albums, several books, and a Broadway musical that ran for five years.  It’s impossible to summarize their influence on television comedy, which was comparable to the Beatles’ effect on music.  For example, the early shows of Saturday Night Live were clearly indebted to the Pythons.

Part of their success was a result of doing their own writing and having creative control, which enabled them to reset the boundaries of acceptable style and content.  They were very serious about writing scripts that included irreverent jokes about such subjects as religion and history.  They also used an innovative stream-of-consciousness approach and added animation (provided by Gilliam, who was an American). 

I remember well their 1974 movie, The Holy Grail, which made hilarious fun of one of the most sacred themes in all of British culture, the medieval tales of King Arthur and his knights.  When it was first shown at Austin College, in the mid-70s, professors and students alike were rolling in the aisles with laughter.  The swordfight duels and castle sieges, usually presented so seriously, were shown as absurd and outrageously funny. 

The movie Life of Brian (1979) takes a similar approach to the biblical account of Christ’s life, ending with Brian and the others crucified with him singing a sentimental song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which Eric Idle adopted as the title of his memoir about the Pythons that has just been published.  They also did a film entitled The Meaning of Life (1983) which included more black humor.

Each of the Pythons pursued various film, television, and stage projects after the break-up of the group (in the mid-70s), but they often continued to work with one another. Many of these collaborations were very successful, most notably A Fish Called Wanda (1988), written by Cleese, in which he starred along with Palin. The pair also appeared in Time Bandits (1981), a film directed by Gilliam, who wrote it together with Palin. Gilliam directed Jabberwocky (1977), and also directed and co-wrote Brazil (1985), which featured Palin, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), which featured Idle.

The comedy produced by the Pythons has not only endured but is enjoying a revival.  All four seasons of their BBC TV shows are now available on Netflix, and a movie version of their Broadway show (Spamalot) is planned.  In a 2005 poll of professional comedians, three of the six Pythons members were voted to be among the top 50 greatest comedians ever.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired English professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: