By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan
Take-OffTheir BBC series debuted in a late Sunday night slot on October 5, 1969, and wasn't even transmitted in all regions of England, given programmers' doubts about the show. Early episodes featured such classic (and uncategorizable) bits as a customer's complaints about a dead parrot, a lumberjack who sings about cross-dressing, and a town terrorized by roving gangs of old ladies.
Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam Lovely Spam SpamBy its second season Python was even more surreal (Vikings sing the praises of Spam), outrageous (with scenes constantly interrupted by the Spanish Inquisition), and discourteous (an undertaker suggests eating the dearly departed).
Terry Jones said the reasons why Python humor was so unique could not be analyzed: "The only reason for Python is to be funny."
Get AnimatedOne key element of Python's unique brand of humor was its visual style. Terry Gilliam's cut-out animations helped create a stream-of-consciousness flow to each show's sketches, using classic artwork, old photos and naughty postcards in a jumble of sublime nonsense. In Gilliam's world, giant cats prowl London, police helmets sprout music boxes, and teeth dance like a player piano's keys.
The BBC ScissorsAs Python grew more popular, BBC censors began to take notice. They confronted the group about sketches that contained "naughty" words (yet the phrase "strangling animals," Michael Palin points out, was acceptable!), and a parody of election speeches -- choreographed for a conservative candidate's TV address -- was cut on repeats (it aired too close to an election) and never re-inserted.
North America, Watch OutAfter a live stage show tour of Canada, the Pythons had a disastrous U.S. debut on "The Tonight Show" in 1973 with guest host Joey Bishop, evidence to some that America was not yet ready. They fared better on "Midnight Special," and clips of the series were featured in a 1974 summer series on NBC, "Dean Martin's Comedy World." PBS took a stab, and a cult favorite emerged.
We Eat Ham and Jam and Spam a lotAfter an unhappy experience with the compilation film "And Now for Something Completely Different," the gang shot their first real movie, a hilarious, ultra-low-budget parody of the quest for the Holy Grail. Graham Chapman's King Arthur provided some gravitas to the knockabout action, featuring an increasingly-dismembered knight, a killer rabbit, and the rudest French Knights imaginable.
American ScissorsWorse than the BBC's stabs at censorship was American editing. In 1975 ABC bought 6 episodes to air late at night but cut out punchlines, whole sketches and the most mild language (the words "naughty bits"), rendering jokes meaningless and the group's surreality a jumbled mess. The Pythons won a judgment against unauthorized editing of their creative output and ultimately gained all rights to their series from the BBC.
He's Not the Messiah, He's a Very Naughty BoyIt didn't matter that "Monty Python's Life of Brian" was not about Jesus, as the opening scenes made clear: Evangelicals in the U.K. and America protested the film as blasphemous, and it was banned in Ireland. But the film has been hailed as a hilarious critique of Biblical epics, the misuse of religious teachings to exert political power, and Roman speech defects.
And Finally, Monsieur, a Wafer-Thin MintWhat IS the meaning of life? If you ask the Pythons, it has something to do with talking fish, singing street urchins, live organ donations, pirate accountants, and rude waiters. Or perhaps not. In any event, scenes of projectile vomiting did not prevent the film from winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Graham Chapman (who died of cancer in 1989) was the
rock-steady center in "Grail" and "Brian," but his writing contributions
and outre behavior were more bizarre.
"Graham was just on another planet at times," Gilliam said. "Suddenly he'd say 'Splunge!' What, splunge? After that you had to then deal with it. It became part of the comedy equation: E=mc2splunge!"
John CleeseJohn Cleese's physicality (see the Minister of Silly Walks) was always a highlight, as was his ability to seethe and explode.
"He epitomized the ruling establishment of Britain: he looked like the bishop or bank manager, a man of authority," said Palin. "To be able to undermine it as successfully as he did ... was really wonderful." Cleese later undermined hotel management in "Fawlty Towers."
Terry GilliamAs a director, Gilliam's wildly imaginative (and often troubled) films include "Time Bandits," "Brazil," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," "The Fisher King," and his latest, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," completed after star Heath Ledger died midway through filming.
"Terry G. was a great fighter," said Terry Jones. "He really loved the challenge and he always does; he survives on a fight, really."
Eric Idle"Eric's strength is sharpness," said Gilliam. "His quickness, his ability to do one-liners, fast things."
Also strong are his songwriting and musical abilities, as evident from his 1978 take-off on the Beatles ("The Rutles"), and more recently by his live stage show based on "Holy Grail." "Monty Python's Spamalot," directed by Mike Nichols, won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Terry JonesTerry Jones (who co-directed "Holy Grail" and directed the Pythons' next two films, as well as "Personal Services" and "Erik the Viking"), is recognized for his zealous passion about comedy, but his interests range from documentaries about medieval life and scholarly texts about Chaucer, to writing children's books and newspaper op-eds.
"He's got the widest spread of all of us," said Cleese.
Michael PalinMichael Palin's performances were always memorable, whether playing a milquetoast husband, a shifty merchant, or a torturer in Gilliam's "Brazil."
"I loved performing with him because I thought he had the biggest range," said Cleese, who nonetheless chided Palin for being too affable. That likeability certainly helped Palin while hosting a series of travel programs filmed from one end of the Earth to the other.
Ashes to AshesIn 1998 the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., featured a reunion of the five surviving Pythons, plus an urn. Given the solemnity of the occasion, the Pythons treated their late comrade's ashes with the deference they deserved. Fortunately, an aide was nearby armed with a Dustbuster.
Not Dead YetTo mark the group's 40th anniversary they collaborated on a documentary for the Independent Film Channel, "Monty Python: Almost the Truth." The six-hour program (subtitled "The Lawyers' Cut") tackles the members' early careers, clashes with censorship, the making of their films, and "sordid personal bits." The series debuts October 18, 2009.
By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan (author, "Monty Python Speaks")