The Beatles of Comedy

Monty Python's genius was to respect nothing.

The mad men of Monty Python: Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam (Everett Collection)

In 1968, a group of young English comedians made a TV special called How to Irritate People. Pitched for the U.S. market, the show was meant to get Americans excited about a new wave of British comedy. It failed in that aim, but one of its sketches retains high interest for the archaeologist of humor. Written by a couple of Cambridge graduates named John Cleese and Graham Chapman, the sketch is set in the workshop of a shady car salesman. A disgruntled customer, played by Chapman, returns his new car and registers a few complaints: The gear lever is loose. The brakes don’t work. Before the sketch is over, the vehicle’s doors have fallen off.

But the dodgy salesman—played by a promising comedian named Michael Palin—has an answer for everything. “You must expect teething troubles in these new models,” he says. In real life, Palin had been sold a defective car himself, and he had entertained Cleese with impersonations of his stonewalling dealer. The resulting sketch, which can be dug up on YouTube, took a few comic liberties with Palin’s real-life experiences—a few, but not enough. Like a lot of apprentice work, it’s too respectful of convention and literal truth to strike a distinctive note.

A year or so later, the BBC offered Cleese his own series. He was interested, but he didn’t want to be the show’s star. He preferred to surround himself with a team of Britain’s cleverest young writer-performers. Chapman, Cleese’s writing partner since their days in Cambridge’s Footlights club, was first on board. Cleese also wanted to bring on Palin, but Palin had by now acquired some teammates of his own, with whom he’d been working on a children’s program called Do Not Adjust Your Set. Cleese, who admired the show, was so keen to get Palin that he recruited three of his collaborators too. One was an enthusiastic Welshman named Terry Jones, whom Palin had teamed up with at Oxford. The second was Eric Idle, another Cambridge alum. The third was a louche-looking American named Terry Gilliam, who’d come to London to work as a cartoonist and an illustrator, and had vague aspirations to direct movies.

So the new troupe would consist of six men, broken into three writing units—Cleese-Chapman, Palin-Jones, and Idle, who worked by himself and specialized in songs and monologues—as well as Gilliam, who would be left alone to do his animations. Their show would have an initial run of 13 half-hour episodes; but what was it going to be called? The team flirted with a long list of options—Will Strangler’s Flying Circus, E. L. Moist’s Flying Circus—before they hit on a name that stuck: Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Working up material for the project, Cleese and Chapman took another pass at the car-salesman idea. It had possibilities, Cleese felt, that they had failed to exploit. What if they shifted the action to a pet shop? What if the malfunctioning car became a dead animal? A dog, say. Or a parrot.

The dead-parrot sketch debuted on episode eight of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which aired in Britain on December 7, 1969. The sketch epitomized everything that was striking about the new show: its impatience with the old formal rules, its ability to take good ideas and compress them into diamonds. The car-salesman sketch had been about the absurdity of bad service, but it had attacked that absurdity in a naturalistic way: it started with a plausible situation, and gradually made it sillier. The parrot sketch inverts that approach. It is absurd from the start, but its absurdity represents a compact, dreamlike way of telling the truth. This time the role of the aggrieved customer is taken by Cleese—who plays him not as a straight man but as a Brylcreemed, raincoated weirdo. In the world of Monty Python, even a guy with a valid beef is a lunatic. As for Palin’s salesman, this time his denials of the undeniable have an existential audacity: he is ready to claim, and keep claiming, that the palpably dead parrot is just resting. Cleese, indignantly brandishing the bird’s corpse, is the victim of the ultimate—the archetypal—rip-off; but he remains an Englishman. Nutty as he is, he declines to vault over the desk and punch Palin’s lights out. Language is the only weapon available to him. So his tamped-down rage becomes a torrent of increasingly baroque synonyms for death, which Cleese and Chapman composed with the aid of a thesaurus.

Monty Python’s signature move was to thrust something very salient into the wrong context.

When that outburst of manic poetry is over, the Pythons don’t bother forcing the parrot sketch toward a well-made conclusion. The quest for punch lines bored them. Instead the sketch collapses into a series of bizarre digressions, and finally Cleese’s character turns to the camera and declares that the situation has become “too silly.” And that’s that: we move on to the next item. I concede that there are people who don’t find the parrot sketch funny at all. I know a couple of them personally. They are unmoved by the sight of John Cleese in his raincoat, wielding that stuffed parrot and saying, “It’s bleeding demised.” I know them, but I can’t help them.

In the age of the DVD box set, publishing a bumper collection of Python’s TV scripts seems a quixotic venture. At whom is this book aimed? Python fans who don’t have TVs? As script collections go, however, All the Bits is a deluxe affair. The layout is suitably colorful and carnival-esque; the pages teem with screenshots and spiffy fonts. The annotations, by Luke Dempsey, are sometimes presumptuous—we will get to that—but mainly amusing and good to have. On the whole, the book does a commendable job of getting Python’s spirit onto the page.

Presumably it’s aimed at those of us who own the DVDs already but still want to get our hands on new Python product. Python lovers will always want to do that, even if these days the new product is bound to be old product, repackaged and garnished with a few fresh trimmings. The Pythons have done no new comedy as a team since 1983, when they released the movie The Meaning of Life. The prospect of a full reunion was nixed conclusively in 1989, when Graham Chapman died of cancer. Since then, the surviving members have reconvened for the odd group interview. They have murmured, unconvincingly, about the possibility of future collaborations. Individual Pythons have done spin-off projects—notably Eric Idle, who had a Broadway hit with the musical Spamalot. But the five surviving Pythons live in different parts of the world now, and the prospect that they will ever work together again is small.

Considering their tremendous influence, the Pythons had a surprisingly brief productive career. What set them apart—what made them the Beatles of comedy—was the uncanny wattage of their collective energy. Their ratio of classic stuff to dud stuff was freakishly high. Between 1969 and 1973, the original team made three TV seasons of 13 episodes each. At the end of the third season, Cleese withdrew from the show: he believed the good ideas were running out. The others went on without him for one more season, consisting of only six episodes. The patchiness of those final shows vindicated Cleese’s decision to bail out. Either the Pythons had exhausted TV or it had exhausted them. Quitting the medium for good, the remainder of the troupe reunited with Cleese and started work on their first original film script.

The Pythons had appeared in one film already—a reshoot of some of their earliest sketches called And Now for Something Completely Different (1971). That movie, over which the Pythons enjoyed little creative control, had been designed to break them into America, but it had proved a flop. It wasn’t until 1974, when the first season of Flying Circus started airing on PBS, that Python’s American reputation began to catch fire. The PBS sale was fortunate for Python in more ways than one: when the offer came in, the BBC was on the point of wiping the tapes for reuse.

In 1975, Python released its first proper film, the ragged but inspired Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Then came Life of Brian (1979)—the masterpiece, provocatively set in Judea at the time of Christ. The Meaning of Life, the final movie, was a letdown. It looked better than Python’s previous films, but its big and overlong set pieces announced that Python’s prodigious powers of invention were flagging. If Chapman hadn’t died, would Python have kept making films? The Meaning of Life has a forced, synthetic quality that makes you wonder.

The 45 TV episodes remain the spine of Monty Python’s achievement. Going back through the scripts, you can see why the troupe wasn’t destined to last for long. Its format was a ravenous guzzler-up of good material. In no other comedy series in TV history have so many brilliant ideas been packed into so small a space. Consider Python’s semaphore version of Wuthering Heights. It wasn’t just that the Pythons had the wit to dream up the idea. They also, crucially, had the comic sense not to attenuate it by stretching it over the rack of a four-minute sketch. They took two minutes to harvest its richest possibilities—Heathcliff and Catherine wave flags at each other across a moor, with explanatory subtitles; Catherine’s husband confronts her, flagging irately; a baby cries by sticking two tiny flags out of its cradle—and then they moved on. They could afford to, because they had other ideas just as good around the corner. When a sketch about striking miners starts to conk out, we cut to a news desk, at which Palin delivers some urgent bulletins. “And finally, in the Disgusting-Objects International at Wembley tonight, England beat Spain by a plate of braised pus to a putrid heron.” A less inspired bunch of writers would have spun that notion out into a full sketch, if not an entire half hour. For Python, the idea lasts precisely as long as it takes Palin to say it.

When Monty Python came on the scene, the average comedy show was like a stage revue with a few cameras pointed at it. The Pythons took liberties with the medium, the way their admired Goons had taken liberties with radio. They did things you could do only on TV. If they felt like it, they rolled the credits in the middle of the show. Posing as BBC voice-over men, they issued apologies for the contents of their own sketches. When their ideas didn’t fit together, Gilliam supplied a minute or two of animation to link them. The nightmare logic of his sequences—in which cartoon figures were constantly getting their limbs or heads lopped off—echoed the violent unpredictability of the sketches.

Python’s silliness was extreme, but it was balanced by wit and education.

The Pythons were masters of juxtaposition: their signature move was to thrust something very salient into the wrong context. Dressed as garish figures from history or high culture, they would bizarrely insert themselves into the drab, rainy reality of 1970s England. The Spanish Inquisition bursts into a series of middle-class living rooms. Picasso paints a picture while bicycling down the A29. In an art gallery, the figures in all the paintings walk off their respective canvasses to go out on strike. (The first volume of Michael Palin’s highly readable Diaries, published in 2006, reminds you that the Britain of Python’s era was a dysfunctional place, bedeviled by strikes and power outages.)

The Pythons worked similar tricks of juxtaposition with words: their most quotable sentences tend to feature some sudden, jarring contrast between high language and low. “It’s probably pining for the fjords,” says Palin in the parrot sketch, looking to explain the Norwegian Blue’s painfully apparent rigor mortis. Like Cardinal Ximinez leaping into someone’s living room, the exotic word gate-crashes the unsuspecting sentence. “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy,” says Brian’s mother in Life of Brian. When people call something Pythonesque, this is the sort of effect they mean. The Pythons kept dragging exalted themes into a context of English ordinariness, thereby revealing the absurdity of both.

“Only those who are capable of silliness,” wrote Christopher Isherwood, “can be called truly intelligent.” Palin quotes this maxim in his Diaries, with approval. Python’s silliness was extreme, all right, but it was balanced by the men’s wit and education. They did physical gags that could amuse a preverbal child, but they also employed language so vivid that intellectuals quote it as if it were poetry. When Christopher Hitchens spoke at the Sydney Opera House a couple years before his death, the audience demanded an encore. Hitchens obliged by reciting the whole of Python’s drunken-philosophers song from memory (“John Stuart Mill of his own free will / On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill …”).

The Pythons knew their stuff; when they didn’t, they read up on it. Researching the Middle Ages for Holy Grail, they learned that taunting the enemy was a common tactic in medieval sieges. So, apparently, was catapulting dead animals. Thus the completed film features Cleese’s imperishable turn as the French taunter, whose strange shouts of abuse from the battlements (“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries”) are followed by the flinging of the dead cow.

During the Python era, writers like Woody Allen were doing similar comedy in America: popular, slapstick stuff that unself-consciously combed history and high culture for inspiration. What a falling-off there has been since then. Most of today’s popular comedy looks willfully malnourished by comparison. It’s poor form, these days, to know more than your audience. A modern comedian’s idea of an obscure reference is to mention Mr. Miyagi, or the cantina scene in Star Wars. These allusions must be okay, because every other comedian makes them too. Not even Tina Fey can escape the pop-culture echo chamber. Her book, Bossypants, is full of arcane but reassuringly junky cultural references—to Jon from CHiPs, to the guy from Arli$$. But when Fey risks a lone literary allusion, she feels bound to qualify it with a clanging footnote: “If you get this reference to David Foster Wallace’s 1997 collection of essays, consider yourself a member of the cultural elite. Why do you hate your country and flag so much?!”

The Pythons were luckier than Tina Fey, of course. The air back then wasn’t thick with culture-war grievance. People were less uptight. They must have been: How else did the troupe possibly get away with some of the stuff in these scripts? These pages make ample mention of dagos, wops, fairies, ponces. Large-breasted women turn up in low-cut dresses, and are lunged at. One character’s name is Mrs. Nigger-Baiter. A townswomen’s guild re-creates the battle of Pearl Harbor, having previously staged an “extremely popular reenactment of Nazi war atrocities.” Graham Chapman, playing a character who believes himself to be Jewish, puts on an enormous polystyrene nose. Various Pythons appear in blackface. Chapman appears in the character of “a Chinaman.”

Fortunately, Luke Dempsey, in his capacity as the book’s editor, is on hand to chide the Pythons for these failures to anticipate and heed our current mores. When Chapman’s Chinaman starts delivering his lines, Dempsey steps in to observe, “Our modern, even postmodern, ears might find this stock Chinese accent tough to enjoy.” And when a script calls for an art critic, played by Palin, to strangle his wife, we get another wringing of the editorial hands: “This casual violent misogyny strikes the modern viewer as horribly crass.”

Well, it’s good to know that our editor disapproves of spousal homicide. In troubling to let us know that he does, Dempsey risks coming across as humorless; but these days even an annotator of Monty Python would sooner seem humorless than culturally insensitive. At times, Dempsey sounds like a Victorian editor of Shakespeare, scolding the Bard for making Hamlet say bawdy Elizabethan things. He takes it for granted that our values are more enlightened than the Pythons’ were; he is confident that we’ve come a long way since then. But how far have we come, really, if we now require footnotes to assure each other that we don’t approve of husbands strangling wives? Have we really become so scared of one another?

No doubt we are more enlightened than the Pythons were, in some ways. But we’ve lost something, too—a general laid-backness and goodwill. It’s hard to rewatch Python’s old shows without feeling a nostalgic pang for a time when the world had a better sense of humor. Those guys didn’t need to insert disclaimers to indicate that they were, when they pretended to strangle women, only joking. They trusted their audience to see that. Yes, they were looser with their language than we are. But they were loose with it in the same innocent 1970s way that they were loose with everything: their unfettered hair, their indiscriminate ridicule, their pale unbuffed bodies, which they exhibited for the camera at the smallest opportunity. They freely used words like poof; one member of the team, Graham Chapman, was openly gay. Neither of these things seemed to strike their public as a big deal.

It’s a pity that the word irreverent has lost its weight, so that it’s come to seem a mere synonym for cheeky. The Pythons were irreverent in the deepest sense. They had automatic respect for nothing. Everything was fit matter for comedy: religion, national differences, cannibalism, Hitler, torture, death, crucifixion. They created a parallel world in which nothing was serious. They were like boys: they not only weren’t afraid; they didn’t know they should be afraid.

Today’s comedians can’t go back to that prelapsarian world. They can query or violate our current taboos, but they can’t unknow them. There has been plenty of excellent comedy since Python’s work, but most of it has been the comedy of social anxiety: comedy that walks the tightrope between what we can and cannot say. The writers of Seinfeld, the smartest TV show of the post-Python era, knew that propitiations had to be made. When Elaine dated a man whose ethnicity was ambiguous—she didn’t know whether he was black or white—she found the question so ticklish that she sought George’s and Jerry’s advice. “Should we be talking about this?,” George asked. “I really don’t think we’re supposed to be talking about this.”

The Pythons felt no such social dread: they talked about whatever they wanted to talk about. There were, of course, certain words they couldn’t use while doing so. By today’s standards, some of the verbal restrictions placed on Flying Circus seem laughably draconian. All but the mildest of four-letter words were disallowed. The BBC wouldn’t let them say masturbating; when ABC ran a clip show in 1975, the network bleeped out the phrase naughty bits.

In no other comedy series in TV history have so many brilliant ideas been packed into so small a space.

But beyond these constraints on verbal smut, Python was miraculously free to inflict deeper offense. Its undertaker sketch, which aired as the closing number of Circus’s second season, still ranks as one of the most outrageous pieces of comedy ever conceived. If Cleese had left the show after the second season instead of the third, as he once threatened to do, the undertaker sketch might have been the last thing the entire troupe ever performed. It would have been a fittingly weird swan song. To watch the sketch for the first time is a strange, slightly shameful experience. The laughter is ripped from somewhere deep in you, entirely against your will.

The sketch is set in a mortuary. Behind the desk stands an elaborately dressed undertaker, played by Chapman. Cleese enters as a solemn young man whose mother has just died. Chapman, in a depraved cockney accent, embarks on a graphic description of the pros and cons of the services available to him—mainly the cons. (“If we bury her, she gets eaten up by lots of weevils and nasty maggots, which, as I said before, is a bit of a shock if she’s not quite dead.”) Cleese’s character looks appalled, but he has no right to be—it turns out that he’s brought his mother’s corpse along with him in a burlap sack. Chapman peers inside it, and proposes that they eat the body. Cleese admits to feeling “a bit peckish,” but wonders whether eating his dead mother is really a good idea. And Chapman says: “Look, tell you what. We’ll eat her. If you feel a bit guilty about it afterwards, we can dig a grave and you can throw up in it.” Python tended to avoid punch lines, but that was one for the ages.

The BBC didn’t like the undertaker sketch, but it let Python proceed with it—on the condition that the studio audience could be heard and seen registering its disapproval. There were boos as the sketch got nastier. When Chapman delivered that magnificently rancid punch line, the audience got up and invaded the set. This was an unusually thoughtful stroke of censorship: The undertaker sketch was a deliberate assault on a universal taboo. It was therefore appropriate that the audience members were seen looking offended—if they hadn’t been offended, there would have been something wrong with them. A lot of them were laughing, too: proof that being offended isn’t the end of the world, and might even be a healthy thing.

When the Pythons switched from TV to the movies, they were relatively free to use profane language—if they wanted to. They rarely did: they remained more interested in the subversive possibilities of the profane thought. In Life of Brian, there is a scene in which Brian, played by Chapman, raises the ire of a Judean revolutionary, played by Cleese. In the original cut of the film, Cleese’s character indicated his displeasure by yelling “You cunt!” In the final cut, the line was dubbed over as “You klutz!” Python made the change for artistic reasons, not to appease a censor. The profanity was cheaply startling, and the film had more-expensive shocks to administer than that. (Marlon Brando is said to have cited a similar principle when, during the shooting of Last Tango in Paris, he refused to be filmed naked. The audience, he told Bertolucci, would look at his dick instead of his face.)

Brian stands as Python’s masterpiece because of the assurance with which it juggles the silly, the smart, and the sacred. To set a comedy during the time of Christ was a daring venture even in 1979. Today, such a project would surely flame out on the launchpad. Not that Python set out to mock Jesus, who makes only two fleeting appearances in the film. Instead it created Brian, whose life has certain parallels to Christ’s (he is born on the same night; he is taken for a prophet) but who is emphatically not the savior. The film was nevertheless deemed blasphemous, mainly by people who hadn’t seen it.

Those of us who have seen it know that the film has a respect for nuance that its detractors tend to lack. One refuses to believe that Brian is more than 30 years old; it feels ageless, eternally pertinent. The film’s closing scene remains one of the most sublime moments in film comedy. It shocks you by being funny and deeply moving at the same time. Brian hangs on his cross, bearded, shirtless, loinclothed, forsaken. The iconography is daringly authentic, and Chapman’s face carries a genuinely affecting look of despair. For the Pythons, the degree of comic difficulty became rather high here. How were they going to talk their way out of this?

They didn’t. They sang their way out instead. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” composed by Idle, rose irresistibly to the occasion. When the corpses on the ground start tapping their toes to the tune, you can’t blame them. It’s phenomenally catchy. But just as you start to feel that the movie has shifted away from seriousness, it dawns on you that what the Pythons are really singing about up there is you: you, and the fact that you’re going to die too. “Always look on the bright side of death / Just before you draw your terminal breath.” This is bold comedy: it gets right down into the roots of what we venerate and fear. When comedy like this works, the payoff is huge. You feel lifted, part of an intelligent species.

During the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, Idle turned up to sing the song live, flanked by a contingent of exhibitionist nuns wearing Union Jack underpants. It was a fitting and gutsy move to throw a touch of Python into a ceremony designed to showcase Britain’s contributions to world culture. Along with its language, England’s sense of humor is its finest export, and Python is English humor’s apotheosis. “Life’s a piece of shit / When you look at it.” True, but it’s hard to feel that way while watching Python. The troupe behaved as if nothing was sacred and everything was ridiculous. It is a deeply subversive attitude—and a deeply liberating one.