When Monty Python Took American Television to Court

(L-R) John Cleese, Neil Innes, Michael Palin, Eric Idle
(L-R) John Cleese, Neil Innes, Michael Palin, Eric Idle
John Downing/Express/Getty Images

In a memo circulated by ABC’s standards and practices division in the fall of 1975, the network documented several troubling situations and lines of dialogue found in a show scheduled to air that October. In exhaustive detail, the censors explained what they had removed prior to broadcast.

In one scene, a waiter “touched a … patron’s buttocks.” In another, a shot of a “naked woman” had been “eliminated.” “Plus exploding woman,” the sheet added. Gone were “homosexual references” and a shot of a man in a wheelchair, “to prevent offending handicapped individuals.” Out of a total 90 minutes of content, 22 minutes had been excised.

The segments were all part of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the BBC sketch comedy program that featured the irreverent humor of the comic troupe. ABC had acquired the rights to six episodes, and although Flying Circus had aired on PBS affiliates since 1974, it would be the first time the group would be getting national exposure in the United States—a key opportunity that would likely lead to increased sales of their records and books. ABC even promised to entertain the possibility of a Saturday morning cartoon if ratings were impressive.

If the network expected the Pythons to be grateful, they didn’t understand the Pythons. As a group fiercely committed to their creative integrity, they were astonished by ABC’s “mutilation” of their work. A cartoon wasn’t going to placate them. What they wanted was for ABC to cancel any repeats as well as a second special planned for that December. And they dragged the network into court to make certain of it.

An image of a Monty Python record album

azulita81, eBay

In the early 1970s, debates over dead parrots and ministries devoted to silly walks were an uncertain comedy export. Although Monty Python's Flying Circus was a hit in England, American broadcasters were reluctant to make any real commitment to airing the show. “Too British” was a common concern, an argument bolstered by the fact that a theatrical compilation of sketches, And Now for Something Completely Different, had failed to sell many tickets in North America. The small cult of Python fans in the U.S. was the result of English friends bringing their albums over, creating a tiny current of interest.

PBS affiliate KERA in Dallas was the first to ignore that accepted wisdom. In 1974, the network aired several episodes of Flying Circus to a very receptive audience; KERA's success with the show led to a number of other public television broadcasters around the country licensing the half-hour episodes from the BBC and airing them without edits.

That last bit was at the insistence of the Pythons, whose members—Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and lone American Terry Gilliam—had a contractual agreement with the BBC that prevented the station from changing their scripts without prior approval. While sometimes meandering, a typical Python episode was usually connected by a theme and careful to recognize that nothing existed in a vacuum. Or, as Gilliam would later put it in court, you can’t have a non sequitur unless you know what you’re not following.

Because Monty Python was proving successful on public television in the States, ABC began to show some interest. In the spring of 1975, the network entered into discussions with the group to acquire several episodes for a late-night spot. ABC’s intention was to air a best-of program consisting of content from multiple episodes. The Pythons, mindful of how carefully each episode was constructed, said no. The installments were intended to air in their entirety, not in what they considered a disjointed manner.

ABC found a workaround, however. In the states, Time-Life had acquired the distribution rights from the BBC. The network negotiated with Time-Life directly, with both parties aware that Time-Life had been granted the right to edit shows by the BBC if censorship or commercial airtime was an issue. ABC paid a total of $130,000 for six episodes that were scheduled to run as two 90-minute specials, with the option to rerun each special once.

At the time the deal was negotiated, the BBC assured the Pythons' agent, Jill Foster, that the episodes would air uncut. Foster was initially placated by that, but a thought eventually occurred to her: If a 90-minute network slot contained 24 minutes of commercials, and three Flying Circus episodes were 30 minutes each, then how would the network fit everything in?

The BBC figuratively shrugged its shoulders, telling Foster that perhaps they had secured a sponsorship. It was a case of most everyone assuming one thing, with no one posing the question directly to ABC.

When the special aired at 11:30 p.m. on October 3, 1975, 22 minutes had been clipped from the original material. Gone was a cat used as a doorbell; a mention of “colonic irrigation” had also disappeared. ABC’s censors had snipped several “Good Lords,” “damns,” and other near-profanities. Any mentions of pooping were also trimmed. For Python fans, it was something akin to comedy castration.

The group didn’t learn the full extent of ABC’s meddling until late November, when they were shown a tape of the edited broadcast. Outraged, they demanded that ABC not re-air it.

The network had planned something worse: A second special was due in December, with the remaining three episodes due to be spliced in a similar manner.

With just days before that second program was scheduled to air, the Pythons filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against ABC. They wanted their work removed from American broadcast television.

Monty Python appears on a film poster
Amazon

In hearing both sides of the issue, Judge Morris E. Lasker was tasked with a peculiar legal entanglement. Python was not suing for monetary damages; they were trying to prevent creative meddling, a non-economic and somewhat ethereal claim. To put it in a language a federal court would understand, Gilliam and Palin—the two Pythons who appeared in person—argued that the specials would essentially make their work unappealing, and adversely affect the sales of their albums and books.

ABC’s side was not exactly vilified. Their agreement with Time-Life was plain and allowed for edits, providing they were needed for advertising or content demands.

Lasker was sympathetic to the argument, but seemed more concerned with the idea that, with just days until the second special was scheduled to air, ABC could suffer considerable financial harm if they pulled the program. Affiliates would be upset, as it had already been advertised in TV Guide and other venues; so would commercial advertisers.

On that basis, he refused the Pythons' request for an injunction. But he also acknowledged the cuts diluted the group’s “iconoclastic verve” and suggested that the program air with a disclaimer that essentially told the audience Python was disowning it.

ABC, not eager to condemn their own programming, resisted this notion. Ultimately, the special aired with a brief notice that it had been edited for television.

On appeal, Python was able to succeed in making sure ABC didn’t rebroadcast either of the specials. As part of a settlement with the BBC and ABC, they were able to claim full copyright to all 45 episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus, ownership that has paid dividends in the decades that followed.

Speaking before the judge during the initial hearing, one brief exchange summed up the Pythons' attitude toward a third-party collaborator.

“I thought that was your business, being fools,” the judge said.

“Well, on our own terms,” Palin said.

The Psychology Behind Kids' L.O.L. Surprise! Doll Obsession

Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Isaac Larian, the founder and CEO of toymaker MGA Entertainment, is an insomniac. Fortunately for him, that inability to sleep forced him to get up out of bed one night—a move that ended up being worth $4 billion.

Larian’s company is the architect of L.O.L. Surprise!, a line of dolls with a clever conceit. The product, which retails for about $10 to $20, is encased in a ball-shaped plastic shell and buried under layers of packaging, forcing children to tear through a gauntlet of wrapping before they’re able to see it. The inspiration came on that highly profitable sleepless night, which Larian spent watching unboxing videos on YouTube. It resulted in the first toy made for a generation wired for delayed gratification.

The dolls first went on sale in test markets at select Target stores in late 2016. MGA shipped out 500,000 of them, all of which sold out within two months. A Cabbage Patch Kid-esque frenzy came the following year. By late 2018, L.O.L. Surprise! (the acronym stands for the fancifully redundant Little Outrageous Little) had moved 800 million units, accounted for seven of the top 10 toys sold in the U.S., and was named Toy of the Year by the Toy Association. Videos of kids and adults unboxing them garner millions of views on YouTube, which is precisely where Larian knew his marketing would be most effective.

A woman holds a L.O.L. Surprise doll and packaging in her hand
Cindy Ord, Getty Images for MGA Entertainment

The dolls themselves are nothing revolutionary. Once freed from their plastic prisons, they stare at their owner with doe-eyed expressions. Some “tinkle,” while others change color in water. They can be dressed in accessories found in the balls or paired with tiny pets (which also must be "unboxed"). Larger bundles, like last year’s $89.99 L.O.L. Bigger Surprise! capsule, feature a plethora of items, each individually wrapped. It took a writer from The New York Times 59 minutes to uncover everything inside.

This methodical excavation is what makes L.O.L. Surprise! so appealing to its pint-sized target audience. Though MGA was advised that kids wouldn’t want to buy something they couldn’t see, Larian and his executives had an instinctual understanding of what child development experts already knew: Kids like looking forward to things.

Dr. Rachel Barr, director of Georgetown University’s Early Learning Project, told The Atlantic that unboxing videos tickle the part of a child’s brain that enjoys anticipation. By age 4 or 5, they have a concept of “the future,” or events that will unfold somewhere other than the present. However, Barr said, they’re also wary of being scared by an unforeseen outcome. In an unboxing video, they know the payoff will be positive and not, say, a live tarantula.

L.O.L. Surprise! is engineered to prolong that anticipatory joy, with kids peeling away wrapping like an onion for up to 20 minutes at a time. The effect is not entirely novel—baseball card collectors have been buying and unwrapping card packs without knowing exactly what’s inside for decades—but paired with social media, MGA was able to strike oil. The dolls now have 350 licensees making everything from bed sheets to apparel. Collectors—or their parents—can buy a $199.99 doll house. So-called “boy toys” are now lurking inside the wrappers, with one, the mohawk-sporting Punk Boi, causing a mild stir for being what MGA calls “anatomically correct.” His tiny plastic genital area facilitates a peeing function.

Whether L.O.L. Surprise! bucks conventional toy trends and continues its popularity beyond a handful of holiday seasons remains to be seen. Already, MGA is pushing alternative products like Poopsie Slime Surprise, a unicorn that can be fed glitter and poops a viscous green slime. An official unboxing video has been viewed 4.2 million times and counting.

The 8 Most Anticipated Horror Movies of 2019

Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Michele K. Short, Universal Pictures

Between Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and Halloween, 2018 was a killer year for horror moviesand 2019 is shaping up to be just as impressive. While remakes seem to be dominating the schedule in the coming months, there are plenty of sequels, adaptations, and even a few promising original titles coming out as well. Here are some of the scary movies we're most looking forward to seeing this year.

1. Us

In 2017, Jordan Peele revolutionized the horror genre with Get Out. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker plans to do the same again with Us, which features a predominantly black cast—a rarity for a horror movie. "I dedicated a lot of myself to creating a new horror mythology and a new monster," Peele said of the film. "I think that monsters and stories about monsters are our best ways of getting at deeper truths and facing our fears as a society ... It’s also important to note that this movie, unlike Get Out, is not about race. It is instead about something I feel has become an undeniable truth. That is the simple fact that we are our own worst enemies." Us, which stars Elisabeth Moss and Lupita Nyong'o, arrives in theaters on March 22, 2019.

2. IT: Chapter 2

Stephen King fans were thrilled with 2017's IT, the second adaptation of the horror master's beloved 1986 novel. Andy Muschietti is sitting in the director's chair again for the second chapter, which will follow the Losers Club as they return to Derry, Maine in their adult years. While Bill Skarsgård will reprise his role as Pennywise, impressive new additions to the cast include Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy. The film debuts on September 6, 2019.

3. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

If you’ve been a horror fiend since childhood, you’ll no doubt remember Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series. The books included memorable illustrations by Stephen Gammell, some of which no doubt haunted many children’s nightmares. The film adaptation will be released on August 9, 2019.

4. Zombieland 2

Venom director Ruben Fleischer's feature debut, 2009's Zombieland, was an instant hit with both horror and comedy fans. And they've been waiting 10 years for a sequel. Finally, we’ll be getting a second film this year with Fleischer directing and Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and even Bill Murray all confirmed to return. Zombieland 2 is set to hit theaters on October 11, 2019.

5. Happy Death Day 2U

The hilariously bad-but-fun Happy Death Day (2017) surprised audiences with how flat-out entertaining it was, so much so that fans were thrilled to hear there were plans for a sequel. Much like the original movie, the second film will follow protagonist Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) as she’s killed every single day. But this time, the killer is coming for her friends, too. Happy Death Day 2U premieres on February 14, 2019.

6. Pet Sematary

Though Mary Lambert's original Pet Sematary (1989) was not met with much critical acclaim, fans of the Stephen King novel were pleased with the adaptation, and are excited to see the story come to life again. The remake, which is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and stars John Lithgow and Jason Clarke, debuts on April 5, 2019.

7. Child’s Play

When rumors began swirling that there was going to be another Chucky movie, and that it would be a remake of the original Child’s Play at that, people—including the original series creator Don Mancini—didn't initially seem too excited.

But as more details—including a cast list that includes Aubrey Plaza and Brian Tyree Henry—were made public, interest in the project seemed to grow. Child’s Play hits theaters June 21, 2019.

8. The Prodigy

Creepy kids will never fail to make terrifying horror movie villains. In The Prodigy, Taylor Schilling’s character discovers something supernatural might be happening to her son when he starts acting as if he’s possessed. (Spoiler alert: He probably is). The film will be released on February 8, 2019.

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