When Monty Python Took American Television to Court
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.
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.
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.