CLOSE
(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

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
(L-R) John Cleese, Neil Innes, Michael Palin, Eric Idle
Mad Magazine
arrow
Lists
12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.

1. NO ONE KNOWS WHO CAME UP WITH ALFRED E. NEUMAN.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledging publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: the envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.  

2. THEY HAD TO APOLOGIZE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.

MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.  

3. THEY PREDICTED JOHN F. KENNEDY'S ELECTION IN 1960.

But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.

4. ALFRED BRIEFLY HAD A GIRLFRIEND.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.

5. THEY DIDN'T RUN ANY (REAL) ADS FOR 44 YEARS.

From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, Mad finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.

6. "SPY VS. SPY" WAS CREATED BY A SUSPECTED SPY.

Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’ other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by Mad’s New York offices and submitted his work: his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.

7. THERE WAS ONE FOLD-IN THEY WOULDN'T RUN.

Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with Mad almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.  

8. THEIR MOVIE WAS A DISASTER.

With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: a 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; Mad parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)

9. THE APRIL 1974 COVER HAD PEOPLE FLIPPING.


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.

10. THEY INVENTED A SPORT.

MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, Mad also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.  

11. WEIRD AL WAS A GUEST EDITOR.

In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.

12. FRED ASTAIRE ONCE DANCED AS ALFRED E. NEUMAN.

In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
(L-R) John Cleese, Neil Innes, Michael Palin, Eric Idle
Paramount Pictures
arrow
entertainment
10 Tantalizing Tidbits About Star Trek: The Next Generation
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

by Kirsten Howard

When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in September 1987, no one was quite sure what to expect. After all, this was a new Enterprise with a new crew trying to revitalize a franchise that had only lasted three seasons the last time it was on television. And while the movie series was still bringing in solid box office returns, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy would play no part in this new Trek.

The Next Generation was a gamble for Paramount, and for the first few seasons, it looked like one the studio was going to lose. But once the series got over some initial behind-the-scenes chaos, it blossomed into one of the most popular sci-fi TV shows of all time. Even as bigger and shinier installments in the franchise continue to come out, this is the definitive Star Trek for countless fans. So lean back in your captain's chair and enjoy 10 facts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.

1. THE SHOW GOT OFF TO A ROCKY START.

Things were tumultuous at best behind the scenes during the first season of the show, as writers and producers clashed with creator Gene Roddenberry over themes, characters, and ideas on a weekly basis. The in-fighting and drama became such a part of the show's legacy that William Shatner himself chronicled all of it in a 2014 documentary called Chaos on the Bridge (which is currently streaming on Netflix). In it, producers, writers, and actors recounted anecdotes about the difficulties they had dealing with Roddenberry's somewhat overbearing mandates, including his infamous rule that there never be any direct conflict between the Enterprise crew members (unless one was possessed by an alien, of course) and his habit of throwing out scripts at the last minute. This led to 30 writers leaving the show within the first season, according to story editor and program consultant David Gerrold.

As Roddenberry’s health began to deteriorate after the first season, his influence over the writers waned, freeing up ideas that were departures from the creator's original vision. He would pass away in 1991, but his presence would never completely leave the series. For years, a small bust of Roddenberry sat on executive producer Rick Berman's desk with a blindfold wrapped over its eyes. "Whenever they come up with a story I don't think Gene would like," Berman said, "I blindfold him when we discuss the story."

2. GENE RODDENBERRY REALLY DIDN’T WANT A BALD CAPTAIN.

'Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For years, William Shatner had cast the mold by which all future Star Trek captains would be judged. And it was that image of the confident, swashbuckling James T. Kirk that Roddenberry wanted to preserve when bringing a new captain in for The Next Generation. So when Berman wanted to cast Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the issue was clear: he was no Shatner.

Roddenberry was completely unconvinced that Stewart was right for the role, with Berman saying the Trek creator didn’t like the idea of “a bald English guy taking over.” But after countless auditions with other actors, Berman continued to bring Stewart up to Roddenberry, who eventually caved and agreed to bring him in for a final audition under one condition: he wear a wig. So Stewart had a wig Fed-Exed from London and auditioned for Roddenberry and Paramount Television head John Pike one final time. 

That audition was enough to win Roddenberry over, and Stewart was finally brought aboard as Picard with the wig cast aside. Roddenberry would eventually go on to fully embrace Picard’s follicular shortcomings, and according to Stewart, when a reporter at a press conference once asked him why there wouldn’t be a cure for baldness in the 24th century, Roddenberry responded by saying, “No, by the 24th century, no one will care."

3. ONLY ONE PERSON HAS EVER PLAYED HIMSELF IN STAR TREK HISTORY.

Stephen Hawking was visiting the Paramount lot during the video release of the film A Brief History of Time when he requested a tour of the Next Generation set. After making his way onto the iconic Enterprise bridge, he stopped and began typing into his computer. Suddenly, his voice synthesizer spoke: “Would you lift me out of my chair and put me into the captain's seat?"

Hawking asking to be removed from his chair was basically unheard of, so his wishes were granted immediately. Later, with writers having become aware that he was such a huge Trekkie, Hawking himself was written into the sixth season finale episode “Descent – Part I” by Ronald D. Moore, who would later go on to reimagine the Battlestar Galactica universe.

4. A WHOLE EPISODE WAS WRITTEN FOR ROBIN WILLIAMS.

Late actor and comedian Robin Williams was also a huge fan of the show and was desperate to appear in it, so an episode of the fifth season—"A Matter of Time"—was drawn up by Berman to allow Williams to shine at the center of a mystery about Professor Berlinghoff Rasmussen, a time-traveling historian from the future visiting the past to observe the Enterprise crew completing an historic mission.

Unfortunately, when it came time to shoot the episode, Williams found himself unavailable to appear in the episode. So Max Headroom star Matt Frewer was cast as Professor Rasmussen instead.

5. PATRICK STEWART APPROACHED BEING TORTURED ON SCREEN VERY SERIOUSLY.

In the episode “Chain of Command, Part II,” Picard has been captured by Cardassians and is subjected to a variety of torture methods by his interrogators. As a member of the human rights organization Amnesty International, Stewart did not want to shy away from the realities of torture, so he watched tapes sent to him that included statements from people who had been tortured and a long interview with a torturer explaining what it was like to be the one inflicting pain on others. Stewart also insisted on being completely nude during the first torture scene, so as not to betray the experiences of those who had undergone similar horrors.

6. THEY USED SOME PRACTICAL EFFECTS.

The transporter effect on the show may look completely computer generated, but in fact it’s all done quite organically. First, a canister is filled with water and glitter and then a light is shone through it. After stirring the liquid briskly, the resulting few seconds of swirling glitter are filmed and then superimposed over footage of the actor standing in the transporter area, with an added “streak down” effect to blur the glitter further.

7. LORE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A WOMAN.

Android Lieutenant Commander Data had many adventures during the series, on and off the Enterprise, but his evil twin brother, Lore, stands out for many fans as one of the show’s greatest antagonists. Surprisingly, Lore was originally created as a female android character for the show, but the actor who plays Data, Brent Spiner, came up with a different idea: an evil twin nemesis in the shape of a long-lost brother.

8. THERE WAS AN OPEN SUBMISSION POLICY ON SCRIPTS.

When Michael Piller took over as head writer on the show in 1989, an open submission policy was launched where absolutely anyone could submit up to two unsolicited scripts for consideration. Opening up the possibility of writing for TV to people outside of the Writers Guild of America and talent agency pool was unheard of at the time, and over 5000 spec scripts were received a year at one point. "Yesterday’s Enterprise," one of the show’s most popular episodes, was based off a spec script from the open submission policy.

9. SOME SCRIPTS WERE RECYCLED FROM THE SCRAPPED PHASE II.

A still from 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'
Paramount Pictures

A decade before The Next Generation debuted, there was a failed attempt at a revival called Star Trek: Phase II. Though a first season was mapped out, it never saw the light of day, and the movie series was produced in its place. However, the scrapped scripts and concepts lived on in various Trek projects over the years. For the second season premiere of The Next Generation, producers reclaimed the script for "The Child" as a way to get a story quickly into production during the 1988 writer's strike. The season four episode "Devil's Due" was also taken from the backlog of Phase II scripts. 

More elements from Phase II would influence Trek for years, such as the pilot being reworked into Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the now-familiar elements of the Japanese-inspired Klingon culture being introduced in the shelved episode “Kitumba.”

10. THE TRANSPORTER IS THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS.

In what was either a cost-cutting move or a sly Easter egg (or both), the ceiling of the Enterprise's transporter room in The Next Generation is actually the floor of the transporter room from the original series. That's far from the only recycling that went on between the Trek series. The orbital office complex from Star Trek: The Motion Picture was reused as the Regula I station in The Wrath of Khan, which was then itself reused as a number of different space stations on The Next Generation (plus Deep Space Nine and Voyager).

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER