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.

Jim Henson's Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas Is Returning to Theaters

The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events
The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events

For anyone who grew up with HBO in the 1980s, the holiday season meant two things: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and The Bells of Fraggle Rock. Though the beloved Jim Henson classics have been largely confined to home video-only screenings over the years, they’re making their way back to the big screen for the first time via Fathom Events when the Jim Henson Holiday Special arrives in theaters nationwide for a limited, two-day engagement.

More than 600 theaters across the country will host screenings of the Jim Henson Holiday Special on Monday, December 10 (4 p.m. and 7 p.m.) and Sunday, December 16 (1 p.m. and 4 p.m.), which will pair the two specials—both of which have recently been remastered—alongside an all-new featurette, Memories of the Jug-Band.

"Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas was a favorite project for my dad since it included such sweet characters, Paul Williams’s delightful music, and a timeless holiday message,” Cheryl Henson—Jim Henson’s daughter and president of the Jim Henson Foundation—said in a statement about the special, which is a music-filled twist on The Gift of the Magi.

“Also, the special was a great opportunity for him to experiment with puppetry techniques and effects that would be seen in his later works," Henson continued. "[It] is exciting for families to share this holiday classic along with the special episode The Bells of Fraggle Rock, a rare opportunity to see the Fraggles on the big screen, and to introduce these beloved characters to a whole new audience."

On December 18, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will release Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas on Blu-ray for the first time ever so that you can make the special a permanent part of your regular holiday movie marathon. This news comes on the heels of Emmet Otter's first-ever official soundtrack release, more than 40 years after its original premiere.

Click here to find out the Jim Henson Holiday Special is playing near you, and to pre-order your tickets today.

10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for 45 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guaraldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s quasi-nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother Linus, however, is a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGGH.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of the holiday. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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