14 Facts About Monty Python's Flying Circus
Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, illustrator Terry Gilliam, and director Ian MacNaughton joined forces to create Monty Python's Flying Circus, a show that quickly became one of television's most influential comedy series after making its premiere on October 5, 1969—and remains so to this day, nearly 50 years later.
1. IT WAS INFLUENCED BY SPIKE MILLIGAN.
Spike Milligan created The Goon Show (a favorite of The Beatles), a surrealistic radio program starring himself, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers before Milligan moved to television with Q... (1969-1982). The first series, Q5, debuted less than a year before Monty Python's Flying Circus, and made quite an impact.
"Terry Jones and I adored the Q... shows," Michael Palin said. "They were filled with surrealism and invention, and [Milligan] took huge risks ... When it came to Python, Terry [Jones] and I were so impressed that we looked for the name of the director on the end credits and hired him. That's how we met Ian MacNaughton."
2. THERE WERE MANY POTENTIAL TITLES.
A BBC executive originally wanted to name the series Baron von Took's Flying Circus as a nod to Barry Took, the network's comedy adviser, who was credited with bringing the Pythons and BBC together. He was also the warm-up comic for the studio audience before the first night of filming. But there were plenty of other considerations for the title, including Owl Stretching Time; Bunn, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot; Whither Canada?; Ow! It's Colin Plint; A Horse, a Spoon, and a Bucket; The Toad Elevating Moment; and The Algy Banging Hour. The BBC, in a state of agitation, was keen on "Flying Circus," and the troupe added "Monty Python."
3. THE OPENING THEME WAS JOHN PHILIP SOUSA'S "THE LIBERTY BELL."
The Pythons chose John Philip Sousa's "The Liberty Bell" (as played by the Band of the Grenadier Guards) as their theme song, largely for financial reasons: Since it was in the public domain, it was free.
4. THE GIANT FOOT IN THE OPENING CREDITS BELONGS TO CUPID.
The giant foot seen in the show's opening credits belongs to Cupid, and comes from Bronzino's painting "An Allegory with Venus and Cupid." According to The National Gallery, the painting dates back to "about 1545" and was presented to King Francis I of France as a gift. Terry Gilliam saw the painting at The National Gallery in 1969 while searching for some Flying Circus inspiration.
5. IT WAS ALMOST CANCELLED AFTER ONE EPISODE.
According to some unearthed internal memos, BBC1 controller Paul Fox said the troupe went "over the edge of what was acceptable." Head of arts features Stephen Heast said they "wallowed in the sadism of their humor." Entertainment chief Bill Cotton thought Monty Python "seemed to have some sort of death wish." Despite those thoughts, and low audience ratings, the show managed to hang on for three and a half seasons—for 45 total episodes—through 1974.
6. THE PARROT SKETCH WAS ORIGINALLY WITH A CUSTOMER AND A CAR SALESMAN.
Cleese and Chapman penned How to Irritate People, a sketch special which also starred Michael Palin that aired in the United States in January 1969. What would become the "Dead Parrot" sketch originally had Chapman complaining that the car he had just purchased from Palin was literally falling apart, with Palin consistently denying the glaring, mounting evidence. When writing for the first season of Flying Circus, Cleese and Chapman thought about reviving the basic idea for the sketch, but improving it by giving it a different setting, and casting Cleese as the customer instead of Chapman.
7. THE PYTHONS WERE PAID ABOUT $200 PER EPISODE.
8. "AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT" CAME FROM REAL NEWS SHOWS.
When two news stories that had no relation to the other were presented back-to-back on BBC TV and radio broadcasts, the anchor would say "And now for something completely different." That was no longer the case after Monty Python made it popular.
9. JOHN CLEESE GOT A DIRTY LOOK WHILE RESEARCHING THE CHEESE SHOP SKETCH.
"I always remember going into the local delicatessen with this notebook and just standing there writing down the names of all the cheeses in the cheese display cabinet," Cleese recalled with a laugh. "One of the shop assistants watching me with a very suspicious look." According to Cleese, he and Palin used almost all of the varieties he had scribbled down. Some, like "Venezuelan Beaver Cheese," were invented.
10. CLEESE LEFT THE SERIES BEFORE ITS FOURTH AND FINAL SEASON.
Cleese, who had to be persuaded to continue co-writing and co-starring after its first batch of episodes, wanted to move on before the others did. “I wanted to be part of the group, I didn’t want to be married to them—because that’s what it felt like," Cleese said. "I began to lose any kind of control over my life and I was not forceful enough in saying no.”
11. THE EPISODES WERE ALMOST TAPED OVER.
In 1971, Terry Jones was informed by the BBC that, as was standard penny-pinching procedure at the time, the network was about to erase all of the original Monty Python tapes. Gilliam purchased the videotapes before they were erased.
12. DALLAS WAS THE FIRST CITY TO SHOW IT IN AMERICA.
PBS station KERA-TV had the honor of being the first American city to broadcast the series, thanks to its first chief executive, Bob Wilson, who first saw the show through one of his reporters. It made its American debut on September 22, 1974, in the middle of their final season in England.
13. ABC WAS SUED FOR HEAVILY EDITING SOME EPISODES.
The American Broadcasting Company acquired the American rights to the six episodes of season four, which they wanted to run as two 90-minute, late-night specials. When the troupe saw how ABC put together the first special, they filed for an injunction against ABC running the second one. ABC had removed eight minutes of material from the three episodes, including all of the uses of the words "damn," "hell," and "naughty bits" as well as entire characters, and—worst of all—punchlines.
The Pythons sued the network, and Gilliam and Palin appeared in court in New York. The judge watched both versions, and laughed more at the original British cuts, but ruled in ABC's favor anyway. By the time the U.S. Court of Appeals heard the case in December 1975, the second special had already aired. In a settlement, the rights to those episodes went back to the Pythons, who sold it to PBS.
14. THE SHOW HAS MADE ITS MARK IN THE COMPUTING WORLD.
When Guido van Rossum first implemented his programming language Python, he was reading published Flying Circus scripts.
It's widely believed that unsolicited emails became known as "spam" thanks to the multi-user dungeon online community back in the 1980s. "Spam" was used to describe pointless data flooding. It was a reference to the classic Monty Python sketch (above).