Monty Python's Flying Circus

Monty Python Wife: Have you got anything without Spam?
Waitress: Well, there's Spam egg sausage and Spam, that's not got much Spam in it.
Wife: I don't want any Spam!
Man: Why can't she have egg bacon Spam and sausage?
Wife: That's got Spam in it!

Chances are you can start reciting the preceding quote around a group of people, and a handful of them - probably geeks or geezers, but perhaps teens also - will laugh and start to utter similar nonsensical phrases. They are quoting comedy lines from the minds of the group known collectively as Monty Python, a troupe of (mostly) British performers whose work has spanned four decades.

The craziness started on October 5, 1969, when viewers of BBC1 tuned in - fortunately or unfortunately, according to one's point of view - to a new sort of comedy television show, one which was not only innovative, but which took the concept of the comedy sketch and twisted it into every conceivable configuration possible. Not all of it was great; some of it wasn't even good. But a lot of it was brilliant, and every episode seemed to be a laboratory experiment in what the writers/performers could get away with.

The seeds of Monty Python's Flying Circus (the show's full title) were planted some years previous. John Cleese and Graham Chapman were members of the Cambridge Revue together; in the mid-60's Cleese would be a performer and writer on The Frost Report, a comedy sketch show produced by David Frost; and both Cleese and Chapman would appear onscreen in At Last the 1948 Show with Tim Brooke-Taylor (later one of the Goodies) and Marty Feldman (of Young Frankenstein and other films). Michael Palin and Terry Jones met while writing for a comedy show called Loitering Within Tent; they would soon meet Eric Idle while working on Footlights Revue. They would all collaborate again both on- and off-screen on the well-received children's show Do Not Adjust Your Set with future Only Fools and Horses star David Jason, as well as musician Neil Innes, leader of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. All five of the lads would meet and work together on The Frost Report.

In mid-1969 they pitched the idea for a new show to BBC1, based on the strength of their combined experience on different comedy shows; they also brought along the lone American of the group, Terry Gilliam, whose animations had appeared on Do Not Adjust Your Set. The fledgling show didn't at this point have a name, and the boys put their heads together to try to come up with a suitably funny and nonsensical one. Such titles as were tossed around included Arthur Megapode's Zoo; Vaseline Parade; and The Venus De Milo Panic Show. But the correct title was settled on because it was not only ridiculous but it also sounded a bit seedy.

The television series raised a lot of eyebrows during its 4-year run; not only were the sketches unconventional, but the very format of the weekly television series was spoofed, with sometimes two separate opening themes played during a single broadcast, or false show endings, etc. Some episodes centered around a central theme or continuous sketch, woven through with different characters and situations; even many of the more 'ordinary' shows warped unapologetically between gags with occasional fourth-wall-breaking interludes (such as the military officer who interrupts the proceedings mid-sketch because things are becoming "too silly.").

Famous bits include the parrot sketch, in which a customer returns a dead parrot which, he had been told on purchasing, was "just resting"; the Ministry of Silly Walks, which hands out government grants to persons who can develop funny ways of walking; a military instructor who instructs recruits in how to defend themselves when being attacked with different kinds of fruit (note: every method involves a gun); the Spanish Inquisition, which nobody expects; the funniest joke in the world, which is used to kill German troops during the Second World War; and many more. Sketches usually involved Cleese playing some overbearing public official or Palin a very put-upon, meek fellow; since there was a shortage of female cast members (which would be remedied with later seasons) the lads would dress up in very poor drag and talk in ridiculously high voices, sounding not at all female. Gilliam's cut-out animated clips wound through and between the various bits provided a surreal and more slapstick-like backdrop.

After the end of the series in 1974, the troupe would go on to make feature films, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian. But... that's a tale for another day. In the beginning, there was simply the television show, and it was good. So good, in fact, that its humor is fresh today as it was then. In many ways, it was ahead of its time... and both British and American television comedy have yet to catch up with its innovations, much less to surpass them.