Monty Python: a golden age of British comedy

A look at how the sextet changed the world's sense of humour.

Back row, from left, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam. Front row from left, Terry Jones, John Cleese and Michael Palin.
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The basics

A zany British comedy sextet that burst on to television screens on October 5, 1969, when the weekly half-hour show Monty Python's Flying Circus was first broadcast on BBC2. They lampooned daily life, history and traditions in a showcase that veered from the sublime to the ridiculous. The word "Pythonesque" is now in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The players

Five Britons – John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman – and one American, Terry Gilliam. Cleese and Chapman met at Cambridge University; Palin and Jones met at Oxford University; Cleese met Gilliam in New York; and Idle also was at Cambridge. The team had worked on several shows such as The Frost Report (1966-67) and Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69) before getting their own series.

The run

The group made 45 episodes of the show over four seasons, ending in 1974, before branching out into films, stage shows, albums and books. The Pythons stopped working as an ensemble in 1983. Five of the six continued to forge successful individual careers. Chapman battled cancer and died in 1989.

The best sketches were...

Spam, The Spanish Inquisition, the Ministry of Silly Walks, Dead Parrot, The Lumberjack Song and Cheese Shop. The group was determined to be innovative, pushing the boundaries of TV comedy by allowing sketches to mesh together with the use of animation, and avoiding traditional techniques such as punchlines. Closing credits were often put up halfway through the show to confuse, or bemuse, viewers.

They were also controversial...

One BBC executive said the first episode was "in appalling taste". Other BBC types complained about the programme going "over the edge of what was acceptable". After one particularly near-the-knuckle sketch, The Undertaker, the Pythons had to submit their scripts in advance, and the BBC resolved to monitor all programmes more closely.

...and not everyone's cup of tea

Detractors have branded their irreverent humour as juvenile slapstick and tedious, repetitious wordplay. Others argue that Monty Python's Flying Circus influenced British comedy teams including The Goodies, The Comic Strip, and Little Britain's Matt Lucas and David Walliams as well as US shows, such as Saturday Night Live.

The essential film of the collection

The second of five movies, Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) caused an outcry upon its release and was accused of being blasphemous, racist and sexist. It was subsequently banned in many cinemas in the UK. But the Pythons had the last laugh – the film has topped several polls as the greatest comedy film of all time, with its legendary denouement Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Graham Chapman (1941-1989)

Chapman played the lead roles in Monty Python's only two feature films. He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s and died of cancer in 1989.

Michael Palin (1943-)

Palin has continued to act in hit films The Missionary, Time Bandits and A Fish Called Wanda. He is now known for his BBC travel series and books, which started with Michael Palin: Around the World in 80 Days (1989).

Eric Idle (1943-)

As well as writing and starring in several films and TV series, Idle has enjoyed huge success with Spamalot, a musical comedy based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

Terry Jones (1942-)

He has written and presented numerous TV documentaries on medieval and ancient history. Jones has started work on producing a heavy metal version of The Nutcracker ballet.

Terry Gilliam (1940-)

As the Pythons' animator, Gilliam branched out into screenwriting and directing. His films include the critically acclaimed Time Bandits (1981) and 12 Monkeys (1995).