14 Facts About Monty Python's Flying Circus On Its 50th Anniversary

Alan Howard/Getty Images
Alan Howard/Getty Images

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, 50 years later.

1. Monty Python's Flying Circus 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 for the series.

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 canceled 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.

In that same aforementioned internal BBC memo, it was revealed that the Pythons were compensated £160 per episode, which would be about $208.78 today.

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. "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. John 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.


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dallas 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 also a reference to a classic Monty Python sketch.

The 21 Best Movies of the 1970s

Robert De Niro stars in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976).
Robert De Niro stars in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

By the end of the 1960s, the battle between "Old Hollywood" (Technicolor musicals, historical epics, and old-fashioned acting) and "New Hollywood" (youth-oriented stories full of sex and violence, political volatility, and realistic performances) was over, and New Hollywood had won. Game-changing films like Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, and Easy Rider—all released between 1967 and 1969—had shifted the Hollywood tide while the French New Wave had inspired the kids in film school (itself a new concept in the '60s), and the 1970s proved a remarkably fertile time for the new batch of filmmakers that followed. Miraculously, studios gave these young directors a lot of creative freedom. The result? One of the best decades in all of movie history.

1. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A scene from 'A Clockwork Orange' (1971)
Warner Home Video

Stanley Kubrick was technically part of the older generation of moviemakers, but his groundbreaking films in the '60s (including Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey) had established him as part of the avant-garde. And yet A Clockwork Orange, his adaptation of Anthony Burgess's dystopian novel, still surprised and shocked people with its violence, sex, and social commentary. The image of a juvenile delinquent having his eyes propped open to force him to watch films meant to recondition him remains indelible.

2. The Last Picture Show (1971)

A still from 'The Last Picture Show' (1971)
The Criterion Collection

It was fitting that as Old Hollywood faded away, an up-and-coming filmmaker like Peter Bogdanovich would make something set in the past, shot in nostalgic black-and-white, that depicted a town where the old ways were dying. Roger Ebert observed that The Last Picture Show "is above all an evocation of mood," full of lovely melancholy as its young, restless characters in a moribund Texas town struggle with where to go and what to do next.

3. The French Connection (1971)

Gene Hackman, Eddie Egan, Sonny Grosso, and Bill Hickman in The French Connection (1971)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Gene Hackman, one of the most admired actors in Hollywood, was at the peak of his career in the 1970s: In addition to this cop thriller (for which he won an Oscar) and its sequel, he had I Never Sang for My Father, The Poseidon Adventure, The Conversation (which could also be on this list), Night Moves, Superman (he remains the quintessential Lex Luthor), and a hilarious turn as a blind man in Young Frankenstein. The French Connection cast him as a New York police detective chasing down drug smugglers, and director William Friedkin guided the film to a win for Best Picture of 1971.

4. and 5. The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Marlon Brando and Salvatore Corsitto in 'The Godfather' (1972)
Paramount Pictures

You knew these would be on the list. It has become cliché to cite Francis Ford Coppola's monumentally popular and lavishly praised mafia epics as the best the '70s had to offer, but only the most stubborn of contrarians would deny the truth of it. With blockbuster performances by an impressive array of stars present and future—including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and James Caan—and an epic story spanning several decades, Coppola created a saga that has inspired countless filmmakers (and gangsters).

6. Serpico (1973)

Al Pacino in Serpico (1973)
Warner Home Video

Al Pacino is another actor whose heyday was the '70s; besides the Godfathers, we could mention The Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow, and Dog Day Afternoon. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Frank Serpico, a real-life New York cop who exposed corruption within the police force, while director Sidney Lumet—who was always interested in social issues, as seen in movies like 12 Angry Men, Network, and The Verdict—brought the full force of his righteous indignation to the edge-of-your-seat story.

7. The Exorcist (1973)


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

After he scored with The French Connection, William Friedkin cemented his place in movie history with this colossally popular and monumentally frightening horror film about a girl with a demon inside her. It inspired fainting and vomiting; it made people think they were possessed; it became the first horror film nominated for Best Picture; it made Ellen Burstyn a star. And it's still one of the most terrifying possession stories ever told.

8. Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson stars in 'Chinatown' (1974)
Paramount Home Entertainment

If you can separate the art from the artist (in this case, director Roman Polanski), Chinatown is just about the closest thing we have to a flawless movie, with a screenplay by Robert Towne that's taught in screenwriting classes. Reviving the dormant detective noir genre, Polanski gave Jack Nicholson a chance to shine as a nosy Los Angeles P.I. snooping around a land deal with sinister implications. Faye Dunaway is unforgettable in her shocking role, and the last line—"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown"—is an all-time classic.

9. Blazing Saddles (1974)

Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles (1974)
Warner Home Video

Mel Brooks released two classic comedies in 1974, but this writer's subjective opinion is that Blazing Saddles is funnier than Young Frankenstein. Co-written with Richard Pryor (who would have starred in it, too, except that Warner Bros. found him too unreliable), this Western spoof is often like a Looney Tunes short come to life—with the added bonus of mocking racists with gleeful abandon. Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, and Madeline Kahn give hilarious performances.

10. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

A still from 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' (1974).
New Line Cinema

This low-budget horror flick, basically the godfather of the "teens go somewhere remote and get murdered" genre, isn't nearly as bloody as its reputation suggests. That's partly a testament to director Tobe Hooper's ability to suggest ghastliness without actually showing it, and partly due to the fact that most of the film's many imitators are drenched in gore. More than 45 years later, the film's raw, nightmarish final 30 minutes are still horrifically effective.

11. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
© 1975. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Like Mel Brooks, the Monty Python gang employed many types of comedy in telling their medieval story: slapstick, wordplay, satire, meta-references, and a killer rabbit. Perfectly capturing the anarchic, freewheeling, peripatetic spirit of the group's sketch comedy TV series, Monty Python and the Holy Grail often feels like a series of skits—but who cares when the skits are all so brilliant?

12. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

A still from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' (1975)
Warner Bros.

The 1970s were a fantastic decade for Jack Nicholson, who appeared in 15 movies including Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, the aforementioned Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—and those are just the ones that earned him Oscar nominations. He won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in which he plays a non-insane man in an insane asylum who questions authority and tries to break people out of complacency, themes that still resonate today.

13. Jaws (1975)

Susan Backlinie in 'Jaws' (1975)
MCA/Universal Home Video

Jaws invented the "summer blockbuster" as we know it (that season was previously considered a dead zone), rocketed Steven Spielberg to the A-list of young directors, and made millions of ordinary people sharkphobic. Jaws also happens to be an expertly made dramatic thriller, with superb editing by Verna Fields (whom Spielberg credited with saving the picture) and an instantly iconic musical score by John Williams.

14. Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver' (1976)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

New York City was a violent cesspool in the '70s, and nobody captured it better than Martin Scorsese did in this jarring drama—it's almost a horror film—about an unstable cabbie (Robert De Niro) who longs to clean up the sleazy streets. Long before "toxic masculinity" was a common phrase, Travis Bickle was taking women to porno movies on first dates and personifying the violent ends to which some men will go to get what they want.

15. Rocky (1976)

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (1976)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Watching the many, many sequels, it's easy to forget that the original Rocky was more character drama than boxing movie, focused on a working-class schlub who just wants to go the distance, win or lose. Sylvester Stallone's down-to-earth screenplay and natural performance were enhanced by the journeyman sensibilities of director John G. Avildsen, who later brought the same rousing spirit to The Karate Kid.

16. All the President's Men (1976)

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in 'All the President's Men' (1976)
Warner Home Video

After the national trauma of Watergate and the disgrace of Richard Nixon's resignation, Americans needed a film to sort it all out for them. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, both already big stars, played household-name Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in a steady, methodical film directed by To Kill a Mockingbird producer Alan J. Pakula. With moral clarity and a thrilling story, All the President's Men stands as the best and most important political film of the decade.

17. Network (1976)

Peter Finch stars in 'Network' (1976)
Warner Home Video

Just as trenchant in this bicentennial year as All the President's Men, Network (directed by Serpico's Sidney Lumet) satirized that most American of inventions: the television industry. Nearly every outrageous thing that happens in this depiction of a fictional broadcast network run by ruthless executives has since happened in real life, making the film even more potent now than it was then. And the performances by Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Peter Finch are terrific fun.

18. Star Wars (1977)

Mark Hamill stars in 'Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope' (1977)
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

George Lucas's space fantasy, a sort of interstellar Western, elevated old good guys vs. bad guys tropes to the level of high (and highly successful) art. The effects of the Star Wars franchise on Hollywood and the world need not be recited here. What's notable is that even if there had never been a sequel, spinoff, or toy tie-in, the original Star Wars would still stand as, well, an original.

19. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (1979)
Paramount Home Entertainment

In the annals of movies whose behind-the-scenes stories were as troubled and disastrous as the stories they depicted, few rank higher than Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. But the result of a year of filming plagued by weather, sickness, and Marlon Brando's unpreparedness was a movie that has only risen in people's estimation since then, vividly depicting the insanity of the Vietnam War through the eyes of a rattled Martin Sheen as he searches for a rogue Army Special Forces officer.

20. Alien (1979)

Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, and Yaphet Kotto in Alien (1979)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Alien could be on any list of important movies for its famous advertising tagline alone: "In space no one can hear you scream." Directed by Ridley Scott from a long-in-development screenplay by Dan O'Bannon, this sci-fi thriller about a killer E.T. in a spaceship is a masterpiece of tension and horror and chest-bursting. Look how many other films on this list influenced it: O'Bannon pitched it as "Jaws in space"; Scott called it "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre of science fiction"; and 20th Century Fox only gave it a greenlight because Star Wars had suddenly made outer space cool again. Whatever it took to get it going, the result was worth it.

21. Being There (1979)

Shirley MacLaine and Peter Sellers in Being There (1979)
Warner Home Video

A TV-obsessed simpleton stumbling his way into the higher echelons of political power sounds totally implausible ... but that's the premise of this genteel but sharp comedy directed by Hal Ashby, whose other films from this decade—Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, and Coming Home—could all be on this list. Peter Sellers's lead performance, just like the movie, perfectly walks the line between the absurd and the sublime.

Disney+ Users Are Already Facing Technical Problems

Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian (2019).
Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian (2019).
© 2019 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved

It seems that the highly anticipated Disney+ release did not go as smoothly as the company had hoped. Variety reports that the streaming service launched this morning, only to find its IT department being flooded with phone calls, tweets, and emails from angry users complaining of malfunctions.

Many customers took to social media to vent their frustration that they either couldn’t login into their account or couldn’t watch certain content.

The service did offer an explanation for all the technical issues via Twitter, posting, “The consumer demand for Disney+ has exceeded our high expectations. We are working to quickly resolve the current user issue. We appreciate your patience.”

Too bad a little Disney magic couldn’t help them with these tech glitches.

[h/t Variety]

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