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.

Welcome to the Party, Pal: A Die Hard Board Game Exists

USAOPOLY/Amazon
USAOPOLY/Amazon

On the heels of the 30th anniversary of the classic Bruce Willis action film Die Hard last year, tabletop board game company The OP has created a game that will see John McClane once again battle his way through Nakatomi Plaza. Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist is a board game officially licensed by Fox Consumer Products that drops players into a setting familiar to anyone who has seen the film: As New York cop McClane tries to reconcile with his estranged wife, he must navigate a team of cutthroat thieves set on overtaking a Los Angeles high-rise.

The game has a one-against-many format, with one player assuming the role of McClane and the other players conspiring as the thieves to eliminate him from the Plaza.

The OP, also known as USAOpoly, has previously created games based on Avengers: Infinity War and the Harry Potter franchise. Die Hard has spawned four sequels, the most recent being 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard. Willis will likely return as McClane for a sixth installment that will alternate between the present day and his rookie years in the NYPD. That film has no release date set.

The board game is available for purchase on Amazon now for $40.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

12 Good Ol' Facts About The Dukes of Hazzard

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Getty Images

When The Dukes of Hazzard premiered on January 26, 1979, it was intended to be a temporary patch in CBS’s primetime schedule until The Incredible Hulk returned. Only nine episodes were ordered, and few executives at the network had any expectation that the series—about two amiable brothers at odds with the corrupt law enforcement of Hazzard County—would become both a ratings powerhouse and a merchandising bonanza. Check out some of these lesser-known facts about the Duke boys, their extended family, and the gravity-defying General Lee.

1. CBS's chairman hated The Dukes of Hazzard.

CBS chairman William Paley never quite bought into the idea of spinning his opinion to match the company line. Having built CBS from a radio station to one of the “Big Three” television networks, he had harvested talent as diverse as Norman Lear and Lucille Ball, a marked contrast to the Southern-fried humor of The Dukes of Hazzard. In his 80s when it became a top 10 series and seeing no reason to censor himself, Paley repeatedly and publicly described the show as “lousy.”

2. The Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee got 35,000 fan letters a month.


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While John Schneider and Tom Wopat were the ostensible stars of the show, both the actors and the show's producers quickly found out that the main attraction was the 1969 Dodge Charger—dubbed the General Lee—that trafficked brothers Bo and Luke Duke from one caper to another. Of the 60,000 letters the series was receiving every month in 1981, 35,000 wanted more information on or pictures of the car.

3. Dennis Quaid wanted to be The Dukes of Hazzard's Luke Duke—on one condition.

When the show began casting in 1978, producers threw out a wide net searching for the leads. Dennis Quaid was among those interested in the role of Luke Duke—which eventually went to Wopat—but he had a condition: he would only agree to the show if his then-wife, P.J. Soles, was cast at the Dukes’ cousin, Daisy. Soles wasn’t a proper fit for the supporting part, which put Quaid off; Catherine Bach was eventually cast as Daisy.

4. John Schneider pretended to be a redneck for his Dukes of Hazzard audition.

New York native Schneider was only 18 years old when he went in to read for the role of Bo Duke. The problem: producers wanted someone 24 to 30 years old. Schneider lied about his age and passed himself off as a Southern archetype, strutting in wearing a cowboy hat, drinking a beer, and spitting tobacco. He also told them he could do stunt driving. It was a good enough performance to land him the show.

5. The Dukes of Hazzard co-stars John Schneider and Tom Wopat met while taking a poop.

After Schneider was cast, the show needed to locate an actor who could complement Bo. Stage actor Wopat was flown in for a screen test; Schneider happened to be in the bathroom when Wopat walked in after him. The two began talking about music—Schneider had seen a guitar under the stall door—and found they had an easy camaraderie. After flushing, the two did a scene. Wopat was hired immediately.

6. Daisy's Dukes needed a tweak on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Bach’s omnipresent jean shorts were such a hit that any kind of cutoffs quickly became known as “Daisy Dukes,” after her character. But they were so skimpy that the network was concerned censors wouldn’t allow them. A negotiation began, and it was eventually decided that Bach would wear some extremely sheer pantyhose to make sure there were no clothing malfunctions.

7. Nancy Reagan was fan of The Dukes of Hazzard's Daisy.

Shirley Moore, Bach’s former grade school teacher, went on to work in the White House. After Bach sent her a poster, she was surprised to hear back that then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was enamored with it. “I’m the envy of the White House and I’m having your poster framed,” Moore wrote in a letter. “Mrs. Reagan saw the picture and fell in love with it.” Bach sent more posters, which presumably became part of the decor during the Reagan administration.

8. The Dukes of Hazzard's stars had some very bizarre contract demands.

Wopat and Schneider famously walked off the series in 1982 after demanding a cut of the show’s massive merchandising revenue—which was, by one estimate, more than $190 million in 1981 alone. They were replaced with Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer, “cousins” of the Duke boys, who were reviled by fans for being scabs. The two leads eventually came back, but it wasn’t the only time Warner Bros. had to deal with irate actors. James Best, who portrayed crooked sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, refused to film five episodes because he had no private dressing room in which to change his clothes; the production just hosed him down when he got dirty. Ben Jones, who played “Cooter” the mechanic, briefly left because he wanted his character to sport a beard and producers preferred he be clean-shaven.

9. A miniature car was used for some stunts in The Dukes of Hazzard.

As established, the General Lee was a primary attraction for viewers of the series. For years, the show wrecked dozens of Chargers by jumping, crashing, and otherwise abusing them, which created some terrific footage. For its seventh and final season in 1985, the show turned to a miniature effects team in an effort to save on production costs: it was cheaper to mangle a Hot Wheels-sized model than the real thing. “It was a source of embarrassment to all of us on the show,” Wopat told E!.

10. The Dukes of Hazzard's famous "hood slide" was an accident.

A staple—and, eventually, cliché—of action films everywhere, the slide over the hood was popularized by Tom Wopat. While it may have been tempting to take credit, Wopat said it was unintentional and that the first time he tried clearing the hood, the car’s antenna wound up injuring him.

11. The Dukes of Hazzard cartoon went international.


YouTube

Warner Bros. capitalized on the show’s phenomenal popularity with an animated series, The Dukes, which was produced by Hanna-Barbera and aired in 1983. Taking advantage of the form, the Duke boys traveled internationally, racing Boss Hogg through Greece or Hong Kong. Perhaps owing to the fact that the live-action series was already considered enough of a cartoon, the animated series only lasted 20 episodes.

12. In 2015, Warner Bros. banned the Confederate flag from The Dukes of Hazzard merchandising.

At the time the series originally aired, little was made of the General Lee sporting a Confederate flag on its hood. In 2015, after then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley spoke out against the depiction of the flag in popular culture, Warner Bros. elected to stop licensing products with the original roof. The company announced that all future Dukes merchandise would drop the design element. Schneider disagreed with the decision, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “Is the flag used as such in other applications? Yes, but certainly not on the Dukes ... Labeling anyone who has the flag a ‘racist’ seems unfair to those who are clearly ‘never meanin’ no harm.'”

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