Yes, Monty Python did something quite revolutionary, but it’s probably not the thing that you are thinking of.
As Terry Gilliam quotes Beatle George in the 1989 Life of Python documentary, The Monty Pythons pretty much took over culturally from where The Beatles left off by transferring a sense of artistic anarchy and experimentation from pop music to television.
As The Beatles progressed from rockin’ teen combo to zeitgeist avatars, they proudly incorporated whatever cultural influences they fell sway to at the time; whether they were the Eastern music of Ravi Shankar, Bernard Herrman’s staccato strings for Psycho, or the Rene Magritte Apple for their Apple Records label. With The Beatles, one never knew who was going to show up at the party; Timothy Leary,Fats Domino, Chairman Mao, Edgar Allan Poe.
Likewise, Python. One can look back on the legacy of Monty Python and see that they weren’t afraid to wear their Oxford and Cambridge educations on their sleeves because, at some point, you knew they would eventually drop a cow into the scene, or nail someone’s head to a table.
Python even invited Chairman Mao to participate in a quiz show with Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, and Ché Guevara. The subjects were English football, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the proletariat, but you already knew that.
Even now at this great remove, almost 45 years since it debuted on the BBC, and 40 years since the television show retired, one can watch the original Monty Python’s Flying Circus episodes and realize; something is not quite right with these lads.
In a sense, The Pythons took the inspired lunacy of Beatles films like Help! or A Hard Day’ Night, and infused them with a surrealism and intellect that the moptops could never have gotten away with in 1964 and ’65. In their first few years, Python was almost exclusively a British product, slowly making its way to the States with varying success throughout the 1970’s, a fact that seems almost forgotten, considering how ubiquitous the Python brand currently is in popular culture.
And, like The Beatles, Monty Python unofficially broke up when John (Cleese or Lennon) decided he’d done all that he could do, and that there weren’t any new ideas to mine. Nobody in the troupe knew that the next chapter in the Monty Python saga would break them to the American public in ways their television show never would.
Many American viewers were picking up on Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the 1970’s, thanks to its broadcasting on PBS affiliates across the States, God bless ‘em. Despite the fact that Monty Python had called an end to their television show in 1974, they had actually been scripting and planning their first official film, the glorious Monty Python and the Holy Grail, at the time. Produced on a shoestring budget, and partially financed by rock aristocracy like Pink Floyd, Elton John, and Led Zeppelin, who may have been looking for a tax loss somewhere in their finances, the film premiered to very little enthusiasm from its investors and other invited showbiz types. Co-directorTerry Jones remembers that “There wasn’t one laughing audience until the premiere in LA.”
After a year or so of editing, Monty Python and the Holy Grail premiered to lines around the block in New York and Los Angeles, and went on to become the world’s most quoted cinematic artifact.
Having successfully broken into the American market, The Pythons were asked what their next commercial venture would be. Eric Idle famously quipped, “Jesus Christ-Lust for Glory.” He wasn’t far off, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the story of the man born next door to Jesus, (and certainly not the messiah, but a very naughty boy), began taking shape under the patronage of George Harrison. The ex-Beatle formed HandMade Films solely for the purpose of financing Life of Brian. HandMade Films then went on to produce a number of remarkable British films in the 1980’s, including Time Bandits, The Long Good Friday, and Withnail and I.
So…George Harrison, Monty Python, the guy born next door to Jesus…what could possibly go wrong?
Well, practically everything. Before Harrison got involved, financing from the original producers, EMI Films, was withdrawn, mostly over the controversial subject matter, and despite the enormous fortune that Holy Grail made from its $364,000 budget (it has gone on to gross over $124 million). Terry Jones referred to Harrison’s contribution as “the most expensive movie ticket of all time.”
Then, before Life of Brian had even been released, various religious groups, including Jewish, Muslim, and Christian collectives, rose up against the film, picketing, protesting, and calling for boycotts. It was reminiscent of the good, old days when the American South burned Beatles records and sent the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize them after John Lennon remarked that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”
Nevertheless, Harrison’s $4 million investment yielded $20 million at the box office when Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released in 1979.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, their final film, was released in 1983, and Python member Graham Chapman, the man who would be Brian, died of cancer in 1989 at the age of 48. Despite Chapman’s obvious disadvantage, he continued to perform with The Pythons long after his death, appearing at tributes and reunions with throughout the years. Chapman was mostly confined to urns and whatnot, but the fresh air seemed to suit him.
There were numerous individual triumphs for the now defunct Pythons, which often rivaled the creativity of their group achievements. For example, Spamalot, Eric Idle’s 2005 Broadway adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, has won three Tony Awards, and grossed over $175 million in its first run.
With Python musical partner Neil Innes, Idle also created the most accurate tribute to The Beatles yet, in 1977, as The Rutles in All You Need Is Cash. The story of The Pre-fab Four cameo appearances from George Harrison, Mick and Bianca Jagger, show producer Lorne Michaels and the original cast of SNL, Paul Simon, Ronnie Wood, and Michael Palin.
John Cleese created the hilarious television comedy Fawlty Towers, and the Academy Award winning 1988 Jamie Lee Curtis/Kevin Kline/Michael Palin film A Fish Called Wanda. Terry Gilliam has become a prolific director, producing such distinctive movies as 1991’s Academy Award winning The Fisher King, as well as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Time Bandits, and the Orwellian nightmare of Brazilwith Michael Palin.
Terry Jones has mostly concentrated writing, authoring numerous books on ancient British history, but also several works of fiction. Jones has also received Emmy nominations for his television documentaries, such as Terry Jones' Medieval Lives, and has won a BAFTA award for his television comedy Ripping Yarns, which he co-created and co-wrote with Michael Palin.
And finally, after producing some of the most compelling travel documentaries ever to appear on television, such 1989’s Around the World in 80 Days, and 1997’s Full Circle, Michael Palin quietly retired to a llama farm just outside his ancestral homeland of Uruguay.
But then, as if that weren’t enough, in 2008 the members of Monty Python did something revolutionary.
While major media outlets like Viacom were suing YouTube to remove their copyrighted content from the internet, Monty Python saw the folly in punishing their fans, Metallica-style, such as by taking them to court over copyright infringement, or intimidating them in the press. Instead, Monty Python partnered with YouTube and built their own YouTube channel. Python fans can now view officially sanctioned clips of their favorite Monty Python sketches for free, as well as specially uploaded content produced especially for the channel.
The only thing that they ask in return is that you buy their DVD’s at some point. They even provide handy Amazon and iTune links conveniently placed next to their videos for easy shopping. Sources report that soon after they launched their YouTube channel, sales of officially sanctioned Monty Python merchandise was estimated by Amazon.com to have risen 23,000%.
That’s a lot.
And when one considers that “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” has garnered over 10 million views since being uploaded in 2008, it proves that there is an audience out there who needs its daily dose of Python pleasure.
Monty Python has always had a reciprocal relationship with burgeoning technology, which is probably why they were always in the vanguard of certain trends, and always a little ahead of the curve. For example, their 1973 vinyl album Matching Tie and Handkerchieffeatured a double groove on one of its sides. This was completely unheard of and totally out of control. Since there were no track listings on either side of the album, when you put it on, you never knew which side you were going to get. And, depending on which groove you put the needle into at the beginning of the side, you wouldn’t know which sequence you were going to get.
Throughout their career, Monty Python exploited technology for all it was worth, but as performers, they did the exact same thing by pushing themselves to the limit and seeing how far they could go.
Python has recently launched an iPad app called The Holy Book of Days, which allows one to navigate through the 28 days they spent shooting Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A trawl through the Python vaults has unearthed storyboards, extra filmed footage, commentary, and other material that wasn’t available to the general public when the film was released in 1975.
Which begs the question: Could Monty Python and the Holy Grail be the funniest film ever made?
*Graham Chapman’s final words.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.