Monty Python (also collectively known as the Pythons) were a British surreal comedy group who created their sketch comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus, which first aired on the BBC in 1969. Forty-five episodes were made over four series. The Python phenomenon developed from the television series into something larger in scope and impact, including touring stage shows, films, numerous albums, several books, and musicals. The Pythons' influence on comedy has been compared to the Beatles' influence on music. Their sketch show has been referred to as "not only one of the more enduring icons of 1970s British popular culture, but also an important moment in the evolution of television comedy."
Broadcast by the BBC between 1969 and 1974, Monty Python's Flying Circus was conceived, written, and performed by its members Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Loosely structured as a sketch show, but with an innovative stream-of-consciousness approach, aided by Gilliam's animation, it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in style and content. A self-contained comedy team responsible for both writing and performing their work, the Pythons had creative control which allowed them to experiment with form and content, discarding rules of television comedy. Following their television work, they began making films, which include Holy Grail (1975), Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983). Their influence on British comedy has been apparent for years, while in North America, it has coloured the work of cult performers from the early editions of Saturday Night Live through to more recent absurdist trends in television comedy. "Pythonesque" has entered the English lexicon as a result.
Selected cast member
Graham Chapman was one of the six members of the Monty Python comedy troupe. He was also the lead actor in their two narrative films, playing King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the title character in Monty Python's Life of Brian.
Chapman was educated at Melton Mowbray Grammar School and studied medicine at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he began writing comedy sketches with John Cleese, who was also a Cambridge student. Chapman and Cleese wrote professionally for the BBC during the 1960s, primarily for David Frost, but also for Marty Feldman.
In 1969 Chapman and Cleese joined Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and American artist Terry Gilliam for Monty Python's Flying Circus. Cleese and Chapman's classic Python sketches include “The Ministry of Silly Walks”, "Raymond Luxury Yacht", and “Dead Parrot”. These were largely straight roles, but in the Flying Circus, he had tended to specialise in characters closer to his own personality: outwardly calm, authoritative figures barely concealing a manic unpredictability.
Chapman died of a rare spine cancer. It was diagnosed in November 1988. By September 1989 the cancer was declared incurable. He filmed scenes for the 20th anniversary of Monty Python that month, but was taken ill again on 1 October 1989. He died in a Maidstone Hospice on the evening of 4 October 1989. Chapman's death occurred one day before the 20th anniversary of the first broadcast of Flying Circus; Terry Jones called it “the worst case of party-pooping in all history."
A memorial service was held for Graham Chapman on the evening of 6 December 1989. Cleese delivered the eulogy; after his initial remarks, which parodied the "Dead Parrot" sketch, he said of his former colleague: “…good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries!”, and then pointed out that Chapman would have been disappointed if Cleese passed on the opportunity to scandalise the audience.
After his death, speculation of a Python revival inevitably faded, with Idle saying, “we would only do a reunion if Chapman came back from the dead. So we're negotiating with his agent.”
Did you know...
The Dead Parrot sketch, alternatively and originally known as Pet Shop sketch or Parrot Sketch, is one of the most famous in the history of British television comedy.
It portrays a conflict between disgruntled customer Mr. Eric Praline (played by John Cleese), and a shopkeeper (Michael Palin), who hold contradictory positions on the vital state of a "Norwegian Blue" parrot.
The sketch pokes fun at the many euphemisms for death used in English culture. In this it bears some resemblance to Mark Twain's earlier short story Nevada Funeral. The sketch aired in the eighth episode of the television series.
The "Dead Parrot" sketch was inspired by a "Car Salesman" sketch that Palin and Graham Chapman had done in How to Irritate People. In it, Palin played a car salesman who refused to admit that there was anything wrong with his customer's (Chapman) car, even as it fell apart in front of him.
Over the years, Cleese and Palin have done many versions of the "Dead Parrot" sketch for various television shows, record albums, and live performances.
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