British television comedy took a giant step along the path to the bizarre with the debut of a new sketch show called Monty Python’s Flying Circus on this day in 1969.
The six writer-performers – John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and American cartoonist Terry Gilliam – had all previously appeared on British television, but working collectively for the first time the group would go on to create comedy history.
Cleese and Chapman, already a prolific writing partnership, admired Jones, Palin and Idle’s work in the series Do Not Adjust Your Set, and suggested joining forces after their follow-up venture, The Complete and Utter History of Britain, failed to become a hit.
Each of the team had the same goal – to look beyond the conventional sketch and the importance of a punchline, which they found limiting – and they were encouraged by the screening of Spike Milligan’s March 1969 series Q5, which showed that anarchic, boundary-free humour could work.
With Gilliam providing animations that would link otherwise unrelated sketches in a stream-of-consciousness style, the group persuaded the BBC to give them a series of 13 programmes – the Corporation not even demanding a pilot. External filming began on 8 July.
The first show established some Python oddities, such as Palin’s hermit-like character who crawls to the camera at the start of each episode and utters “It’s….” before the credits roll and Gilliam’s often comically gruesome links, as well as a bona fide classic sketch, ‘The Funniest Joke in the World’.
The studio audience was not hand-picked for the recording of the show, and an air of bafflement occasionally emanates from them in the finished product. Fortunately, the reaction of critics and the viewing audience was stronger, and built steadily over the 13-week series.
The Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series would run until 1974 in the UK and remain popular, but it was its gradual introduction into US TV programming, together with the huge success of the group’s films Holy Grail and Life of Brian, that would secure them their legendary status in screen comedy.