This week marks a momentous anniversary for all fans of nominally ophidian absurdist sketch comedy. On Oct. 5, 1969, the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on BBC One. Over the next four years, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin would conjure up 45 episodes worth of groundbreaking television humor and change the face of comedy forever.
Not bad for five overeducated Brits and an unlucky American cartoonist.
As for overeducated, Jones and Palin have degrees from Oxford (in English and modern history, respectively), while Chapman, Cleese, and Idle graduated from Cambridge (with degrees in medicine, law, and English, respectively). Chapman actually qualified as a medical doctor but never entered practice.
As for unlucky, it’s unclear whether Terry Gilliam was “cursed” before his Pythonite tenure, but since the group disbanded, his career as a film director has been positively snakebitten with projects often collapsing before production ever begins, or failing at the box office once completed. Gilliam’s attempts to film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ended when the film set was destroyed by flood and the lead actor suffered a major spine injury, a failure so spectacular that it became the basis of a successful documentary, Lost in La Mancha.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, however, was a rousing success for almost everyone involved. Yet, despite the fact that Flying Circus appears on nearly every list of all-time great comedy shows you’re likely to encounter, the Pythonites themselves consider the show a failure. They have repeatedly stated that their goal was to create comedy that defied classification, but instead their work defined the “Pythonesque” style. Instead of fighting the establishment, they became the standard by which many sketch comedies are measured.
So who is “Monty Python?” Nobody. The name was conjured from thin air, ostensibly to describe a smarmy and incompetent theatrical agent — the sort of person who would have assembled this unlikely group of comics. The “real” Monty Python was comedy writer and television host Barry Took, who actually brought the Pythonites together and suggested the BBC give them a show. As such, the BBC originally considered as a title for their sketch show Baron Von Took’s Flying Circus in homage to Took, but the group decided to attach their reputation (and the blame for their efforts) to a fictional entity instead.
What is truly amazing is that the Pythonites themselves wrote almost all the credited material that appeared on Flying Circus. In fact, in the entire run of the show, only two other people were ever credited as Monty Python writers.
WHO ARE THE ONLY TWO NON-PYTHONITES TO EVER WRITE FOR MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS?
Besides the six actual members of Monty Python — Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin — who are the only two people ever credited as writers during the entire run of Monty Python’s Flying Circus?
The only non-Pythonites ever to get credited writing work on Flying Circus were songwriter Neil Innes and a certain comedic talent named Douglas Adams.
Innes is undoubtedly the less well known of the two, though Python fans know him as the unofficial “seventh Python.” For Flying Circus, he co-wrote the “Most Awful Family in Britain” sketch, as well as the songs “George III” and “Where Does the Dream Begin?” Innes also played various roles in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and he appeared in several of the group’s famous stage appearances, including the legendary Hollywood Bowl show and Monty Python Live at City Center. Before joining forces with Monty Python, Innes wrote songs for the musical group The Bonzo Dog Band, which recorded the Innes-written hits “I Am the Urban Spaceman” and “Death Cab for Cutie,” the latter of which appeared in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.
Douglas Adams, meanwhile, began his association with Monty Python when he was effectively discovered by Graham Chapman while performing in a Cambridge comedy troupe. It was Chapman who got Adams the gig writing the “Patient Abuse” sketch for the Flying Circus episode 45, “Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Liberal Party.” Adams also appeared in bit parts in two separate episodes of Flying Circus during its fourth and final season in 1974. Four years later, BBC radio broadcast an absurd science-fiction comedy series called The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, written by one Douglas Adams. The radio series became a book series (which continues even after Adams’s death), the books became a BBC television miniseries, and the miniseries became a major motion picture. Along the way, Adams became perhaps the most famous and beloved science fiction comic in the world.
Adams and Innes got their Python writing spots largely because John Cleese left Flying Circus after its third season. Even though much of the material that appeared in the final season of Flying Circus was derived from the Pythonites’ previous group writing sessions — which is why Cleese gets writing credits for the fourth season despite not actually being part of the show — there was enough room left over in Cleese’s absence for two other names to sneak in. The names made a name for themselves, and earned a spot not only in comedic history, but in the time-honored annals of Geek Trivia.
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