Monty Python Essay - Critical Essays

Python, Monty


Monty Python

Graham Chapman (1941?–)—British comedian, scriptwriter, author, songwriter, and actor.

John Cleese (1939–)—British comedian, scriptwriter, and actor.

Terry Gilliam (1941?–)—American animator, comedian, actor, and director.

Eric Idle—British comedian, scriptwriter, songwriter, and actor.

Terry Jones (1942?–)—Welsh comedian, scriptwriter, song-writer, author, actor, and director.

Michael Palin (1943–)—British comedian, scriptwriter, songwriter, and director.

Collectively known as Monty Python and Monty Python's Flying Circus, the group attacks foolishness in contemporary behavior with the combination of literate, sophisticated satire and crude burlesques, gags, and slapstick that forms its popular brand of surrealism. Monty Python is unique among comedy groups, as they have gained a large, appreciative audience outside the United Kingdom for their very British brand of political and social satire. The group was influenced by the British comedy classic The Goon Show, a madcap postwar radio broadcast, and the satirical undergraduate revue Beyond the Fringe. Using such sketches and bits as "Hell's Grannies," "The Lumberjack Song," "The Ministry of Silly Walks," "The Dead Parrot," and "Upper Class Twit of the Year," the Pythons satirize the ridiculous postures of which we are all capable. Most critics feel that the combined sensibilities of the six men have produced a body of work that is admirable for its innovation, insight, and comic effectiveness.

A British comedy consultant formed the group in 1969 to fill a late night opening on BBC television. Cleese, Idle, and Chapman, all Cambridge University graduates, had been writing for David Frost's comedy show The Frost Report. Palin and Jones, both graduates of Oxford University, had worked with Idle on the British humor series Do Not Adjust Your Set. Terry Gilliam was enlisted to do the group's visuals and animation. The resultant series, Monty Python's Flying Circus, ran for four seasons on the Public Broadcasting System and developed a cult following both in Britain and the United States. Comprised of fast-moving, seemingly unconnected sketches with subjects ranging from pointed parodies of British culture and burlesques of everyday living to satires on some of the strong-holds of Western civilization, the show was hailed by most critics as hilarious and inventive.

The group's first feature film, And Now for Something Completely Different, consists mostly of sketches from their albums and television shows; critics unfamiliar with the group's material reacted to it with disdain. Their next film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, was successful both critically and commercially. A satirical attack on the Arthurian legend, the movie employs many of the comic devices that had been perfected on the television series. Although some critics find the humor sophomoric and distasteful, others believe the film witty and imaginative. The group's albums, which had initially been ignored, also began to achieve success. In 1979 the group released its controversial film Life of Brian, about a man who was continually mistaken for the Messiah because he was born in the manger next to Christ's. Many religious leaders were offended by the film; Idle explained, "We're laughing at man, not God." Most criticism has praised the film as being perhaps the best work the group has done.

Since Life of Brian, Python members have continued to come together for occasional live performances and for The Contractual Obligation Album, but have worked mainly on individual projects. In spite of the favorable critical response many of these projects received, most critics feel that the Python members are most successful as a team.

Blaine Allen

It is difficult, one must admit, to write anything clever after viewing a film which includes such episodes as "Hell's Grannies," "Joke Warfare," the brand-new television game show, "Herbert Anchovy Presents BLACKMAIL," and, inevitably, "The Upper Class Twit of the Year Race." These and other sketches are the substance of [And Now For Something Completely Different,] one of the most hilarious and original movies to come along in a while. (p. 22)

As far as the cinema world is concerned, And Now For Something Completely Different is. One cannot enter the theatre expecting any kind of narrative. In fact, one cannot expect any kind of sanity or human reason at all….

[Even] for those who have seen the sketches before, the material is still fresh and as funny as ever. (p. 23)

Blaine Allen, "'And Now for Something Completely Different'," in Take One (copyright © 1972 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 3, No. 5, May-June, 1971, pp. 22-3.

Joe Medjuck

If you liked Auschwitz you'll love And Now For Something Completely Different. Virtually every joke is based on killing, maiming, destruction or sexism. This film exploits women, homosexuals and anyone who pays to see it. It ends with a skit about the "upper class twit of the year." My nomination goes to Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Joe Medjuck, "'And Now for Something Completely Different': Associate Editor Joe Medjuck Gets in His Two Cents," in Take One (copyright © 1972 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 3, No. 5, May-June, 1971, p. 23.

E. S. Turner

Nobody likes to intrude into a private joke. Seven pages of [Monty Python's Big Red Book] (there are only 64) are taken up with letters and telegrams expressing the supposed reactions of BBC and ITV notables to a supposed foreword by Reginald Bosanquet, the ITV newscaster. It's a fair enough jest, and should convulse all whose names are mentioned, but is it worth so much of the admission money? There are further references to Bosanquet sprinkled about the book.

'What's behind it all?' the suspicious reader may wonder. 'Am I missing out somewhere? Is there something terribly funny about Bosanquet I never noticed—something that everyone else knows about?' Moodily, this wary reader begins to study some of the other jokes, which include a mock advertisement, asking: 'Why not be different this Christmas? Why not send your friends a lump of cold sick?'; a full-page study of a hand about to descend on what looks like the embryo of a two-legged elephant with a human thumb thrusting out above the tusks; a Silly Party candidate called Tarquin Fintimlinbinwhimbinlin Bus Stop F'Tang F'Tang Olé Biscuit-Barrel; and a poem printed upside down because it is about Australia.

Ho, ho, says the now resentful reader, so this is what Monty Python consists of, when you snatch it from the screen and transfix it on the page. He may even begin to wonder why there is such an apparent obsession with swollen pink flesh, not to mention vomit and excrement. And why are these trendy mirthmen falling back on such traditional devices as cod advertisements and cod answers-to-correspondents, the staple of joke factories elsewhere?

Of course, the reader is now becoming far too captious. It is time he allowed that there is freshness as well as frenzy in these pages, ingenious nonsense as well as silliness, and a reasonable measure of that scatty insouciance which the entertainment had on the screen (where brisk animation, legerdemain and rapid turnover prevented us dwelling on failed jokes)…. Easily the best item [in the book] is 'The Piranha Brothers', a skit on one of those now-it-can-be-told programmes about a criminal gang….

E. S. Turner, "Busty Substances" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1971; reprinted by permission of E. S. Turner), in The Listener, Vol. 86, No. 2226, November 25, 1971, p. 730.∗

Matthew Coady

Not all the Python funnies work [in Monty Python's Big Red Book]. In print one is more aware of a sagging jest than on a screen which, in the next instant, is manically alive with Terry Gilliam's animations…. [A] deal of the material is no more than a reworking of gags which the addicted viewer has already tasted. Even so, the Big Red Book embodies that consistently savage view of the universe which characterises the programme at its devastating best. It depicts a world in which the Haves are for ever on the make, the Have-nots are ceaselessly gulled and a comic randiness informs almost every action. The ageing are left with a suspicion that many of their cherished values are being mocked, while the young are reminded that by joining the Army they can not only climb mountains in Cyprus and play football in Germany, but can have a decent military burial as well. (pp. 794-95)

Matthew Coady, "Pro Bono Pubico," in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 82, No. 2124, December 3, 1971, pp. 794-95.∗

Henry Edwards

[The members of Monty Python's Flying Circus are] precocious adolescents. "Another Monty Python Record" offers up a dash of cannibalism and a moment in which Pablo Casals plays Bach while plunging hundreds of feet into a bucket of hot fat. It is all very civilized lunacy, however. For example, on World Forum, none other than Lenin, Marx, Ché Guevara, and Mao Tse-tung engage in the typical inane games-show competition. During this disc the listener is constantly being reminded that he is listening to a phonograph record, an unusual use of a typical Brechtian device…. For all their seeming cleverness though, Monty Python's Flying Circus members are just another bunch of aging college cut-ups, creating the kind...

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Greg Shaw

Monty Python are hugely funny [on Monty Python's Previous Album] if you can get past their strange accents, and concerns, which are mostly veddy British, which is unfortunate. Safe to say that they are better than just about all the current satirists, but whether that has anything to do with wanting to listen to them is an interesting, unending question.

Greg Shaw, "Rock-a-Rama: 'Monty Python's Previous Album'," in Creem (© copyright 1973 by Creem Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 5, No. 1, June, 1973, p. 70.

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Sherwood L. Weingarten

[Monty Python's Previous Record] points up the difference in senses of humor between those on this side of the pond and those in Britain. It just isn't funny, by American standards, despite moments of high hilarity. The "comedy" disc … is of interest more to scholars of the genre than to listeners.

Sherwood L. Weingarten, "Weingarten of the Record: 'Monty Python's Previous Record'," in Audio (© 1973, CBS Publications, The Consumer Publishing Division of CBS Inc.), Vol. 57, No. 8, August, 1973, p. 52.

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Richard A. Blake

Monty Python's Flying Circus is a disease, one of those mad maladies propagated by public television, the same people who hooked audiences on Julia Child's personality by promising them an educational cooking show, The French Chef. In fact, the Flying Circus has less to do with the three rings of Barnum and Bailey fame than does a boarding-house bathtub.

The success of the Flying Circus is an anomaly. It is so terribly, terribly British that the political and social satire soars archly over the heads of an American audience….

Yet, despite its incorrigible and mysterious Britishness, Monty Python's Flying Circus threatens to become an authentic...

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Penelope Gilliatt

["Monty Python and the Holy Grail"] is a cheerfully loused-up reworking of the legend of King Arthur's Grail hunt. This is the legend that has been such a nuisance to children and others…. [Almost everything] that has ever worried you about the Holy Grail, wimples, King Arthur, Malory, and the general mucking about of poets with the same old story is tackled head on. (p. 115)

In this version of the Grail-tale, King Arthur's knights are extremely cowardly, dirty, testy, and ill-starred…. The King himself, who hesitantly presents himself as Arthur, King of the Britons, to everyone he meets, has remarkably little effect on the lowly for a man of such high estate…. He seems exceptionally...

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Stanley Kauffmann

Monty Python and the Holy Grail … is neither as sparkling as it is said to be nor as bad as it seems to be at the start. But it's pretty good—thus, as British phenomena go these days, exceptional….

The previous Python film, And Now for Something Completely Different … had the hijinks ebullience of university humor, than which jinks there is none higher, and was a series of skits that hit or missed. Holy Grail is a series of skits on one general theme, so is disguised as an organic story. It too has hits and misses. When it hits, it makes some clear statements of national humor….

Leg-pull is the British term, and the pleasant glow of the leg-pull,...

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At least 2 million Americans are now aware of the Ministry of Silly Walks. College students are finding new meanings for the world stupid, and old ladies may even be getting ideas about beating up kids. What is this pernicious influence, bordering on a cult, that is now sweeping the U.S.? The word is Monty Python. Five roopy young Englishmen, who methodically take the world apart each week in a series of sketches mysteriously called Monty Python's Flying Circus….

Whether or not Americans actually do understand the Pythons' uniquely English nonsense is moot. Their comedy is crowded with jokes about British TV announcers and politicians; their best sketches are intimate parodies of the...

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Ed Naha

The legend of King Arthur gets a well deserved swipe in what may be the comedy film of the decade or at least the week…. [Monty Python and the Holy Grail is] a smorgasboard of sight gags, puns, black humor and satire that reduces Camelot to a madhouse…. The comedy pace is faster than the Marx Brothers ever dreamed of and the humor is cerebral enough to make Woody Allen wince. If you enjoy laughing, drooling or sticking your thumb up your nose and making strange noises, you owe it to yourself to see this film as opposed to listening to it which would be a fairly silly move on your part.

Ed Naha, "Short Takes: 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'," in Creem (©...

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Joel Vance

The humor [on "Monty Python's Matching Tie and Handkerchief"] is quick-fire, literate, demonic, and cheerfully laced with English sadism…. It's not possible to describe their routines in detail without spoiling them, but there are several choice ones here: the Church police investigating the death of a halibut; a discussion of medieval open-field farming supposedly sung by reggae star Jimmy Cliff and rocker Gary Glitter; an interview with a surgeon who's aroused controversy by "grafting a pederast onto an Anglican bishop"; and a particularly treasurable and lunatic sketch about a man in a record shop listening to something called "World War One Noises." There are some weak moments in the album, as there are in all...

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Roger Hughes

"You have just wasted over £2" proclaims the inner sleeve [of The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"] as it emerges from the tatty, sticky-taped outer cover, and there may be more than a hint of truth in that. First of all, let no-one be misled into believing that this is the soundtrack from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Of course it's not. Did we really expect it to be? For the Python team it is the concept behind the medium in which they are working that becomes the challenge. As with television, so with records. It is the concept of soundtrack albums that is being sent up in this record. After all, we are regularly reminded, the film is mainly...

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Jon Tiven

There's no doubt in my mind that the Monty Python group is not only very funny, but that they're very accessible to U.S. audiences, despite many rumours to the contrary….

The question is, can Python's attack, which is highly visual, be translated well enough onto the disc and back up into our mind's eye? Fortunately the answer is yes. [On The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" they've] taken the most rib-tickling bits of their movies, thrown in some conceptual jokes, running commentary, and assorted oddities … and packaged them all very cleverly. Python devotees will not be disappointed with this record. Be, however, forewarned that this...

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George Arthur

Unlike the media recreations of [Lenny] Bruce, Monty Python doesn't care about being loveable. If Monty was, say, a traveler on a train, he would be someone to avoid. Python is as cheerfully mindless, cruel, vulgar and gross as any cross-sampling of midwest auto dealers. They create grotesqueries of monumental distastefulness (on [Monty Python Matching Tie & Handkerchief], an unlikely British mum skinning and deep-frying a dog while a media-modulated doctor's voice compares the human brain to a fish), but they make you laugh. They turn the most threadbare—and for Americans, obscure—of comic conventions (Australians as hard-drinking blockheads, actors as idiots) into some of their best routines.


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Clive Barnes

Pure, unadulterated madness has invaded the City Center 55th Street Theater. A bunch of lunatics calling themselves Monty Python have taken over the theater and are forcing unsuspecting people to laugh. Almost at gunpoint. They are vulgar, sophomoric, self-satisfied, literate, illiterate, charmless, crass, subtle, and absolutely terrific. They are the funniest thing ever to come out of a television box….

How is one to describe Monty Python? A candid consensus of critics who might be called Charlie Cobra, could easily have written in the East Ham Gazette, describing them: "As coming from the streets of Bergamo—like the commedia dell'arte and pizza. Raw and earthy, they combine the wry savagery of...

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Thomas Meehan

[The Pythons] have a singular genius for making nonsensical fun of all who are pompous, pretentious, humorless, or boring, or who take themselves too seriously. In short, people like me…. Since having watched Monty Python's TV election returns, I haven't been able to watch American TV election returns … without having to suppress a slight case of the giggles. They do that to you, the Pythons—so hilariously lampoon something like TV election returns that the real thing forever after seems strangely ludicrous.

Unlike almost all other comedians these days, on TV or elsewhere, the Pythons are shamelessly willing to go in for absolute nonsense—to dress up in women's clothes, to talk in non...

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Peter Reilly

That motley crew, Monty Python's Flying Circus, is up to their squalid, sordid little tricks in another hilariously funny album [Monty Python: Live! At City Center]…. While some of the best lines are overlapped by audience laughter, there is enough classic Pythonomania intact to make it required listening. My all-time favorite is included: The Death of Mary Queen of Scots, a pseudo-BBC radio drama introduced by one of those appallingly jaunty, Britannic airs…. It opens with an inquiry as to whether the lady is indeed Mary, Queen of Scots, and, when the reply is in a heavily burred affirmative, the next minute or so is spent on the noisiest sound effects heard since World War II to indicate Mary's...

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Arthur Asa Berger

The Flying Circus's "thing" obviously is absurdity and whackyness: famous people are caricatured, clichés are ridiculed, and the madness of English society is mirrored in a mad show. But the problem with Monty Python's Flying Circus is that it is too studied and, at the same time, poorly done….

What The Flying Circus fails to realize is that the humor must do more than reflect the madness of a given society. That is the fallacy of imitative form. The function of the artist—and comic artists are included here—is to point out the madness and absurdity in a society by assuming some kind of a stance. The Circus is full of crazies whose pose makes them forfeit all...

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James Stourton

Few books of films are as complete as that of Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the entire dialogue including corrections and crossings out and a bit of related material such as accountant's statements which show an almost antiquarian interest. Apart from a few moments of marvellous bathos I didn't think the film was successful, as the essence of Monty Python is the very imaginative editing of skits and cartoons which really are "completely different". I doubt if many, except the most avid Monty Python fans, will want to plod through this very thick, type-written book. (pp. 674-75)

James Stourton, "The Good Loo Books," in Punch (© 1977 by Punch Publications...

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Barry Took

As you would expect from the Python team [Monty Python's Life Of Brian is] as dangerous as a sweating stick of nitroglycerine in the hands of a man suffering from palsy….

You'll have to take my word that nowhere does the film denigrate Jesus nor, if my memory serves me, is He depicted or even mentioned….

True religion, being un-mockable, is not mocked, but bogus, catchpenny and lunatic fringe religion is, and who would have it otherwise? That said, I will be very surprised if every religious bigot in the world doesn't use Monty Python's Life Of Brian as an excuse for airing their neuroses. Not that the film is all that concerned with religion. Like the sets...

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Richard Schickel

[Monty Python's Life of Brian] is a send-up biblical epic recounting the biography of a chap born in the manger down the alley from the one people sing about each Christmas. Brian … is just a regular guy…. He does his best to mind his business peaceably (his only message to would-be followers is a perfectly sensible "You'll have to work things out for yourselves"), but ends up being crucified anyway. To make matters worse, one of his fellow sufferers on Golgotha is one of those awful people who grow only more cheerful as the situation becomes grimmer. He insists on leading the condemned in choruses of a Broadway-style tune, The Bright Side of Life, as they hang from their crosses.


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The New York Times Book Review

Most books published as tie-ins to newly-released movies are unnecessary things, worth only a quick flip through after an evening at the cinema. A notable exception is a two-sided, double-named large format paperback [the latest from the Monty Python group]. Open it from one side and it's "Monty Python's The Life of Brian," the profusely illustrated shooting script of [the] film…. Turn the book upside down and around and it becomes "Montypythonscrapbook," a hodgepodge of photographs, diary entries, letters, cartoon strips, half-developed ideas and trash accumulated by the six men who call themselves "Monty Python" during the years the film was being created. Study it, if you like, as an execrable example of what...

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William F. Buckley, Jr.

[Monty Python's TV episodes are] most easily described as a National Lampoon romp through history. The rule, in this sort of thing, is that nothing, nobody, should be taken seriously. Much humor is based on simple iconoclasm…. Which crawls over at the morbid end of the spectrum to gallows humor….

It is inevitable that performers will cross the line. It is inevitable that people will tell jokes about the suffering of others, or jokes that make fun of whole races or religions. It is not inevitable that mature critics will encourage that sort of thing.

The Monty Python people now come out with a movie [Life of Brian] in which the life of Christ is burlesqued. When Christ...

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Lawrence Christon

The Monty Python octet, rooted in British university and music hall humor, likes to go after some of the fundamental ideas and institutions of Western civilization, beginning with Christianity and taking circuitous Lewis Carroll routes through politics and schizoid social behavior in which taut propriety masks an underlying lunacy.

The Python group is welcome here because it has a perspective that is generally denied American comedians, who tend to operate out of a sense of individual helplessness. With Monty Python we see the healthy comic alternative that has offshoots in Edward Lear and Gilbert and Sullivan and is part of a tradition of wit and literacy that prizes its critical remove while seeing...

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Steve Simels

The Pythons … have come up with a new album, ["Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album", which is] every bit as tasteless and funny as its predecessors. The emphasis this time is on songs, and a couple here are absolute classics, especially a 19-second John Denver parody and a rousing, Nelson Eddy-ish Mountie number that expresses the sublime sentiment Sit on My Face. But a couple of the nonmusical skits are pretty snappy too. Rock Notes does to the gossip column of Rolling Stone what should have been done years ago, and Book Shop rivals the Pythons' famous dead-parrot routine for sustained lunacy. By way of a finale, there's a children's choir singing the inspirational hymn All...

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