Six men walk into a TV network. Sounds like the beginning of a silly joke. In fact, on that day in 1969, it was the beginning of a career, or at least a new phase of one. The network was the BBC. The men were five Brits (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones) and one American (Terry Gilliam). The Brits had been writing and performing in comedy revues since their college days at Cambridge and Oxford. The American was doing illustrations for the short-lived Help! magazine, an offshoot of Mad.
Fate, via working relationships and chance meetings, brought them together, turned them into the sketch group Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and silly jokes ensued, on four seasons of TV shows and in four feature films.
Those films, accompanied by the local premiere of the animated feature “A Liar’s Autobiography — The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman,” and the Chapman-starring “Yellowbeard,” will screen at the Brattle Theatre during Monty Python Week, which starts Friday.
“It’s really a Graham Chapman week,” said Brattle creative director Ned Hinkle, who has programmed a number of daylong Python-a-Thons over the years. “‘Yellowbeard’ was supposed to be Chapman’s big hit as a solo performer. That’s why we’re showing it. It’s one of those ridiculous, makes-no-sense kind of slapstick movies. Unfortunately, people didn’t respond to it, but I loved it.”
Hinkle believes that “A Liar’s Autobiography,” which was created by 14 different animation studios, is perfect for fans of Chapman, who died of tonsil cancer in 1989, and anyone interested in some of the Python back story.
“I like the approach of the movie,” said Hinkle, “that nothing is true, and everything is true. Hence, the use of animation, which sort of highlights the fact that it’s unreal. Yet at the same time, they’re using the real voices of most of the Pythons [Eric Idle did not take part in the project]. Much of it, although taken from a questionable source, Chapman’s autobiography, is still relatively close to the truth. I think you can tell, while watching the movie, which parts are exaggerated and which parts are outright lies. Like maybe the alien-abduction scene.”
Yes, we’re back to silly. But Monty Python was so much more than just that simple adjective. Right from the start, their TV shows, consisting of absurd sketches that skewered government, literature, love, death, sports, the BBC . . . you name it, proved to be a mix of silliness and highbrow intellectualism.
The program’s now-iconic opening music — a snatch from John Philip Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March” — could lead anywhere: to a slapstick sendup of the Olympics or a one-upmanship meeting of the minds among Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and James A.M. Whistler. We might get men dressed as middle-aged women (referred to by troupe members as “pepperpots”) jabbering about a penguin on top of a TV set, or an outrageously blood-spattered film of a day in the country as it might have been directed by Sam Peckinpah.
The Pythons’ TV segments rarely had anything to do with each other and were often loosely tied together by Gilliam’s outlandish, often-racy animations. If a sketch went too far into the realms of lunacy, or if the Pythons couldn’t come up with a good enough ending to one of them, they would, in fine, self-deprecating manner, toss in a brief segment of Chapman playing a pompous colonel, or some other military officer, insisting that what viewers had been watching was, of course, “too silly.”
The show, called “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” for three seasons of 13 shows each, was shortened to “Monty Python” for the fourth season of only six shows, which went on without Cleese, who left to work on “Fawlty Towers.”
It was in their feature films, with the exception of the sketch-filled “And Now for Something Completely Different,” that the Pythons became a more cohesive comedy unit, found their pacing, both in writing and performing, and learned to develop characters. Cleese returned to work in the feature format, and, of course, there were still those wonderfully bizarre animation breaks.
While most fans consider “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” starring Chapman as an unfortunate man who is mistaken for the Messiah, their best all-round film, the same fans are likely to admit that “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — complete with a confounded King Arthur (Chapman again), a Trojan Rabbit, scads of randy women, and a long-winded speech in which a peasant (Palin) tried to explain to Arthur that they’re not living in “an autonomous collective, but a dictatorship . . . a self-perpetuating autocracy” — is their favorite. It’s also the film that Idle and his writing partner John Du Prez adapted into the Tony-winning Broadway hit “Spamalot.”
Hinkle thinks the reason the Pythons have retained their popularity is that their comedy has not dated.
“Part of that is the same reason that people find the Marx Brothers or Bugs Bunny or any of the other classic anarchic comedies appealing,” he said. “It’s so unpredictable and out there a lot of the time, it challenges your conventions, no matter what decade you’re watching it in.”
He’s noted, at past Brattle screenings, especially of “Holy Grail,” that many members of the audience call out the lines, almost “Rocky Horror”-like, while watching.
“These are cult movies,” he said. “And one of the basic responses to a cult film is that you’re so immersed in it, you’re so in love with it, you respond to it automatically. So you can’t help but recite some of the lines along with it.”
All of that said, there are two questions regularly asked by fans of the group: where the name came from and whether there will be another film.
In a 2007 interview on New York public radio station WNYC, Michael Palin spoke about the BBC demanding that the group come up with a name back in 1969, even though neither the group nor the network yet knew what the show was going to be about. Initial suggestions, he said, included “The Toad Elevating Moment,” “The Algae Banging Hour,” and “A Horse, a Spoon, and a Bucket.” Another one was “John Cleese’s Flying Circus.” Cleese didn’t want his name on the show, in case it failed. But the network showed interest in the Flying Circus part, if the group could come up with a name to go with it.
“So we sat around one afternoon,” said Palin. “And Python, as a surname, came up. Mr. Python. We liked that for some reason. Could it be Ken Python, Keith Python, Leonard Python, Michael Python? It was Eric, I think, who came up with Monty, and Monty Python made us laugh a lot.”
On the film front, a sci-fi farce called “Absolutely Anything,” directed by Terry Jones, is scheduled to begin production sometime in the first quarter of 2013. Though not exactly a Monty Python movie, it will feature aliens speaking with the voices of Jones, Cleese, Palin, and Gilliam, but not, at this point in time, Idle.
Of course, it’ll be quite a while before the film hits screens. For those who just can’t wait for another Python fix, circle May 10 on your calendars. That’s International Monty Python Status Day on Facebook.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.