“A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of diving people.” – John Cleese
A comedy troupe whose influence has branded itself into the very identity of British culture as well as the records of film history, Monty Python are a monument to the joys of foolishness and absurdity. First airing in 1969 with the TV series Flying Circus, troupe mainstays John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Graham Chapman, together with Terry Gilliam’s zany, surreal animation style, defined a new strain of comedy equally absurd and delicately subtle.
Having a dominant hand in the way in which modern comedy is now interpreted, Monty Python’s influence would extend beyond the limits of the British isles, connecting with a certain universality that aligned with the ‘Beatlemania’ of the 1960s. As writer Neil Gaiman comments, “A strange combination of individuals gave us Python. And you needed those people, just in the same way that with the Beatles you had four talented people, but together you had the Beatles. And I think that’s so incredibly true when it comes to Python.”
Crossing the Atlantic in the mid-1970s with the release of the TV series, as well as the premiere of the Python’s first feature film, And Now for Something Completely Different, this unpredictable, innately British sense of humour would pioneer change in modern comedy, inspiring the careers of Seth MacFarlane, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Matt Groening, among many others.
With just four films made throughout Monty Python’s reign, let’s take a look back at their legacy.
Monty Python films ranked from worst to best:
4. And Now for Something Completely Different (Terry Gilliam, Ian MacNaughton, 1971)
Less creative genius and more a marketing brainwave, And Now for Something Completely Different, is a compilation film that brought the very best of Monty Python’s Flying Circus to the big screen, and the attention of international audiences.
Including the famous ‘dead parrot’ and ‘self-defence class’ sketches, the fast-paced raucous absurdity of Monty Python’s early sketches toyed with the very limits of social acceptance and of comedy itself. Narrated by the consistently dry tone of John Cleese announcing “and now for something completely different” to transition between sketches, the film revealed a somewhat alienating British humour to American audiences.
Adored by many, and rejected by few, the sheer quirky, distinctive nature of this eccentric comedy would nonetheless make its mark and pave the way for a decade of future Python success.
3. The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones, 1983)
The final Monty Python film is a mix of original sketches that each deal with central questions of life, chartering the journey from birth to death. It’s by some way the troupe’s darkest work, spiked with bleak humour and some violently visceral moments.
Including sketches that addressed sex, religion, fate and war, the Python troupe approached each subject with a familiar unconventional optimism, even if each one was only explored on its surface level. Their last outing as a comedy group, The Meaning of Life is a sticky coagulation of several slap-dash ideas, some of which hit, whilst others are visibly dated. Notorious for the joyfully disgusting scene that opens the segment titled “Part VI: The Autumn Years” where a mammoth Mr Creosote covered in beige vomit spontaneously explodes, The Meaning of Life illustrates the Python’s newfound high-budget toybox, creating both magic and misfire as a result.
2. Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)
Often cited among the very best of cinematic comedy, Monty Python’s Life of Brian is one of two films by the troupe that focused on its very own fictional narrative, demonstrating the group’s ingenuity both for creative storytelling and avant-garde comedy.
The story runs parallel to the tale of the birth of Jesus Christ, in which Brian of Nazareth is born in the stable next door and is constantly mistaken for the real messiah. Controversial among traditional Christians for its blasphemous accusations, so much so that it sparked a televised debate between the Python’s and the Bishop of Southwark, Life of Brian is a hilarious journey across Bethlehem that equally inspires genuine thought and conversation.
Portrayed by Graham Chapman, the titular role of Brian, the mistaken messiah, is a surprisingly touching and sympathetic one, bringing some much-needed levity to the stern stance of organised religion.
1. The Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975)
Made with backing from Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin, and produced from only a shoestring budget of £229,000, Monty Python’s first narrative-led film is an eclectic mix of classic absurdity and merry comedy, it may just be the troupes very best work.
Resorting to the historical source of Celtic mythology, The Holy Grail follows King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table as they embark on a surreal search for the magical Holy Grail. Utilising its low budget to ingenious degrees, replacing horses for trotting men and hollow coconuts, the film has a tremendous sense of boisterous fun showing just how far DIY creativity and a hearty imagination can take you when forming a universal comedy.
The Holy Grail is the perfect example of Monty Python at its very best, continuing to inspire generations of British comedians with effortless wit and individuality.