I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been at a party enjoying a terrific story and as it reached it’s hilarious apex thought, “Gosh, this is just so perfect that I really wish a giant cupid’s foot would descend from the sky and end it right now.”
OK, not really, but maybe you get the idea. The convention for storytelling is that a perfect, well-told story has a defined beginning, middle, and end, but in real life, it doesn’t always work out that way. The creative brains behind Monty Python gave us a convention-bending way around that problem by weaving zany illustrations between scenes, cutting them off after the most hilarious parts were delivered and moving along to the next.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus upended all manner of the convention during its four-season run on BBC television in the early 1970s and introduced the world to an absurd, stream of consciousness hilarity that continues to influence and resonate decades later.
It’s been fifty years since the Circus first came to town. It takes moxie to remain relevant for fifty years, and Monty Python has it. Here’s how:
Moxie doesn’t always have to know where it’s going.
The Pythons — Brits Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin and American animator Terry Gilliam – began finding their way to each other working on other British comedy shows in the late 1960s.
They had a vision for a comedy show that would reflect the zeitgeist of the 60s counterculture movement. Their show would eschew the well-defined boundaries of traditional comedy with its familiar story arcs and punchlines and gags in favor of a freewheeling, irreverent approach.
But what should they call it? The team poured their considerable creative energy into a name (Owl Stretching Time? The Toad Elevating Moment? A Horse, a Spoon and a Bucket? Vaseline Review?) and had submitted Monty Python’s Flying Circus when the BBC finally threw up its hands and said, “It’s been printed in the schedule, so we can’t change it now. We’re going with that.”
Even the naming of the show has turned out to be part of its magic. Impossible to pin down, unpredictable, absurd, flowing from one thought to the next.
Most of us need to have certainty and predictability but what would we be capable of achieving is we let go of conventions and embraced the improvisational moxie of Monty Python?
Moxie ages well.
While Monty Python’s Flying Circus only lasted four seasons, the group also produced several movies throughout the 70s, albums, books, live shows, and even a Broadway musical. You’ll find everyone from Boomers to Gen Z kids spouting classic lines like, “ Tis but a scratch!” and “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”
Watch the series or movies (many are currently available on Netflix) and you’ll find that the humor ages remarkably well. The sketches and stories aren’t bound to current events, but skewer larger, more expansive cultural ideas that can be understood across generations.
The Pythons had the sophistication to step back from the low-hanging fruit of political commentary and popular culture and explore universal themes.
Moxie isn’t always fully appreciated at home.
Python fans – and they are legion – tend to be rapid. But appreciation of the show isn’t universal, even in Great Britain. The BBC hasn’t broadcast episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus for more than 20 years.
“My only disappointment is it’s been rather forgotten in the U.K.,” John Cleese said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “[T]he Daily Telegraph wrote an article, ‘Was Python ever really funny?’ And the only thing you can say is, ‘Well, a lot of people thought so.’ Because a lot of people did. So it’s sad when your own country is the one that seems to lag behind.”
Still, the Pythons have carried on, but most of the remaining members still actively performing. It takes moxie to have that kind of staying power.
Do you have a favorite Monty Python sketch or quote?