Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1975)
A&E Home Video
Cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam
Extras: Trivia, Cast Biographies, Live Sketches, Extra Gilliam Animation

In 1969, the Beatles were breaking up, as another group of Britons was just forming. Well, actually, five Brits (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin) and an American (Terry Gilliam). These six got together to create a comedy show with the unlikely title of "Monty Python’s Flying Circus". These six were given the unprecedented freedom to write and perform comedy sketches to be broadcast on the British television station BBC1 with little or no interference from BBC higher-ups or anyone else. That would change in later years, as the frequent bad taste of some sketches would attract attention from the BBC’s censors. But in that first year, it really was just the six of them, putting thirty minutes of sketches together in a way that hasn’t quite been done since.

Right from the beginning, Flying Circus was different. The choice of a Sousa march ("The Liberty Bell") for a theme song shows a desire to do something different, to throw a wrench into the established rules of television. The sketches themselves are not only very funny, but the Python team worked at making sure that the sketches didn’t last a moment longer than they needed to. A conscious effort was put forth to avoid the common pitfall that other comedy shows fell into, the punchline. The Pythons noticed that other comedy sketch shows would set up really funny situations in sketches, then invariably the punchline at the end wasn’t as funny as the sketch itself. Python sidestepped this problem by simply having someone walk onto the set and end the sketch in the middle, or interrupt with a piece of Terry Gilliam’s animation, or having a 16-ton weight drop on the head of one of the people in the sketch.

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the first airing of Monty Python in England. All four of Monty Python’s movies have been released on DVD in the last few months, leading up to this release by A&E of the original TV series in chronological order. Right now, they’ve released the first season, split into four discs, also available in a pair of two-disc sets. The first season starts off with a bang, as one of my favorite Python sketches is in the very first show. The Funniest Joke in the World is discovered, and anyone that hears the joke laughs themselves to death. One person sees two words of the joke and spends some time in the hospital. The second contains "The Wacky Queen" sketch, which, before the shows began airing again this summer on A&E, hasn’t been seen since the show first aired in 1969. Remarkably, A&E hasn’t in any way called attention to the fact that this sketch hasn’t ever aired in the United States before now. Perhaps they don’t realize that they’re re-inserting rarely-seen footage. Rounding out the first disc is Eric Idle’s "Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink" sketch, in which an irritating pub patron gets caught using double-entendres that he doesn’t even understand.

On the second disc, you’ll find John Cleese teaching a self-defense course to help his students defend themselves against assailants armed with fresh fruit. There’s also "Confuse-A-Cat", and of course, "Crunchy Frog", in which the police investigate a chocolate company that sells assorted candies which actually contain dead frogs.

Disc three starts off with the Science Fiction sketch, in which people all over England are turned into Scotsmen. This sketch actually lasts for the majority of the show, which was one of the first efforts by the Pythons to move into longer narratives. The next episode contains several classic sketches, including the infamous "Dead Parrot Sketch", Python’s most recognizable sketch. ("Now that’s what I call a dead parrot." "No, no, it’s just stunned.") We also get a sketch about gangs of elderly women terrorizing teenagers, a man with a tape recorder up his nose, a man with a tape recorder up his brother’s nose, and the infamous "Lumberjack song". You know, "I cut down trees, I wear high heels, suspendies and a bra / I wish I’d been a girlie, just like my dear mama."

The last disc contains four episodes, rounding out the end of the first series. The first episode contains the story of the first man to attempt to jump the English Channel, using an ordinary, two-footed jump. In the next episode, the Batley Townswomens Guild presents the Battle of Pearl Harbor, a sketch that was so funny, the group repeated the same gag almost verbatim a year later, in season two. The next show contains another favorite of mine, the Minehead By-Election sketch, in which John Cleese plays a man named Mr. Hilter, who looks suspiciously like Adolf Hitler and speaks with a profound German accent. The series is finished off with John Cleese in voice-over announcing that when the series returns next season, "it will be put out on Monday mornings as a test card and will be described by the ’Radio Times’ as a history of Irish agriculture."

Of course, the series would return, funnier than ever. Fans of the show consider the second season to be the funniest of the four years the show ran, but the first season runs a close second, and most of the classic bits are here. In the past, the episodes were not released chronologically on video, and perhaps the thinking was that the funnier episodes should be spread out over the videos so people had to buy them all, even if they didn’t want to own the complete collection, just to see the funniest parts. I prefer to see them in chronological order, because you get to see the show progress over time. The shows were originally broadcast thirty years ago, and the video quality varies from fairly good to pretty bad. When the bits were recorded live in the studio, they look better than ever. Those sideburns never looked so good. By contrast, the segments filmed on location don’t look very good at all, and never have. In 1969, Python were going for quality of writing and performing, not quality of appearance.

The animation segments range from looking fairly good to quite awful, but this is somewhat to be expected. You won’t find much of the likes of compression artifacts in the picture, but the clicks and pops on the source material are still there. The biggest complaint I have about the video quality is that the color seems to be too bright, and I noticed some color bleeding when someone’s wearing a particularly bright tie. (More often than not, as this was 1969.) The aspect ratio is the original 4:3 <$PS,full frame> TV presentation.
The English subtitles are actually closed-captioned subtitles, and they are almost exactly correct. In a show as well written as this one, I think it’s important for the subtitles not to be mere summaries of what was actually said. The audio is a very clear mono track, but you probably weren’t expecting a Dolby 5.1 remix on this show anyway.

The supplements are fairly good on these discs. You get some trivia, cast bios, and a glossary of "Pythonisms". You also get a live version of one of the sketches on each disc, taken from the hilarious Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, not available elsewhere on DVD. This is a nice extra, but it’s the live version of a sketch already done in the TV series. The one exception is disc 4’s "Monty Karaoke", which is the wonderful "Bruces’ Philosophers’ Song" live. The Hollywood Bowl movie contained several sketches like this one that aren’t available anywhere else. I hope the entire live movie is released by A&E in the future. You also get extra clips from the TV show, which you may not care about if you buy the entire set, and clips of Gilliam’s animation, also from the TV series.

After thirty years, Monty Python’s influence on comedy is still felt in shows like Saturday Night Live, Mr. Show and others. It’s nice to see the original show finally arrive on DVD.