Monty Python Speaks: The Complete Oral History Revised and Updated Edition
By David Morgan; foreword by John Oliver
Dey Street Books; trade paperback, $17.99; available today, January 8
The legendary series Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast by the BBC between 1969 and 1974, and it introduced something completely different, as they introduced a new brand of surrealistic, stream-of-consciousness comedy that pushed the traditional boundaries of format, style, and content.
David Morgan, a sevior producer for CBSNews.com and for their Emmy-award winning newsmagazine Sunday Morning, offers a thorough oral history of the landmark series and its performers in Monty Python Speaks. This updated and revised edition is being released for the 50th anniversary of the show’s creation.
This comprehensive work gives the history of The Pythons – Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin – before and after their massive success. Their blend of brilliant satire with slapstick silliness spoke to a generation eager to break free of the conventional. Making their way across the Atlantic and the world, the Pythons’ zany approach to comedy would have a monumental influence on modern popular culture, paving the way for farcical entertainment from Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons to Austin Powers.
Morgan has collected interviews with Monty Python’s founding members, actors, producers, and other collaborators to produce a no-holds barred look at their legendary sketches and films, including Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which inspired the hit Broadway musical Spamalot, and The Meaning of Life.
This chat is on the birth of the show and how they knew it would be a breakthrough. Morgan introduces it with, “As the group prepared for the first series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which began recording in August 1969), the notion of applying a stream-of-consciousness style to the show’s content and execution was accepted.
“PALIN: Certainly Terry Gilliam provided an example of how you could do stream-of-consciousness comedy in his animations, which he’d done on Do Not Adjust Your Set. We thought those were remarkable and a real breakthrough; there was nothing like that being done on British television. We loved the way the ideas flowed into one another.
“Terry Jones was very interested in the form of the show, wanting it to be different from any other – not only should we write better material than anybody else, but we should write in a different shape from any other comedy show. And probably Terry Jones and myself saw (or were easily persuaded) that Gilliam’s way of doing animation maybe held a clue to how we could do it. It didn’t matter if sketches didn’t have a beginning or end, we could just have some bits here or there, we could do it more like a sort of collage effect. I remember that everyone was quite enthusiastic about this, but it would have almost certainly come from Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and myself.
“GILLIAM: I think it was more like saying ‘no’ to certain things, and the first thing was ‘no’ to punchlines, which is a really critical thing. We’d seen Peter Cook and Dudley Moore doing so many really great sketches where they traditionally had to end with a zinger, and the zinger was never as good as the sketch. The sketch was about two characters, so in a sense it was more character-driven than plot-driven, [but] time and time again you’d see these really great sketches that would die at the end – they wouldn’t die, but they just wouldn’t end better [than] or as well as the middle bits. So very early on we made a decision to get rid of punchlines. And then Terry Jones was besotted with this cartoon I had done, ‘Beware of Elephants,’ [in which] things flowed in a much more stream-of-consciousness way. Terry thought this was the shape that we should be playing with.
“Spike Milligan had been doing some amazing things just before; his Q series in a sense really freed it up, playing with the medium of television, admitting it to being television, and commenting on that. We just continued to do even more of that than he had done, but once we agreed to the idea of not having to end sketches, and having things linked and flowing, it allowed us to get out of a sketch when it was at its peak, when it was really still good; we would laugh when it was funny and it would move on it when it wasn’t funny. That also immediately made a place for me; it sat me in the middle, connecting things.
IDLE: We were young, and doing a show we would be in charge of for the first time. There were no executives. This freedom allowed us to experiment without having to say what we were trying to do – indeed, we didn’t have a clue what we were trying to do except please ourselves. This was the leitmotiv: if it made us laugh, it was in; it if didn’t, we sold it to other shows.
JONES: The way we went and did the shows is, first of all we’d meet and talk about ideas. And then we’d go off for like two weeks and each write individually or in our pairs. Mike and I tended to write separately and then get together, read out material to each other, and then swap over and mess around like that. So at the end of two weeks we’d all meet together, quite often downstairs in my front room or dining room, and we’d read out the stuff. This was the best time of Python, the most exciting time, when you knew you were going to hear new stuff and they were going to make you laugh.”
The revised and updated edition of Monty Python Speaks includes a new foreword by Last Week Tonight host John Oliver; four new chapters on Monty Python in the 21st century; the story behind the making of Spamalot: The Musical; the groups’ reactions to the wild success of their 2014 reunion show at London’s O2 Arena; and Exiting The Stage: A touching look at the group sans Terry Jones, who was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia in 2015.
Whether you’re an old fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, an avid silly walker, or are unfamiliar with the Pythons and want to learn more, Morgan’s thorough work offers a fascinating look behind the scenes of their creative process, including the friendships and feuds that catapulted a comedy revolution.