45 Years Ago: ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ Says Goodbye
By 1974, Monty Python’s Flying Circus had established itself as a hit-or-miss affair that was loved by some and loathed by others. The series brought a particularly British, irreverent and obscure form of comedy to a world audience, without ever truly defining what it was – and Monty Python deserves the accolades it’s drawn over the years for that alone.
Still, such groundbreaking artistic endeavors inevitably reach the end of their lifespans. For one, they inspire others to tread further into the newfound territory, often making the original work appear to be aged and primitive. For another, the very act of trying to avoid a format becomes a format in itself, leaving its creators in doubt as to where they should go next.
That was very much the case for Monty Python team member John Cleese, who bowed out before the making of the sketch-comedy series' fourth and final season. The others – Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam – agreed to make one more run of shows for the BBC. While it was advertised under the original title, the final series' official name was simply Monty Python.
Cleese later admitted that it was hard to walk away. "I was an awful purist in those days. I took it all too seriously," he said in 2015. "Whereas the other Pythons were having a good time, I was genuinely bothered that, by the third series, we weren’t really doing original material. We were doing permutations and combinations of sketches from the first two series. I don’t think the other Pythons minded. … I thought, ‘We’re not getting anywhere. We’re not doing new stuff, so we should stop.’”
Cleese added: “Between the second and third series, dear old Graham Chapman really did become an alcoholic – and there was no sign of that in the first two series. By the third series, the guy couldn’t really learn his lines. He got scared he was going to forget, and so he didn’t bother to learn his lines – so he wasn’t a failure. Very complicated. I was his writing partner, and it got to the point that in the afternoon he couldn’t remember what we’d written in the morning. And no one else was prepared to share the weight.”
The absence of Cleese presented opportunities for writers like Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Douglas Adams, who later created his own surreal universe in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Together, the team created a cut-down season of six episodes, reaching a total of 45 – not including two German specials made in 1971 and 1972.
The final episode, titled "Party Political Broadcast," aired on Dec. 5, 1974. Sketches included “The Most Awful Family in Britain” (written by Chapman and Innes), “Patient Abuse” (by Chapman and Adams), “The Walking Trees of Dahomey,” “Batsmen of the Kalahari,” “Appeal on Behalf of Extremely Rich People” (Chapman and Innes) and “The Man Who Finishes Other People’s Sentences.” A running gag throughout was the announcement of a party political broadcast on behalf of the Liberal Party.
Watch Monty Python's 'Appeal on Behalf of Extremely Rich People'
Sadly, results were more miss than hit. Even the titles, listed after 44 packages of similar ones, suggest that Cleese was to some extent correct: It had become nearly impossible to surprise a seasoned Python audience. They were used to being confused, misdirected and left hanging, but still expected the sense of achievement that came with appreciating the surrealism of the journey. The ground had been broken, built over and the road was well-worn.
Python was famous by then for not necessarily ending sketches and, in the same way, “Party Political Broadcast” may have been the end of the TV show but it was far from the end of the comedy. Their hit-and-miss experiment continued in different formats, including movies, stage shows and even a computer game. That only added to the troupe’s accolades, which eventually expanded to include individual ventures like Fawlty Towers, Time Bandits, Palin’s travelog TV shows and, remarkably, Cleese’s real-life party political broadcasts for the U.K.’s Liberal Party.
“I did 14 shows in a month to 28,000 people,” Cleese told Radio Times in 2019, “and the love and affection for Python is quite extraordinary, with people saying things to me like: ‘Thank you for forming our sense of humor.’ And 60-year-old men with a tear in their eye, literally, saying ‘thank you for making me laugh all those years.’”
He continued: “I remember when we were at the 02 [in London in 2014] selling out every night, 160,000 seats in 10 nights. I think it was the Telegraph who wrote a piece saying: ‘Was Monty Python ever really funny?’ The answer is, it was to enough people.”