Still funny after all these years; 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' debuted 30 years ago this week -- and changed, if not the face of comedy, at least the way it walked; POP CULTURE


They were, and have remained, something completely different. Thirty years ago this week, "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was first unleashed on unsuspecting audiences -- at least in England, where the show originated. (It didn't hit these shores until 1974.) Filled with dead parrots, silly walks and TV game shows featuring Karl Marx, the BBC-produced television series elevated the non sequitur to high art, mixed history and comedy in ways Western civilization had never seen, and pricked the over-inflated egos of more stuffed shirts than anything since the Marx Brothers.

Of course, not everyone found the boys and their antics funny; there remains a small minority who, to this day, simply don't see the humor in a cheese shop that doesn't sell cheese, or the Art of Not Being Seen.

Fortunately, most of us knew better.

The name itself caught lots of people off-guard. Not that it has any real meaning; the show could just have easily been called "Arthur Megapode's Cheap Show," "A Horse, a Spoon and a Basin" or "The Zoo Show," all names that were rejected in favor of "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

Originally envisioned as a showcase for 30-year-old John Cleese, who started off as the most recognized member of the group, "Monty Python's Flying Circus" made stars of its five Oxford- and Cambridge-educated members.

Besides Cleese, who specialized in playing muddle-headed authority figures, there was Eric Idle, whose characters had a tendency to drone on endlessly; Graham Chapman, who developed many of the group's best pieces with Cleese and frequently showed up in a police uniform on-screen; Michael Palin, the personification of silly; Terry Jones, whose fondness for history, especially the Middle Ages, infused some of the group's best sketches. Terry Gilliam, the lone American of the group, was the man responsible for the stilted animation that announced, right from the opening credits, that this was not your father's brand of humor.

True, Python humor was not without its antecedents. The Marx Brothers, in particular their 1933 film "Duck Soup," were a clear influence, as were such British acts as Beyond the Fringe (with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook) and a pair of BBC comedies: "The Goon Show," with a cast that included Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, and "Do Not Adjust Your Set," which Palin, Jones, Gilliam and Idle worked on.

But what the Pythons distilled from all that came before them was simply comedic genius. They used slapstick, puns, farce and parody. Their humor could be surprisingly cerebral, invoking everyone from Descartes and Marx to Nietzsche and Che Guevara. They could be topical (Queen Elizabeth, British prime ministers and even Richard Nixon were skewered). And they could be just plain silly; one of Palin's favorite bits involved him hitting John Cleese repeatedly with a fish.

Young people, especially, took to the "Flying Circus," and phrases from the show entered the lexicon: "I wish to return this parrot," "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition," "You're no fun anymore."

At a time when nothing was more fashionable than rebelling against the established culture, no one seemed more anti-Establishment than Monty Python, with its clear disdain for authority, flouting of convention and refusal to be politically correct (before there even was such a term).

From the moment those first bombastic strains of John Philip Sousa's "Liberty Bell March" hit the BBC on Oct. 5, 1969, fans have been listing their favorite Python moments. Surely, the series' 10 greatest moments would have to include:

* John Cleese's Ministry of Silly Walks, which is to physical comedy what Michelangelo's David is to sculpture.

* The story of the blancmange, an alien who invades Earth with the sole purpose of winning Wimbledon. To do that, it transforms people into Scotsmen, because Scotsmen make the worst tennis players.

* The argument clinic, where people pay to be argued with.

* Highwayman Dennis Moore, who steals lupines from the rich and gives them to the poor.

* The self-explanatory Upper-Class Twit of the Year Contest.

* The Spanish Inquisition, torturing its victims with the dreaded Comfy Chair.

* "The Attila the Hun Show," a sitcom starring Attila and his wife.

* The Killer Joke, a World War II weapon so lethal that, when it was translated into German, British scientists could only work on one word at a time.

* The Dead Parrot sketch, in which a dead parrot ("Gone to meet its maker") is said to be just sleeping.

* The restaurant that serves only Spam.

The last original "Python" aired in England in December 1974, not long after the show had premiered here. By then, internal friction had splintered the group (Cleese had left before the final season). But the show's overseas success forced them to reconsider, especially because they had failed to realize much in the way of profit from their four seasons on the BBC.

So they regrouped for a series of concerts, records and movies. In fact, it was after the show ended that they produced some of their best work, including the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," one of the most consistently hilarious comedies ever to grace the silver screen.

Three decades since their debut, Monty Python remains popular. The A&E; cable network just finished airing all the "Flying Circus" episodes, and the just- published "Monty Python Encyclopedia" chronicles just about everything the group's members have ever done. When the members reunited at last year's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival (minus Chapman, who died in 1989), the event made headlines.

Just goes to show: There's nothing more timeless than a good silly walk. Or a dead parrot.

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