Break out the bubbly because there’s an important anniversary to mark. Forty years ago today (August 22), Monty Python first reached American shores.
On this date back in 1972, And Now For Something Completely Different, a film featuring sketches by the absurdist British comedy troupe, opened in theaters in the U.S. It was the sketch group’s first movie.
The American reaction? Surprisingly, few cared at the time, even though the movie featured the now classic Dead Parrot, Lumberjack Song and Upper-class Twit of the Year Competition sketches and much cross-dressing.
That’s because Monty Python was as yet mostly unknown on these shores, although there had been a few stories in the American press when the group’s late-night TV show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, turned into a hit shortly after it began airing on the BBC in 1969.
Remember, this was the pre-Internet era; no one knew that someday pirated clips from British TV would be downloadable in the U.S. only hours after a show aired. Back then, potential American fans of Monty Python could only take the word of a London-based New York Times writer when he praised Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969 but warned it was “a bizarre, unpredictable show.” (The show continued on BBC until 1974.)
It was in hopes of reaching an American audience that Monty Python’s original members – Brits Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, John Cleese and Eric Idle, who all performed in the skits, and sole American Terry Gilliam, who created the animated segments and only occasionally played a bit part in a sketch – were persuaded to make the film.
The movie, which was released in England in 1971, featured the Pythonites recreating popular sketches from the first two seasons of Flying Circus. It was shot on a shoestring budget and looked it, but the essential Monty Python wackiness emerged none the worse for having been produced on the cheap.
The film made little impact when originally released in the U.S. in 1972. It was only upon its re-release a few years later that it proved popular, especially at midnight showings in major cities and university towns.
By then, the group was beginning to build an American fan base after PBS stations around the country began airing the original, BBC episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1974. By the spring of 1975, New York Times TV critic John O’Connor was reporting approvingly, “The series has become one of the most popular on the public TV schedule.”
The group’s U.S. popularity quickly grew, aided by three more films (1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1979’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian and 1983’s Monty Python’s Meaning of Life). Although the troupe disbanded long ago, with its members successfully pursuing individual careers, Monty Python continues to win new fans worldwide for its comedy today thanks to the widespread availability of the original TV series and movies on DVD and other formats, as well as the 2005 hit Broadway musical, Spamalot, which is based on the troupe’s Holy Grail.
Five of the six members are still living and have been known occasionally to reunite on stage to perform old sketches and answer audience questions.
Missing from such reunions is Chapman, who died in 1989 at age 48. For his memorial service, the surviving Pythonites sent a floral tribute in the shape of a giant foot – often, just such a foot would appear from the sky to stomp a Python sketch to its end – and a note that read, “To Graham from the other Pythons. Stop us if we’re getting to silly.”
What’s your favorite Monty Python moment?