Sometime during the writing of the first season of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,“ John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who wrote as a team, were hashing out a sketch that simply wasn’t working. The bit, about a man trying to return a used car to the dealer, was funny, but both agreed there was nothing new about it. Cleese suggested changing the car to a dog, and the dealership to a pet shop. Puffing on his pipe, Chapman said, “What about a parrot?“
The story is legend among Python enthusiasts. Chapman’s inspired substitution encapsulates Python’s departure from traditional comedy, the inexplicable leap from A to B that defines genius. It’s the moment Columbus decides to sail west instead of east. Monty Python’composed of Cleese, Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam’premiered on BBC on October 5, 1969, a year after the movements that, with varying degrees of violence, shattered cultural conventions across the Western world. From the first episode, it did away with the punch line, instead transitioning from sketch to sketch with Gilliam’s surrealist, stream-of-consciousness animations. It pursued already absurd premises’Picasso paints live while riding a bike’ad absurdum, if not ad nauseam. Baffling even the BBC, it was an immediate success. (It would take six years before American audiences were ready for it, and even then, it was on PBS.) No one was more representative of the Python revolution than Chapman, argues Bob McCabe in his recent biography, The Life of Graham (Orion, $14.95), which largely recycles interviews from McCabe’s exhaustive 2003 oral history, The Pythons’ Autobiography.
If Monty Python were the Jacobins of humor, Chapman was Danton. Hiding behind the staid exterior of a pipe-smoking Cambridge grad, the one-time medical student and policeman’s son was an openly gay bon vivant who embodied the show’s radical approach to comedy. He once licked a woman’s feet under the table while her date was present (the moment is straight out of a “Flying Circus“ skit), and would regularly dip his penis in people’s drinks as a joke. Never out of reach of a bottle’until he cleaned up his act for Life of Brian’he sought out the life of a rock star. Like John Belushi, his closest American counterpart, Chapman was an unintentional martyr, dying of complications from throat cancer at the age of 48.
McCabe quotes liberally from Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979, also out this month (Thomas Dunne, $29.95). Devoid of the reverence that comes with hindsight, the 650-page tome is one of the most valuable primary sources for any student of Python. There are no formal theories of humor, no deconstructions of the “Cheese Shop“ sketch. Just a day-to-day account, in Palin’s genial voice, of life on the front lines of comedy. Plus, you get to read about what he ate for dinner.
In 1969, Python would likely have mocked Palin for imposing his diaries on the public, and would definitely have mocked McCabe’there’s nothing in the world more humorless than a humor scholar. But, like all self-respecting revolutionaries, the troupe (Chapman excluded) has become part of the establishment. (The particular standout in this respect is Idle, who sanitized the insane Holy Grail for Broadway throngs with the Tony-awarding Spamalot.) Still, it’s an establishment they were instrumental in creating; their influence can be felt in everything from “South Park“ to “Saturday Night Live.“ If “Flying Circus“ were to be pitched today, it would be crushed by the giant foot of the networks. It went too far and expected too much from its audience, like knowing who Thomas Hardy was, or being unironic enough to laugh at a silly walk. It was ahead of its time, but even further ahead of ours.