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How Monty Python changed the world

Innovative troupe subject of autobiography

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Python
Monty Python in 1969 (clockwise from top left): Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, John Cleese and Terry Jones.

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THE MONTY PYTHON FILE
Members: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin

TV: On BBC, 1969-74

Movies: "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975); "Monty Python's Life of Brian" (1979); "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" (1983)

Albums include:  "Monty Python's Matching Tie and Hankerchief" (1973); "Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album" (1980); "Monty Python Sings" (1991); "Monty Python Live! at City Center" (1997)
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(CNN) -- No matter where you look, even in some of the remotest parts of the planet, you can't avoid Monty Python.

Just ask Michael Palin.

The Monty Python member was recently in the Himalayas making the latest in his series of travel programs. As he climbed a peak in the Annapurna group, making a steep ascent of one of the highest mountains in the world, he stopped to catch his breath.

At that moment a pair of mountain climbers came by. They saw Palin and a thousand Python references must have hit: "The Lumberjack Song." "It's the Mind." "The Cheese Shop." "Sam Peckinpah's 'Salad Days.' " "The Parrot Sketch." "Nudge-nudge, wink-wink." "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" "And now for something completely different."

"And one of them turned to me," recalls Palin in an interview from his home in London, "and said, 'Oh my God! Eric Idle!' "

OK, so maybe there are limits to fame.

But when it comes to the impact of "Monty Python's Flying Circus," the troupe created by Palin, Idle, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam in 1969 for a groundbreaking BBC TV show and several movies, "limits" is the last word that comes to mind.

Python has been called "the Beatles of comedy," and its impact can be seen in everything from "Saturday Night Live" to "The Simpsons" to "South Park." The group's story is captured in a new coffee-table book, "The Pythons" (St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne Books), written by the group itself.

"[The comedy] was completely original -- fresh and anarchic," says Kim "Howard" Johnson, the author of several books on the group (and, most recently, an assistant to Cleese). "Python has the ability to transcend generations. They never had the widest audience, but they had the hippest audience."

'We were being different'

Cherie Kerr, a founder of the Los Angeles improv group the Groundlings (a major "SNL" stepping stone) who now runs an executive communications skills company, credits Python with influencing a generation of comedy writers and performers.

"The Python magic was they took everything to extremes," she says. "When we wrote sketches [with the Groundlings], there was a lot of beef to them, and there was a Python influence there -- they wrote very funny comedy."

For his part, Palin says the group was just doing what came naturally, particularly in the beginning.

"We didn't feel that we were blazing trails," he says, though he admits the group's unorthodox comedy -- the bizarre transitions from one sketch to another, the absurd premises, the merging of silliness with intellectual concepts -- "gave the BBC a lot of strife."

'We were being different'

"There was no predecessor for what we were doing. We were being different," he recalls. "I knew it was a bit of a gamble."

"Monty Python's Flying Circus" was successful in Britain during its 1969-1974 run, but it was pretty much off the air by the time the group become popular in America.

"The American dimension to Python happened quite late," says Palin. "People said they weren't interested, and we'd practically given up hope."

What saved the group was a syndicator, Devillier-Donegan Enterprises. Suddenly, PBS stations were having all-night Python marathons, and a buzz built. The group decided to go forward with a film, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

"We were amazed at the enthusiasm of American audiences," Palin says, still in some disbelief.

Still, even "Holy Grail" wasn't a sure thing. Palin remembers a screening for investors, including representatives from Led Zeppelin and Genesis.

"It was just dreadful," he recalls of the deadly silences greeting the group's jokes. "It was one of the moments I thought we had blown it."

Entering the language

And even though the film was a cult hit, the group still had trouble getting its next film, "Life of Brian" -- a send-up of religion and the life of Jesus -- made. Fortunately, ex-Beatle George Harrison was a big Python fan (he had appeared in 1978's "The Rutles," a Beatles parody with Idle, Palin and Python adjunct Neil Innes), and he stepped in with the financing.

THE ROOTS OF PYTHON

The men of Python had been kicking around British TV for several years by the time they got their own show.

In various combinations, Oxford graduates Palin and Jones and Cambridge's Idle, Cleese and Chapman had worked on several shows together, including ones with such whimsical titles as "At Last, the 1948 Show," "Do Not Adjust Your Set" (which featured animation by American expatriate Gilliam) and "The Complete and Utter History of Britain."

Indeed, British comedy was starting to catch on outside of the Scepter'd Isle. Palin is quick to acknowledge Python's comedy forebears:

- "The Goon Show," a 1950s BBC radio program, gave the world Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan.

- Beyond the Fringe, a troupe starring Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, triumphed on Broadway in 1962.

- David Frost, a regular employer of Pythons, had also crossed the Atlantic to success.

And thank goodness, says Palin. "If ever we thought something was good, we knew it about 'Brian.' "

Of course, ask a Python fan, and he or she can reel off whole lists of good stuff. Johnson is partial to the Spanish Inquisition sketch, the "Lumberjack Song," "The Attila the Hun Show" and the completely absurdist "Fish-Slapping Dance." Kerr remembers a piece where the group tried to outdo each other with tales of their destitute pasts.

One Python bit has even entered the language. The word "spam" has become associated with junk e-mail because of a sketch in which people in a restaurant consider dishes featuring the trademarked meat, such as "Spam, egg, Spam, Spam, bacon and Spam" while a group of Vikings sings about "wonderful Spam." Python's endless repetition of the brand name is thought to have provided the impetus for the e-mail definition.

Another Python group project apparently isn't in the cards. The group took Chapman's death in 1989 hard. And though there was discussion of a movie or a stage show after the Pythons reunited at the 1998 Aspen Comedy Festival, nothing came of it, says Palin.

After awhile, he recalls, "everyone had embarked on other interests. It was hard to put together, so it took its natural course."

It's not like the Pythons have rested on their laurels. Palin has made several travel documentaries. Gilliam is a noted, and very inventive, director. Idle is touring a comedy act. Jones writes. Cleese has guest-starred on several American TV shows and runs a company devoted to corporate skills. Each has acted in movies with other Pythons.

The surviving members of the group have a firm bond, says Johnson. "They enjoy being together. John never laughs as much with any group of people as he does with the Pythons," he says. "All of them are certainly proud of their experience in Python, as long as they're not forced to look back on it too much."

And if there should be another Python project, Palin has the perfect new member.

"The Dalai Lama," he says. "I just met him. I've never been in the presence of a person with such joy and mirth. He loves being made to laugh." And the main feature of a Python, he adds, is "plenty of the laughter gene."

That's not so silly at all.


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