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The insider's guide to Monty Python

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(CNN) -- "Spamalot," the "Monty Python's Flying Circus" musical, opens in London on Tuesday after its award-winning run on Broadway. Here's everything you ever need to know about the cult seventies comedy collective's latest cash-in.

Monty Python's Flying Circus? It sounds like some sort of reptile-themed Victorian fairground sideshow...

Monty Python has nothing to do with either snakes or World War One fighter aces. Rather it was the name for a sharp-witted group of performers who pushed back the boundaries of comedy over four BBC television series broadcast between 1969 and 1974. Five of them -- John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman and Terry Jones -- were Oxbridge-educated comic actors while the sixth member, American Terry Gilliam, was responsible for the series' iconic animations -- notably the giant foot that signaled the start of each episode. The origins of the name are somewhat clouded -- the six were apparently referred to as a "circus" as they wandered the BBC, while "python" was chosen because Cleese wanted something that conveyed slipperiness. But the most likely explanation is that they just liked its studious surrealism.

So what did these comedy revolutionaries actually do?

Dressed as old ladies, dressed as transvestite lumberjacks, performed sketches about pompous middle class men, used catchphrases such as "And now for something completely different," and sang amusing ditties such as "Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam ..." The shows mostly consisted of a string of barely coherent sketches, often lacking conventional punchlines and loosely tied together by Gilliam's stream of consciousness animations.

Doesn't sound very funny.

In fact the lack of jokes was part of the joke. Python captured the 60s spirit of irreverence, invention and iconoclasm, a surreal comedic companion to The Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Which basically meant that you had to be part of the in-crowd to get it. The humor was self-referential, self-consciously smart and targeted squarely at a young, student audience.

Why was Monty Python so influential?

Although the TV show only ran for four series, it proved a massive cult hit when it was shown in the U.S. from 1974 -- just as the show was winding up on the other side of the Atlantic. That success spawned a series of spin-off productions, including the films "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," the Bible-baiting "Monty Python's Life of Brian" and "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" as well as the classic "Live at the Hollywood Bowl." Monty Python basically established a style of humor that paved the way for alternative comedy, sketch shows and anything more experimental than just telling jokes. It also won an obsessively loyal following who are to comedy what Trekkies are to science fiction. The most popular Python sketches such as "Dead Parrot", "Ministry of Silly Walks," and "The Spanish Inquisition" continue to dominate lists of the funniest ever television moments.

So does "Spamalot" bring the old team back together?

Sadly not. "Spamalot" is a musical "lovingly ripped off" from "Holy Grail," written by Idle and featuring all the favorites from the film including the Knights who say "Ni!" and the Black Knight, famous for his battle cry, "It's just a scratch!" But none of the original team appear in the show, although Cleese provides the pre-recorded "Voice of God."

Is it any good?

Yes, according to Broadway audiences, where it is has been a sellout success taking more than $1 million a week and was nominated for 14 Tony Awards, winning three including Best Musical. The London West End version, which opens officially tonight, has also been well received with the Daily Telegraph saying, "There has never been a sillier musical than this, or one more calculated to appeal to the British sense of humor." Originally the rest of the Python team appeared ambivalent towards Idle's project, although their early doubts appear to have been mollified by a steady stream of royalty checks. Jones described the show as "utterly pointless and full of hot air" but said, "If we had known it was going to be such a success, we'd have gone for a better deal."

Any more Python cash-ins planned?

It's unlikely the remaining Pythons -- Chapman died in 1989 -- will ever feel the financial need to get back together, especially thanks to Idle's latest money-spinning wheeze. Unlike other ensembles who have split up and faded into obscurity, the Python team have proved as successful individually as collectively. John Cleese went on to become a proper Hollywood star, while Gilliam has become one of the film industry's most successful directors with films such as "Twelve Monkeys" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Palin has developed a lucrative career as a television presenter, travel writer and British national treasure while Jones is a popular historian on screen and in print. But, conveniently timed to coincide with "Spamalot" and the run-up to Christmas, Palin released his diaries of the Python years this month (though Palin's saintly reputation as the "nice" Python means that salacious detail is unfortunately lacking). And there's still plenty of Python-themed humor on line -- check out the Silly Walks Generatorexternal link.


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The original Python team: Palin (l-r), Jones, Idle, Gilliam and Cleese.

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