40 years ago this week, Monty Python's Flying Circus first aired on UK TV - to the bemused guffaws of a live studio audience.
The Pythons' anarchy and audacity replotted the entire comedy map and their influence still looms, like some titanic (but dead) Norwegian Blue parrot, over any TV/movie writer who sits down with the intention of being funny.
So, as the surviving members are honoured with a BAFTA Special Award, here's totalfilm.com's Top 40 python sketches - from TV and movies. Let us know your favourite - or the ones we missed...
40. The Funniest Joke In The World
Ernest Scribbler, joke writer, comes up with a gag so funny he laughs himself to death. Then, his final missive is unleashed upon an unsuspecting Hun in the form of a weapon...
Quote: “It was obvious the joke was lethal. Nobody could read it and live.”
39. Venus In A Half-Shell
Terry Gilliam loved to bend, fold, spindle and mutilate famous works of art and Botticelli’s ‘The Birth Of Venus’ was a prime candidate for some animated mockery – just watch those legs fly!
The animator got to play with Venus again 17 years later, this time in real life and in the form of Uma Thurman in The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen.
Is your cat staring into the distance for no discernible reason? Is it outside on the lawn, night and day? Are you worried sick about the poor kitty? What you need to do is… CONFUSE IT!
Cue extreme Python lunacy in the form of a crack team of confuse-a-cat commandos who, along the way, rather confuse us, too…
Quote: “Your cat is suffering from what we vets haven’t found a word for.”
37. Come Back To My Place
Short but perfectly formed, this earnest little sketch has Palin complaining about a stolen coat to a copper before the story goes somewhere else entirely...
Never did Python have more fun than when they were playing with authority figures – often in the naughtiest way they could. Bear in mind this was the BBC 40 years ago…
Quote: “Yeah, alright..."
Next: Hell's Grannies, Romans Go Home[page-break]
36. The Penguin On The Television
From the elongated death of Mary Queen of Scots on the radio, to the strangled look on Graham Chapman’s face as he tries his damnedest not to laugh after blurting out “Burma!”, this languid little skit features Chapman and Cleese in full drag and full flow.
“Why’d you say Burma?”
35. Hell’s Grannies
Pushing people off the pavement, graffiti-ing ‘Make tea not love’ on walls, rioting during screenings of The Sound Of Music… old ladies are the new hoodies, according to this gleeful twist on standard moral panic.
And then there are the babysnatchers, not to mention the vicious gangs of ‘Keep Left’ signs. No wonder Chapman’s Sergeant Major steps in to stop the sketch for being “too silly”.
Quote: “This used to be a nice neighbourhood before the old ladies started moving in.”
34. Romans Go Home (Life Of Brian)
Chapman’s Brian gets an impromptu lesson in Latin from a Roman centurion who collars him daubing protest graffiti on a wall.
Clearly written by men still holding bitter resentment for being forced to sit through endless, confusing and ultimately pointless Latin lessons at school.
Quote: “Understand? Now write it out 100 times.”
33. Every Sperm Is Sacred (The Meaning Of Life)
Yes, the song’s mighty catchy, and the dance number is worthy of anything you’ll see in Oliver! (check out the Chinese dragon).
But this extended critique of Catholicism illustrates another key Python trait: equal-opportunity offending.
Quote: “Let the heathens spill theirs on the dusty ground
God shall make them pay for each sperm which can’t be found.”
Next: Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life[page-break]
32. Travel Agent Rant
Mr Smoketoomuch (Idle) tries to book a holiday with Mr Bounder (Palin) and launches into a hilariously sustained rant about the irritations of then-novel package holidays.
Quote: “Shut up! SHUT YOUR BLOODY GOB!!”
31. How Not To Be Seen
Another gem in which the entire budget no doubt went up in flames as various pieces of scrubland are blown up to illustrate the vagaries of detectability. Clue: don’t hide behind a bush.
Quote: “In this picture, there are 47 people. None of them can be seen.”
30. Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life (The Life Of Brian)
Idle’s chirpy cockney attempts to cheer up a mid-crucifixion Brian by singing him a song about how things aren’t so bad, really.
Soiled by overfamiliarity - and being taken out of context - it's a potent example of an underrated Python trick: inky black humour.
Quote: “Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it…”
29. Dynamo Tension
Gilliam gives the concept of body-building his own unique spin in this animation spoofing the famous Charles Atlas adverts that appealed to 90lb weaklings who got sand kicked in their faces.
You can almost hear Gilliams splutters of mirth as he draws increasingly larger and ludicrous muscles, scribbling at them until they strain and stretch and, eventually, pop…
Quote: “Would you like a body that can’t fail to attract women?”
Next: Milkman Seducer, Philosopher's Football Match[page-break]
28. Milkman Seducer
This short-and-not-very-sweet sketch features a busty lady luring Palin’s randy milkman inside her house for a quickie, only for him to discover she’s got a whole room full of other (bored, bearded, skeletal) bottle-droppers locked away, too.
A relative Python rarity - a proper punchline.
27. Philosopher’s Football Match
Sometimes the idea behind the sketch is enough. Here, it's 'Let's prick the dry pomposity of deep thinkers by forcing them to shed their academic dignity and play football.'
The philosophers merely philosophise ("Marx is claiming it was offside!") – but it’s Palin’s cool narration, a tone-perfect imitation of a real sports announcer – that makes this one such a winner.
Quote: “Nietzsche has just been booked for arguing with the referee!”
26. French Taunter (Monty Python And The Holy Grail)
Cleese’s Gallic soldier gives King Arthur and his pals a rough time as he shouts insults (and even hurls cows) from the battlements of two castles the king visits in his quest for the Holy Grail.
Chapman’s baffled, very British incredulousness at the sheer CHEEK of this strange man is almost as funny as Cleese’s outrageous French accent and the blissfully random nature of his taunts.
Quote: “I fart in your general generation! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”
25. Mr Creosote (The Meaning Of Life)
Cleese’s unflappable waiter oozes smarm as he waits on Terry Jones' monstrously obese Mr Creosote ("Three hours in make-up!" - Jones), a grumpy git whose immense appetite is the catalyst for what is, without a doubt, Python’s most wilfully disgusting moment ever.
At first dumped for being ‘unfunny’ by the team as they were making Meaning Of Life, Cleese championed the sketch after deciding he liked the waiter and it was reinstated in all its vomitous glory.
Quote: “Finally, monsieur – a wafer-thin mint.”
Next: Bicycle Repair Man, Blackmail[page-break]
24. Mrs Niggerbaiter
Cleese’s suave politician faces off with his mum and her best friend, the rather inflammatory (in both name and deed) Mrs Niggerbaiter - neeeever get away with that, these days.
They both coo over him as though he’s a wee baby despite the fact that he's clearly a grown man.
It's Cleese’s cool indifference and a small issue of spontaneous combustion that seals it.
Quote: “Does he talk? Does he talk?”
“Of course I can talk. I’m Minister for Overseas Development.”
23. Bicycle Repair Man
It’s a clever reversal of the superhero cliché - a society filled with Supermen is staggered to find a cloth-capped, humble Bicycle Repair Man in their midst.
The irony! The satire! The post-modernism! Or, even better, the hilarious Superman costumes with all the fake padding!
Quote: “Is it a stockbroker? Is it a quantity surveyor? Is it a church warden? No! It’s Bicycle Repair Man!”
22. Live Organ Transplants (The Meaning Of Life)
Half ridiculous farce, half genuinely horrific body-horror, this nasty piece of work from is lightened by Idle seguing into his finest musical moment - ‘The Galaxy Song’.
Taking Jones' bashful - and now widowed - housewife on a fact-packed tour of the universe, he succeeds in convincing her that she doesn't matter and seduces her into surrendering her liver, too.
Quote: “And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space because there’s bugger-all down here on Earth...”
Palin turns on the smarm – which seems to fit him so well – as the host of a twisted game show in which he threatens to expose the dirty sexual secrets of members of the audience unless they phone in and offer him money to stop.
Audacious at the time, but the hilarious ker-chinging number-reel and illicit camerawork now feels like a clip from a depressingly plausible reality TV show.
Quote: “Three thousand pounds, please, to stop us from revealing your name, the names of the three other people involved, the youth organisation to which they belong and the shop where you bought the equipment.”
Next: The Stoning, Killer Bunnies[page-break]
20. The Stoning (The Life Of Brian)
Only the Pythons could take a scene in which a man is about to be brutally stoned to death for saying the Lord’s name and turn it into comedy heaven - by making the stonee dance in defiance of his captors, the guard in charge of the whole thing an imperiously indignant Cleese and the crowd a bunch of women wearing fake beards.
Quote: “Look, I had a lovely supper, and I all I said to my wife was that that piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.”
19. Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Salad Days’
Lashings of hard-boiled eggs and gallons of ginger beer become slashings of body parts and gallons of spurting blood in this tongue-in-cheek homage to Peckinpah’s love of gratuitous gore.
Quote: “I say, anyone for tennis?”
18. Killer Bunny (Monty Python And The Holy Grail)
It’s got nasty, big, pointy teeth, a vicious streak a mile wide and, uh, a cute twitchy nose.
This unlikely guardian is more than a match for Arthur and his silly ker-nigguts, as he discovers when he encounters the brute on his hunt for the Holy Grail.
Quote: “You tit! I soiled my armour, I was so scared!”
17. The Dirty Fork
A Python speciality: an ordinary, everyday event given an increasingly histrionic spin.
In this case, two diners offer a mild complaint about a dirty knife and ask for a fresh one from the waiter, only for the response to escalate into a Shakespearean tragedy.
The punchline at the end is so priceless it gets its own title card…
Quote: “Nothing I can do. Can alter the fact... That in this restaurant. You have been given. A dirty, filthy, smelly piece of cutlery!”
Next: The Black Knight, The Killer Cars[page-break]
16. The Killer Cars
Terry Gilliam’s animations often combined hilarious with just plain disturbing, and this sequence is one of his finest – from the little old lady who trips up a bus to the creepy vigilante cars who leap on innocent pedestrians and gobble them up.
The monstrous, building-gobbling cat is the cherry on top.
15. The Bruces
“G’day, Bruce!” A room full of comic-book Aussies, cork-hats a-bobbing, drawling about Sheilas and complaining about the heat…
It can only be the philosophy department at the University of Woolloomooloo, about to receive a Pommie visitor (Jones, wonderfully nebbish-like).
The Pythons excel in this hilarious bout of Oz-mockery that deliciously dances around the edges of out-and-out xenophobia. 'The Philosopher’s Song' it later spawned is one of the team’s best singalongs ever ("Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle...")
Quote: “Is your name not Bruce, then?”
“No, it’s Michael.”
“I’m afraid that’s going to cause a little confusion. Mind if we call you Bruce?”
14. The Black Knight (Monty Python And The Holy Grail)
King Arthur and his faithful 'steed', Patsy, encounter an immovable object in the middle of a forest: the fearsome Black Knight, who refuses to concede he’s lost a fight even when he’s being hacked into tiny pieces.
Gleefully gory and fuelled by patented Python po-faced British stoicism.
Gilliam says he once saw the movie in New York during the Vietnam War and nobody laughed. "It took the audience a while before they twigged and realised, 'Oh, there’s something funny going on…'"
Quote: “Tis but a scratch!”
13. Defence Against Fresh Fruit
Four reluctant trainees, one screaming, militaristic instructor.
Cleese's feral self-defence teacher is only interested in teaching his weary recruits about how to cope with the unlikely situation of facing an assailant "armed with a piece of fresh fruit".
Best, is Cleese's throbbing-veined apoplexy at Idle's suggestion that he should teach them about how to defend themselves against someone "armed with a pointed stick". Deliciously daft.
Quote: “Let me tell you something, my lad – when you’re walking ’ome tonight and some great homicidal maniac comes after you with a bunch of loganberries, don’t come crying to me!”
Next: The Fish Slapping Dance[page-break]
Fancy an argument? In Pythonland there’s actually a place you can visit to scratch that particular itch, although we’re not sure a disagreement with Cleese’s stony-faced desk-jockey would be our ideal choice of row.
His determination that Palin’s fight-seeking nerd doesn’t get a single disagreement that he hasn’t paid for is wonderfully niggly and, well, postmodern before postmodern had been invented.
No it isn’t.
Yes it is...
Quote: “Is this the right room for an argument?”
11. The Fish-Slapping Dance
Filmed at London's Teddington Lock, where a signed photo of Michael Palin still hangs in the Lock-keeper’s cottage to this day (see below), this 16-second sketch basically consists of two grown men hitting each other with fish.
Rather painfully, the tide went out between rehearsal and the final take, so Palin fell a lot further into the water than he was happy with.
10. Nudge Nudge
One of the sketches deemed good enough to remake for 1971’s And Now For Something Completely Different US compilation movie, this is Eric Idle’s finest acting hour, as his sleazy, double entendre-spouting stranger accosts Jones’ terribly serious businessman in a bar and casts aspersions on the sexual veracity of his wife.
Know what I mean?
Quote: “A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat!”
Terry Jones was never shriller as the waitress extolling the virtues of Spam (the tinned processed meat not unsolicited email) to customers Idle and Chapman.
The sketch was later praised for helping make the notoriously nasty Spam cool again (the Pythons’ tribute is even mentioned on the company’s official website).
The trick is simple: repetition of an absurd word. The more they say 'Spam', the funnier it gets – and the fact that the Green Midget Cafe is filled with Vikings seems to make perfect sense, too.
Quote: “Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam!”
Next: The Four Yorkshiremen[page-break]
8. The Four Yorkshiremen
Originally written for the 1967 'At Last The 1948 Show', this has become an honorary Python sketch by virtue of the performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 1982.
It's a brilliantly observed, over-quoted take on four chippy Northerners comparing notes on the harshness of their respective childhoods.
It succeeds because, despite the escalating absurdity, it's utterly recognisable - we’ve all seen old folks trying to outdo each other by recounting the miseries of their youth.
Though, as the young of today, we don’t believe 'em...
Quote: “A cardboard box? You were lucky! We lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank!”
7. The Spanish Inquisition
It’s true: nobody expected them. Three not-very-scary, scarlet-clad Inquisitors led by Palin’s ridiculously-accented Cardinal with a Biggles-goggled Jones at his side (for no reason we can determine) and a hilariously gurning Gilliam stealing the scene in the background.
It’s the burst of dramatic music that accompanies their every entrance that slays us, though ('JARRING CHORD!' in the script book). Now, where’s that comfy chair?
Quote: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
6. The Ministry Of Silly Walks
It’s not so much the idea of an official Ministry of Silly Walks that makes it a classic. And the script, with Palin asking Cleese’s bureaucrat for a government grant to make his own walk sillier, is only mildly amusing.
What kicks here is Cleese's performance - a tall, bowler-hatted, straight-faced and stiff-upper-lipped civil servant striding through the streets with his legs twisting and flailing, all without the faintest whiff of self-awareness or embarrassment.
Gotta love the impractically silly-walking secretary, too.
Quote: “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, but I’m afraid my walk has become rather sillier recently.”
5. The Upper Class Twit Of The Year
Again, the Pythons take an ordinary event – the Horse Of The Year Show – and warp it with a simple but absurd twist... Thoroughbreds replaced with in-breds.
It's a beautifully structured round of sustained slapstick, with plenty of old-school pratfalling from the Pythons – resplendent in goofy teeth and bowler hats - all tied together by another supreme performance from Cleese as the frantic narrator.
Quote: “And Oliver has run himself over! What a brave twit!”
Next: Lumberjack Song, Dead Parrot[page-break]
4. Lumberjack Song
Palin’s the hairdresser who’s afraid of hair with a secret longing to be... a lumberjack!
Leaping from tree to tree as they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia! With his best girly by his side!
But as the hearty ode to log-felling turns into a cross-dressing confessional, the accompanying manly Mounties grumble and wander off, followed by disillusioned girly Connie Booth (Cleese's future wife).
Quote: “I wish I’d been a girly, just like my dear papa!”
3. Dead Parrot
According to Palin, the mother of all sketches was inspired by a mechanic he hired who explained away every fault on his car with increasingly ridiculous justifications (“The doors have fallen off!”... “Well, they do that...”)
After a brief dalliance with car salesmen, the sketch was revamped by Chapman and Cleese to feature a demised Norwegian blue as the central, undeniably broken item. Beautiful plumage...
Quote: “Now that’s what I call a dead parrot.”
2. The Cheese Shop
Enthusiastic epicure Cleese attempts to buy some cheese from a cheese shop that doesn't seem to actually have any cheese for sale.
Cue the Python's finest two-hander as Cleese and vendor Palin spar over an increasingly bizarre list of world cheeses before Cleese finally cracks under the strain of the in-store bouzouki player.
Recently homaged by Stewart Lee in the almost equally joyous Apple Shop sketch.
Quote: “Venezuelan beaver cheese?”
“Not today, sir, no.”
1. The Piranha Brothers
Showcasing everything you could wish to find in a single Python sketch, this is a merciless send-up of the (then recent) real-life reign of terror inflicted on London’s East End by the Kray twins.
Taking the form of a current-affairs show catchily entitled ‘Ethel The Frog’, it’s the sorry story of gangsters Doug (who used sarcasm as a bitter weapon) and Dinsdale (who lived in fear of a giant hedgehog named Spiny Norman) Piranha.
The extended tale follows their lives from the brothers' birth – on probation – to their fall at the hands of a frustrated thespian Scotland Yard chief (Inspector Harry 'Snapper' Organs).
It's a show-off showcase of the team at their absolute peak, from Cleese glamming up as the haughty lady Dinsdale used to step out with, to Chapman’s sleazy schoolteacher miming somebody’s guts falling out.
Watch out for a guest appearance from Spiny Norman at the end, too...
Quote: “Dinsdale was a gentleman. And what’s more, he knew how to treat a female impersonator.”
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