Monty Python – the British comedy troupe consisting of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin – came out of nowhere in 1969 onto a comedy scene that had gone stale and become set in its ways and its old hat conventions. They shook it up with a stream of consciousness style and an absurdist sensibility and changed the face of comedy forever. The influence that the Pythons have had on the world of comedy is tantamount to the influence that the Beatles have had on the world of music – it’s crazy. The 2005 “Comedian’s Comedian” poll, which surveyed the opinions of more than 300 standup comics, comedy writers, comedy producers, comedy directors, and comedy insiders from all walks of the English-speaking world, found that three of the six members of Monty Python are regarded as being among the top 50 greatest comedians of all time: Michael Palin was rated 30th, Eric Idle was rated 21st, and John Cleese was given the number 2 spot. The troupe as a whole has had a wildly massive impact on the world of comedy. You’d be hard pressed to find a single person working in comedy who does not regard the Pythons among their top influences. So, here are 15 ways in which Monty Python revolutionized comedy.
15. Using simplicity to their advantage
The key to a lot of Monty Python’s greatest material is its delightful simplicity. Take the “Dead Parrot” sketch, for example. A man has been swindled by a shifty salesman in a pet store who has told him that the parrot he just sold him is asleep, but then the man realized that the parrot was actually dead, so he’s returned to the store to get his money back. It’s a very simple setup, and yet the comic geniuses of John Cleese and Michael Palin managed to squeeze more than five minutes of hysterical laughs out of it. The Pythons are living, breathing proof that when it comes to sketch comedy, you don’t need a really great idea – you just need a really great execution.
14. They paved the way for South Park
South Park has been one of the greatest comedy series on television for over two decades now. It has an absurdist and satirical sensibility that its creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have attributed to the influence of Monty Python. For starters, the cut-out animation style was initially inspired by Terry Gilliam’s animations from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And then you’ve got all the other homages, like Phil Collins as one of the Gumbies in the episode “Timmy 2000,” the recreation of King Arthur’s “Open the gates!” in the episode “Best Friends Forever,” and the Allied Atheist Alliance, the United Atheist Alliance, and the Unified Atheist League arguing over their name in the episode “Go God Go XII.” Plus, Eric Idle voiced Dr. Vosknocker in the feature length movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.
13. Making the end credits funny
The Pythons weren’t just dedicated to making the content of their show funny – they wanted to make everything funny, including the end credits. Comedy filmmakers will sometimes make their end credits a part of the fun with a blooper reel playing alongside the credits list or misspelling all the job titles like the start of Dumb and Dumber. That all started with Monty Python, who didn’t want their show to stop making their audience laugh for a second. In one episode, they had the credits roll sideways. In another, they used gag names for the cast and crew, and in another, they rolled the end credits at the end of an episode (and sometimes didn’t play the opening titles until the very end). One time, they also rolled the end credits a bit early so that they could do some joke BBC show announcements (even using the broadcaster’s “rolling Earth” logo).
12. LGBTQ representation
Graham Chapman was one of the first few members of the LGBTQ community to be accepted into the world of comedy. Of course, these days, we have many great LGBTQ comedians on TV and on the stage: Tig Notaro, Rosie O’Donnell, Stephen Fry, Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, Tituss Burgess, and Kate McKinnon, to name just a few. But before all that, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the world was homophobic. Gay people were being taken to court and chemically castrated for their “crimes against humanity.” Chapman, however, never shied away from his sexual orientation in public appearances, no matter how controversial it was. And the rest of the Pythons were very supportive of it. When one viewer wrote to them to voice her concern that she’d heard there might be an immoral gay in their presence, Eric Idle wrote back to tell her, “Don’t worry, ma’am, we’ve found out who it was and had him taken him out back and stoned to death.”
11. No sketch endings
One of the very first decisions made by the Pythons during the earliest discussions of their sketch show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was that none of their sketches would have an ending – the obligatory and often disappointing punchline that’s supposed to punctuate the sketch and wrap it all up. Saturday Night Live writer and performer Tina Fey said of this technique, “Sketch endings are overrated. Their key was to do something as long as it was funny and then just stop and do something else.” Stephen Colbert was inspired by the Pythons’ writing style, too. The Late Show host said, “There was one phrase [the Pythons] used…‘justly underrated’ – that torturing of words, when the words eat themselves, you’ll find that all through the stuff I do.”
10. No punchlines
One of the most revolutionary comic techniques to be pioneered by Monty Python was making punchlines extinct. As summed up by Martin Short of Second City, what the Pythons’ comedy made everybody working in comedy realize was that “absurdity in character could replace the punchline, the ba-dum-bum thing.” It’s not just Martin Short who was inspired by them, either. In fact, just about everyone who’s ever performed comedy, directed comedy, written comedy, or written about comedy has cited Monty Python among their biggest influences. It was put very eloquently by Wayne’s World star Mike Myers, who said, “Everything I’ve ever done can be distilled to at least one Python sketch. If comedy had a periodic element table, Python would have more than one atom on it.”
9. They didn’t slow down the funny to explain themselves
It’s no secret that most of modern comedy has been influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the influence of Monty Python. Matt Groening has previously stated that Monty Python’s “high velocity sense of the absurd and not stopping to explain yourself” was hugely influential on how he made The Simpsons. The Pythons would just fire off jokes and non-sequiturs and random titbits at a rapid rate, and if something was tongue in cheek or didn’t make any logical sense, they didn’t waste any time with telling you where they were coming from with the joke. They would just move on with another one. The satirical and silly adventures of Springfield’s nuclear family – as well as many, many more shows beyond that – have been heavily inspired by this valiant comedic technique.
8. Addressing controversial topics frankly
The Monty Python guys were pretty fearless in tackling controversial issues. Now, this is pretty commonplace these days, but they started it. Back in the 1960s when they made their name, everyone was a lot more conservative and traditional. And then the Pythons came along with a sketch in which a man said his hobbies were “golf, strangling small animals, and masturbation.” Naturally, the BBC were desperate to censor the line and get the word “masturbation” out of there, and Eric Idle apparently said to his boss, the head of the BBC, “Everyone masturbates. Don’t you masturbate, sir?” He did not get a response. Ever since then, comedians and comedy writers have been tackling controversial subjects without remorse, reservations, or censorship (well, depending on the venue) and getting big laughs from it.
7. They killed someone with laughter
In a morbid case of life imitating art, the comedy of Monty Python once killed a man. On Monty Python’s Flying Circus, there was a famous sketch called “The Funniest Joke in the World” about a joke that’s so funny, literally anyone who hears it dies from laughing too much. In the sketch, the British forces use it for good, winning World War II by translating the joke into German and transmitting it to German troops. But then, a couple of decades later, they actually did kill a man with a joke. While not one of the Pythons’ official movies, A Fish Called Wanda was written by John Cleese, who stars alongside a fellow Python, Michael Palin. The man laughed so much that his heart rate increased to 500 beats per minute and he was killed by cardiac arrest.
6. They didn’t underestimate their audience
Monty Python never underestimated the intelligence of their audience. This is the key to the success of a lot of artists. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of his audience, either. What the Pythons realized was that just because their audience were watching their show to zonk out and laugh, it didn’t mean they were stupid. Therefore, they crafted sketches that were about intellectual topics like Proust and philosophy and Shakespeare and the Bible. They don’t assume that you don’t know about these subjects, just because you’re watching some comedy on the television. Rather, they realize that you’re not an idiot, so they don’t patronize you like a lot of other comedians and comedy troupes do. And guess what, their intellectual sketches are among their best, so it all worked out.
5. Satire with a straight face
Do you remember the classic sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus where it’s like a news show hosted by Graham Chapman investigating unusual sexual perversions? They have John Cleese on as a guest, appearing anonymously because he’s embarrassed about his sexual tendencies. They refer to him as “Mr. X,” which is the kind of moniker that a lot of news shows would give their anonymous guests to protect their identities. Chapman introduces him as Mr. X, but then immediately says, “But his real name is this,” and a title card shows his full name and address. It’s just one of many examples of the Pythons making ridiculous and biting satire even funnier by doing it with a completely straight face. This is exactly what Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker would do years later by casting dramatic actors in their silly debut movie, Airplane!, to deliver the absurdist dialogue.
By definition, a non-sequitur is “a conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement.” One of the most wonderful and groundbreaking and revolutionary things that Monty Python did for the world of comedy is seeing the potential for humor in this. They saw that the concept of characters saying things to one another that don’t make any logical sense, and having the other characters reply with equally ludicrous, equally illogical statements, rather than having a “voice of reason,” would make the sketches funnier, and they were definitely right about that one. These are the kind of jokes that take you aback and make you go, “What?!” before you start laughing, because it’s so strange and out of the blue.
3. Stream of consciousness style
One of the main ways in which the Pythons changed the face of comedy is their stream of consciousness style and loose structure, which served to make the absurdity and surreal nature of their humor work. It all started with Terry Gilliam’s innovative cut-out animations, which the Pythons recognized were the perfect way to seamlessly connect two completely unrelated ideas (most of them ridiculous, yet hilarious non-sequiturs). Michael Palin described it as “a way of doing things differently,” so the team incorporated the stream of consciousness style into their writing. This presented an opportunity to throw the tradition of punchlines out the window and explore every scenario and squeeze every little bit of comedy out of it. The influence of this style is evident in everything from Anchorman to It’s Always Sunny.
2. Absurdist comedy
Before Monty Python came along, all of the humor in the world of comedy was pretty grounded and formulaic. It was jokes about in-laws and everyday situations. It was setup and punchline, all in relatable terms, using things from the real world. But the Pythons got creative with it and cracked the whole thing wide open. They brought in their absurdist sensibility and changed the face of comedy forever. By bringing absurdist comedy into existence and blowing the minds of comedy nerds everywhere, the Pythons paved the way for the likes of Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Matt Groening. The humor is bizarre, surreal, and beyond all bounds of logic. Absurdist comedy isn’t suited to everyone’s taste, but it is fiercely inventive and bloody brilliant.
1. Bringing the word Pythonesque into existence
The Pythons changed comedy so much that the people at Oxford English Dictionary have entered a whole new word, Pythonesque, to describe the glut of comedy that they inspired. The dictionary defines it as an adjective like this: “Denoting or resembling the absurdist or surrealist humour or style of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a British television comedy series (1969-74).” However, Terry Jones has said that, because the aim with Monty Python was to create something completely original and unique and impossible to categorize, “the fact that Pythonesque is now a word in the Oxford English Dictionary shows the extent to which we failed.” But the thing is, Terry, it could only be categorized by creating a whole new category for it, so it was still a wholly new style of its own.