Perhaps the most influential comedy troupe of all time, Monty Python revolutionized comedy, altered all that came after them. Serving as an inspiration to everyone from Stephen Fry to Matt Groening, the group made a huge impact in the 70s particularly for their bizarre, off-kilter style of comedy. Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin and John Cleese debuted their act in 1969 on the TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They would go on to have iconic films like ‘Life of Brian’ and ‘Monty Python and The Holy Grail’ but they also set the bar in the sketch work. For this, we look only at the Flying Circus to count down the 10 greatest sketches by comedy’s most significant players.
10. Fish-Slapping Dance
One of Python friend George Harrison’s favorite sketches, this appears in episode 2 of the 3rd series of Flying Circus.
In this short, 20-second sketch, John Cleese and Michael Palin are dressed in pith hats and safari outfits as Palin lightly hits Cleese in the face with some small fish whilst dancing. He does this multiple times over some light music, constantly lighting slapping him before returning to his original spot and pausing. The music comes to a halt as Cleese pulls out a huge trout, lines it up with Palin and smacks him with it – knocking Palin into the Teddington Lock. After Palin falls in, an animated Palin is eaten by a German fish who himself is eaten by a British fish, who is eaten by a Chinese fish.
One of Monty Python’s best-known sketches, the lock water apparently dipped suddenly when filming meaning Palin had to do a much greater fall than expected. An utterly meaningless and stupid sketch, it perfectly surmises the Python essence.
With the ubiquity of Spam in Britain since World War 2 making the public grow sick of the canned meat, the Pythons went about portraying this in a 1970 sketch.
The plot of this sketch sees Mr. Bun (Eric Idle) and Mrs. Bun (Graham Chapman) in the fictitious Green Midget Café faced with a menu mostly consisting of Spam. Spam is practically in every meal alongside eggs, sausages, bacon and a whole lot more Spam. Chapman’s character who hates Spam is upset at the sheer dominance of the canned food in every meal, to which Idle’s character (who plays her husband) who loves Spam offers to eat it – shocked at his wife’s hate.
Shortly afterwards, a group of Vikings enter the shop singing about their love of the meat. After these Nords invade, a Hungarian arrives with an accent, only to be taken away by a police constable. A historian in a studio reporting on this soon is shown, with this cutaway becoming more bizarre as he starts repeating the use of the word “Spam” before the backdrop turns into the restaurant.
So significant was this that the internet term ‘spam’ was created referring to the excessive delivery of unwanted mail, reflecting the repetition of Spam’s quantity in the sketch. Furthermore, the programming system Python was named after the group, with the foo and bar functioned replaced with spam and eggs.
8. Upper Class Twit of The Year
Mocking the hapless British upper-class, this sketch from the Flying Circus’s inaugural series. In this sports-esque event, John Cleese narrates the event set up to find the 127th annual Twit of The Year.
Comically, the participants were introduced with silly titles. This includes Vivian Smith-Smythe-Smith having an O-level in camel hygiene, Nigel Incubator-Jones’s best friend being a tree and Gervaise Brook-Hampster being used as a wastepaper basket by his father.
The obstacle course includes events the dimwitted contestants struggle with, starting off with walking along a straight line. They then must jump over a fence 3 matchboxes tall which many are hesitant to do or fail, before kicking a beggar. Then they have to reverse into a cut-out of an old lady before driving off, as the camera cuts back to see that Oliver St John-Mollusc has accidentally run himself over somehow. After this, they had the task of waking the neighbor by making a loud noise of some description. Whilst a foot away, they then have to shoot a rabbit that is tied down, many fail even when the animal is stationary, having to bludgeon the rabbits with the butt of their guns. The penultimate stage is to remove a bra from a mannequin, described as the hardest event by the commentator. The winner of the whole competition is then determined by the first to shoot themselves. Some twits even shoot each other to cost themselves a place, with one knocking themselves out with a gun after failing to shoot himself.
The top 3 are commemorated with their coffins on a podium. Cleese finally declares, “there’ll certainly be some car door slamming in the streets of Kensington tonight!”. Absolute insanity, this is a fun sketch in which Python use their slapstick and bizarre comedy to send a message.
7. Nudge Nudge
Originally written by Eric Idle for Ronnie Barker, the script was rejected with Idle going on to use the idea in the 3rd ever episode of Flying Circus. Elvis Presley’s favorite all-time sketch by the troupe, this sketch is noted for its use of innuendo.
In this, keen Idle sits very close to a gentleman, played by Terry Jones, in a pub. With complex questioning, he asks the confused patron a number of ambiguous and uncertain questions. Dropping these double entendres, he constantly shows signs of the fact he is being indirect, using the phrases “nudge, nudge” and “wink, wink”. The man eventually asks exactly what Idle is insinuating, to which Idle tells him about the beating around the bush eventually asking if he’s slept with a woman.
Jones replies in the affirmative, to which Eric asks “What’s it like?”. This is unique as it has an ending punchline that many other sketches do not have so clearly. These idioms of sexual innuendo are now famous and have garnered wide-spread use as a result of this sketch.
6. Self-Defence Against Fresh Fruit
In this piece, John Cleese plays the role of a drill sergeant-like instructor who teaches his class against someone armed with fresh fruit. The students, played by the remaining cast minus Terry Gilliam, are frustrated about the weeks-long cast on defending yourself about everything from grapefruits and lemons to plums and cherries. Cleese retaliates claiming: “When you’re walking home tonight and some great homicidal maniac comes after YOU with a bunch of loganberries, don’t come cryin’ to me!”
Cleese demonstrates how to stop a banana attack by taking down the assailant before eating the banana thus disarming him. He asks a student played by Graham Chapman to try and attack Cleese so he can show how you defend yourself. Just before Chapman can attack though, John shoots him. He then asks Terry Jones’s character to attack him with a raspberry, throwing away his gun to ensure Jones he will not shoot him. Once moving towards him, Cleese drops a 16-ton weight on Terry.
With the 2 other students killed, Palin and Idle are hesitant but Cleese releases a tiger from a cage, killing both men. Cleese explains tiger are good as they take down the assailant and disarm him by eating the fruit. He then warns imagery pupils that he’s wired himself to gelignite before exploding.
5. The Lumberjack Song
A song in which Michael Palin cuts down trees, wears a flannel shirt and is depicted as a macho lumberjack – this is likely the best-known Python song from any sketch they performed.
Palin sings a masculine song in this role alongside Cleese’s then-wife and Fawlty Towers co-writer Connie Booth. Alongside a Mountie chorus, Palin lists the many manly activities of a day in the life of a lumberjack. His song reveals more out-of-character traits such as pressing wild flowers and putting on women’s clothing. The Mounties are confused and hesitant but nonetheless join in the chorus. Palin reveals in the next verse that he “wears high heels, suspenders and a bra” much to the disgust of the Mounties who walk off. Palin finishing off, claiming “I wish I was a girly, just like my dear papa!”.
Palin’s ‘best girl’ cries, stating she thought he was “so butch” before leaving. The Mounties then hurl abuse at Palin whilst chucking eggs and fruit at him.
Although it may not stand up as well in hindsight, this sketch is certainly one of their most memorable moments, a staple of live shows. Originating the term of “he’s a lumberjack and he’s okay”, this is one of the most instantly recognizable skits in Python history.
4. Ministry of Silly Walks
A way of poking fun at bureaucratic inefficiency, this satirical sketch has become that of UK legend.
In this, we open with a bowler-wearing, high-class Cleese – playing the character of Mr. Teabag – doing a number of particularly peculiar walks down the street before entering The Ministry of Silly Walks business place in Whitehall. Once entering, he is greeted by more strange walkers down the hall before arriving at his office. He apologizes to the waiting Mr. Putey (Michael Palin), explaining the silliness of his walk growing more bizarre, hence making Teabag late for his destination.
Putey explains his walk, which is significantly less silly but rather just obscure. Cleese says his issue is not worth funding, telling him this news whilst walking in increasingly varying and bombastic ways. This is followed by his secretary Mrs. Two-Lumps who spills Cleese’s coffee due to her walk, before leaving having made a huge mess everywhere.
A pop culture hit, it has appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to Futurama to GoldenEye 007.
3. Argument Clinic
In this iconic sketch, Palin and Cleese start having an argument, seems simple enough and not comedy material, right?
Palin meets the woman at reception, stating he wants an argument and will take the single session course. He initially walks into the wrong office, where a character played by Chapman hurls insults at Palin, before stating he is in the clinic dedicated to abuse and that Palin is in the wrong room.
Palin eventually walks into Cleese’s room asking if it’s the correct location, with Cleese telling Palin he has already told him. The duo then both argue about if that event happened before Palin points out this is contradiction and not a true argument. Cleese announces time has expired whilst Palin argues otherwise but John does not relent, only arguing if paid. A dissatisfied Palin finally gives in and pays up, with Cleese saying he has not paid to resume their arguing. Palin calls it contradiction as Cleese says he could be arguing in his free time before an annoyed Michael walks out.
Palin walks into a complaint office that sees Eric Idle complaining about his shoes before entering a room where Terry Jones is. In Jones’s room, the concept is being hit on the head lessons, which a baffled Palin questions the existence of in the first place. It all ends when 3 policemen portrayed by Idle, Jones and Chapman turn up, interrupting the sketch.
2. Spanish Inquisition
This sketch is well-known for popularizing the now legendary phrase: “NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!”.
It starts with Graham Chapman having a conversation with his wife, played by long-time Python friend and actress Carol Cleveland. After being questioned by his wife, he claims he did not expect some kind of Spanish Inquisition before a jarring chord signals the arrival of a trio of Cardinals arrive played by Palin, Jones and Gilliam, all decked in dramatic red clothing.
They initially have trouble stating their case, needing to exit and re-enter to start again. This happens many times as they flunk their lines, constantly reasserting that nobody expected their arrival although Chapman clearly did.
The Cardinals then order the couple confess, haplessly challenging them to state their guilt. They then pursue to attack her, the leader commanding: “Poke her with the soft cushions!”, as a tied-up lady is jabbed with fluffy pillows. The trio bring out their deadliest torture method…the comfy chair. They push her into the furniture, with Palin threatening, “Now — you will stay in the Comfy Chair until lunch time, with only a cup of coffee at eleven!”.
Utter nonsense that rewrites history, it is a Python blueprint we have come to love. Perhaps this sketch’s popularity is better known about than the real Spanish Inquisition who brutally gained information through genuinely horrific ways from the 15th-19th century. Either way, it has become one of Monty Python’s best-known works, especially due to its absurdity, costumes and catchphrase throughout.
1. Dead Parrot
From Flying Circus’s first series, this sketch focuses on a reliant store salesman who refuses to accept the faulty nature of his product. Palin does not accept a customer, Mr Praline (played by John Cleese), in his toil of purchasing a dead parrot, a breed of the fiction Norwegian Blue.
Cleese explains the parrot he purchased has died, after having only bought it half an hour ago. The shopkeeper instead claims it is just resting, before further dodging questioning by repeatedly referencing the beauty of the plumage. Praline shouts at the cage but there is no semblance of movement within the cage before Palin hits it so it shakes, exclaiming that it moved. In reaction, Cleese grabs the lifeless bird; shouting in its ear, hitting it on the counter, shaking it and dropping it but to no avail. Palin further states it is “stunned” and “pining for the fjords”. Cleese reveals he had found it had been nailed down to see alive. Cleese goes on a long tirade, using many euphemisms to express just how dead the bird is.
Palin tells him he has to go to his brother’s pet shop in Bolton for a refund. When there, the store owner (Palin with a faux moustache), explains he is in Ipswitch, not Bolton. Cleese finds out from a train attendant it is Bolton, whilst looking around suspiciously. John returns to the pet shop where the keeper explains it was a pun, before correcting himself and saying it was a palindrome. Cleese explains it is not, as a palindrome of Bolton would be ‘Notlob’, Cleese complains it is all too silly before a policeman played by Graham Chapman ends the sketch.
A satirical take on the cultural struggle between the 2 parties, it has become some the group’s best-known work. A timeless classic, it has been performed countless times, often with the piece differing in its nature but never veering drastically from the original. This work has cropped up elsewhere in British TV, in everything from Not The 9’O Clock News to Death In Paradise. The sketch was so prevalent, part of it was used during Graham Chapman’s eulogy, with Cleese using the same words as his euphemisms for death in this skit.
It seems that this will forever be the piece that fans look back on to reflect on the true brilliance of Monty Python.