Life of Python

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Graham Chapman (Estate), John Cleese, Terry Gilliam,
Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Bob McCabe:
The Pythons’ Autobiography By The Pythons
Orion Books 2005 (2003)

All the Pythons (one from his grave) give a collective account of the career of the owner of one Flying Circus, an account made up of extracts from interviews and extracts from diaries and published memoirs.

The late Graham Chapman is represented by his own surreal recollections and comments from family members and partner, while the rest discourse freely on their early lives, education, university experiences (principally Oxbridge) and occupations as comedy writers, actors and (in the case of Terry Gilliam) cartoonist, before fame, fortune, frustration and infamy beckoned.

If you were of the generation that lived through the Python years this is a fascinating trip down Memory Lane with many revelations and insights. If you came to Monty Python late (perhaps in the US after their star suddenly appeared in the ascendant, or through the medium of their films or the surprise musical phenomenon that was Spamalot) this may well be a rather curious ramble through British idiosyncrasies over four decades and more.

I’m in the former group — I remember watching the first episode in 1969 in a student flat, an initial bemusement subsequently giving way to outright amusement — and devoured the autobiography in very little time. My only reservations came from the way the account just petered away at the end, with little exploration of the individual Pythons’ later career trajectories.

But that’s just a minor personal gripe. More interesting to me now is how such a disparate group managed to maintain enough cohesiveness over several TV series, tours and films: a shared sense of humour seems to have been their mainstay through good times and bad.

This standard-size paperback edition contains a selection of photographs and the text, but the original large-format hardback contains much more in the way of illustrations, many by the inimitable Terry Gilliam. Unless you are a fully formed nerd or require an oversized paperweight for your coffee table the paperback is perfectly adequate.


First published 22nd August 2013, reposted 5th October 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first tv transmission of Monty Python’s Flying Circus

37 thoughts on “Life of Python

  1. Monty Python changed my life! I remember watching it as a kid. In the US we saw it for the first time in the late 70’s on PBS. We had nothing like this. I was instantly hooked and blame my quirky sense of humor on the troupe. Over the years I have not lost my love for them. Here on my office desk sits the Black Knight and French soldier. I even have an Elderberry bush growing in my front yard, though I adamantly deny ever “smelling of Elderberries”.

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    1. Ah, the Black Knight! “It’s only a flesh wound!”
      We all have our favourite moments, don’t we? Mine is “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”

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        1. Royalty’s no guarantee of freedom from shit these days, I can think of at least one royal who has an Order of Ordure well and truly round, or rather in, the neck…

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  2. I’m a fan too. From Europe. Not from the beginning, but from whatever was televised in Spain. But we had the humor dubbed, and even so it’s a distinctive humor that appealed to many people all over the world. (I think if you love history there’s a high chance that you would appreciate them).

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    1. It’s a constant wonder to me how certain humour does or doesn’t translate, Silvia, and especially the peculiar version that Monty Python offered: jokes about British institutions, and cross-dressing, and surrealist situations. I’d imagine that not all of it travelled well so perhaps shows we’re edited down for broadcast outside the UK. Still, I’m glad you appreciated it!

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      1. I think MP translates well. Maybe some of it is lost, of course, but the cross dressing and surrealism, we got that. Maybe we perceive a bit of those jokes about the institutions. We have a monarquy and and heavily burocratized country. I don’t know how much is lost, as in translation, but they are very popular in Spain, even my Maltese husband who is my age gets them. Even more, since he got them in English and Malta is a former colony.

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        1. Good to know that Spanish audiences understood the humour and ‘got’ who were the targets of the jokes. I know that Python humour was (and no doubt still is) very popular with certain sections of the US audience, especially males (unsurprisingly) as the success of Spamalot indicated.

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  3. I fear that I am very odd because I just can’t get Python humour. Everyone around me loves it: my partner and my son can quote long passages and know all the films. I do like ‘always look on the bright side of life’ though. Until I remember the scene it’s attached too! 🙄

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    1. I watched again the first ever broadcast episode which was recently reshown, and found it not as dire as I expected. But I agree, it’s an acquired taste which you either get or you don’t!

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    1. There are different kinds of humour, aren’t there: slapstick, joke-based stand-up, observational humour, satire, surrealist business, and so on. Python’s humour was, bar the riddles and puns, a particular mix of the rest, it seems to me: surrealist slapstick and observational satire on societal conventions especially, all taken to ridiculous extremes. But it clearly doesn’t tickle everybody’s funnybones, and not should it.

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  4. Some of the skits, I thought, were offensively insulting to the working class and to women. (I didn’t mind it when they insulted the aristocracy–remember the Gumbies?) But others were totally brilliant. Remember the women discussing Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy? One of our family favorites was the skit about the penguin on your television blowing up. And the cheese shop sketch. And Cardinal Richelieu torturing the man with the dreaded Comfy Chair (“Not the Comfy Chair!”)

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    1. I’d judge the Pythons were fairly even handed about being offensive and insulting to classes and genders, given that most of them were males from the upper echelons of the the middle class. But they were definitely of their period in terms of attitudes.

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  5. Oddly for a bunch of uni boys it was privilege they mostly took aim at. You cannot judge a sketch written half a century ago through the lens of modern morals. That way madness lies. The Brand New Bok is what made me want to write comedy. Graham Chapman’s Liar’s Autobiography tells a lot of what went on back then. And you’ll notice my friend Chris’s comment to my Fight or Flight post. Python changed comedy forever and their influence is around us every day. Great blog.

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    1. Thanks, Colin, and as per your friend Chris’ comment, your ‘5 minute’ observation actually speaks volumes about the innovative Pythons’ impact on comedy. Sadly their freewheeling approach has largely fallen into abeyance.

      Next, I must review the book of the radio series I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue

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  6. I’m a fully formed nerd – I own the big hardback! I was only 9 when it was first broadcast, so it was the repeats in the later 70s that caught my attention. My best ever bragging story concerns the Pythons and Life of Brian (but I was saving that for my own post)!.

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  7. Oh my goodness, I loved watching Monty Python – I think I watched every episode of the Flying Circus, and I have several favorite sketches (the alien pudding trying to win Wimbledon, or the dead parrot sketch, or the funniest joke in the world…)
    And then the movies. Life of Brian, Holy Grail… Their absurd humor was just a thing apart, and I still love revisiting their work 😀

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    1. I can’t tell you how life-affirming it is, Ola, that so many replies to this post testify to a positive love of MP and all that pertains. I wish, though, that I could recall the alien Wimbledon pudding sketch — try as I may that has completely escaped me.

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    1. How I envy you that connection with your father, Colin, I don’t think mine would have got that humour, and as he died from a heart attack in early 1973, aged only 51, I will never know. We were barely on speaking terms at that time, unfortunately.

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  8. Pingback: Python at 50, and my Life of Brian story… – Annabookbel

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