May 11, 2023

The Creation of Comedy Troupe Monty Python

The Creation of Comedy Troupe Monty Python

May 11, 1969. Six comedians in London, England join forces to form one of the age’s most influential comedy troupes: Monty Python.


Cold Open

It’s May 11th, 1969.

Twenty-eight-year-old American cartoonist and animator Terry Gilliam hurries impatiently through the streets of North London. He’s late for an important meeting. Terry is trying to find an obscure Indian restaurant where his friend, the British comic actor John Cleese, is waiting for him. 

But as Terry twists and turns through London’s busy, labyrinthine roads, he risks missing the meeting altogether. Terry looks again at the crumpled-up piece of paper he wrote the address on. He thought he was on the right road, and now he’s not so sure. But, just as Terry looks up to double-check the name on a street sign, he spots the doorway of an Indian restaurant.

A bell chimes above the door as he walks into the place. It’s busy, and the staff is furiously running around attempting to fill orders of their popular curry dishes.

Through the chaos, Terry sees a very tall man gesturing to him; it’s John Cleese. But he’s not alone.

Unbeknownst to Terry, he was not the only one John called to the restaurant; also invited were four more of the country’s sharpest comedic writers and performers.

Terry walks over and embraces John who quickly makes introductions. On one side of the table are Michael Palin and Terry Jones – who have been writing and performing with each other since their days in Oxford University’s comedy club. On the other side, sits Graham Chapman, John’s writing partner, who's speaking amiably with their fellow Cambridge alum, Eric Idle.

As Terry takes his seat at the table, the group starts to make fun of the newcomer’s coat — a massive thing Terry bought in his travels to Afghanistan, always a conversation piece, and easily the loudest thing that anyone in the restaurant is wearing. But soon enough, John cuts off their banter. He didn’t invite them here for a quick meal or a catch-up; he has much bigger plans to discuss.

After Terry Gilliam’s arrival, the comedians get down to the business of forming what will become one of the most influential and successful sketch comedy troupes of all time - Monty Python. With a shared desire to revolutionize comedy and embody the era’s sweeping changes in British sensibility, the group will push boundaries and captivate the country’s youth with their absurdist, silly humor. The Pythons will become a force in the comedy world, reaching international prominence and becoming a cultural phenomenon not long after joining forces on May 11th, 1969.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 11th, 1969: The Creation of Comedy Troupe Monty Python.

Act One: Stop that…it’s silly.

It’s the summer of 1969, just a few weeks after the six comedians first met in North London.

Inside the BBC’s headquarters, a meeting is underway between the newly-formed comedy troupe and the head of the network’s comedy division, Mike Mills. As Mike patiently puffs on a cigarette, the six comedians stumble their way through a pitch for a new sketch comedy show.

Mike is familiar with most of the guys. Several of them have been employed as writers at the BBC for some time, cutting their teeth on the network’s various comedy programs. It was based on the strength of their work in front of and behind the camera that they were granted the opportunity to pitch Mike a show. But the comics are ill-prepared for today’s meeting, and their pitch is going terribly.

The group seems to trip over their words. As one member trails off, another jumps in to interject, but none of them have any real insight to offer what sort of show they're imagining. 

Mike tries to ask the comics prompting questions. But they have no answers. They don’t know what kind of show they want to make. They don’t know its format. They don’t know if there will be music, or if there will be guest stars. They have no concrete concept to offer up at all. For fifteen agonizing minutes, Mike tries and fails to get any direct responses out of them.

The group’s only saving grace is Mike’s confidence in their abilities. Though they have little to show for it today, Mike knows the young men are talented, and he has a gut feeling that it’s worth giving them a chance. So exasperated, he shakes an admonishing finger at the six comedians at the end of their disastrous pitch but offers them an opportunity nonetheless for a 13-episode run.

The group gets down to work immediately, breaking into writing teams they formed from their university years. On one team are former Cambridge classmates John Cleese and Graham Chapman. On the other are Oxford alumni Michael Palin and Terry Jones. And floating between them are Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam.

Together, they conceive of a show irreverent and absurd, full of sketches satirical of Britain’s stuffy society, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. For weeks, they work furiously, developing their bizarre ideas. One group writes a sketch, the other improves it, and Eric moves back and forth to refine their concepts. And whenever the writers run out of ideas, they turn to Gilliam to add something bizarre with his absurdist, stream-of-consciousness, and stop-motion animations which will become a trademark for the group.

By the end, they have scripts for thirteen episodes that they’re happy with. All that’s left to do is give their new show a name.

In each one of the scripts they’ve shown Mike Mills so far, there has been a different, odd working name for the series – none of which they, or Mike, actually like. And for weeks, Mike has been nagging the group to just decide on a title, but they struggled. Nothing has felt quite right.

After weeks of procrastination, and with their first broadcast date imminent, the comics finally assemble to decide on a title once and for all. Drinks are poured and pints are consumed. Each member throws out their ideas. They all agree that the name should be as random as can be. The show they’ve concocted is a unique blend of surrealism, absurdity, and wordplay that’s often nonsensical and unpredictable. It's hard to come up with a name that makes when the thing you are naming makes no sense at all.

For a while, the frontrunner is “Gwen Dibley” — a phrase with no significance beyond sounding funny. But John likes the sound of the word “python” and insists it be part of the title. Eric snickers as he makes another suggestion: “How about Monty Python?”

For a moment, there’s silence. Then, John begins to giggle. His laugh is infectious, and one by one, Graham, Michael, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam are all howling in laughter.

The name sticks. From then on, the troupe will be coined Monty Python, and their show entitled, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” With a name in place, the group will continue to flesh out their ideas and polish their sketches. By October 1969, it will come time to begin their live tapings and share their creations with the public. But just as the troupe gets their first taste of success, an internal struggle will begin to tear the comics apart.

Act Two: Breaking Apart

It’s the evening of October 5th, 1969 at the BBC’s studios, the day of the first live airing of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Graham Chapman nervously paces backstage while waiting for his scene partner, Terry Jones, to arrive on set. They’ve rehearsed their upcoming sketch a dozen times before, but they’ve never done it before a live audience. Graham knows that they think their material is great and makes them laugh, but he’s starting to worry that no one else will.

The audience that the BBC has packed into the studio isn’t helping Graham’s nerves either. The crowd skews old - very old. And Graham doubts they will get the Pythons’ edgy, youthful humor. But there’s another, more pressing concern. Recently, he’s been having a tough time remembering his lines - especially in the afternoon.

Though he and his fellow Pythons don’t realize it yet, Graham is a functional alcoholic. Ever since he was a tall thirteen-year-old invited to play on the local rugby team, Graham has been drinking. And now that he’s in his thirties, his alcohol consumption is heavier and more concerning. By the time of the evening taping, Graham has been drinking since morning and has consumed more than a pint of gin.

But, fortunately, as he goes on stage with Terry Jones, Graham is able to perform his lines. Despite his fears, he and Terry get through the sketch and even get some laughs. The rest of the Pythons also sail through their numerous sketches and costume changes without any mishaps.

But even while the show goes off without a hitch, the comics remain nervous. As they come off stage, they wonder what the viewers at home think of their performance, or if anyone is watching them at all. It’s possible that they’ve made a show that nobody will ever see.

And, at first, this seems to be the case. The show’s ratings are the lowest for any of the BBC’s entertainment shows, with only 3% of Britain’s population tuning in. The poor viewership upsets the BBC’s executives who pass memos to each other decrying the show’s disgusting and nihilistic humor.

But as tapings continue, things start to look up. Monty Python’s Flying Circus transforms into a hit, especially with Britain’s youth. Word-of-mouth at schools is fierce and the show becomes a hot topic at lunch tables.

The program’s growing success confounds the BBC. The Pythons try to explain to their bosses that it’s a generational issue. Britain’s stiff upper lip isn’t so stiff among today’s youth. Instead of following the rules, Britain’s young people are craving absurdity, subversive humor, and something that doesn’t insult their intelligence.

Whether they understand it or not, by the end of the first season, BBC executives are forced by soaring viewership numbers to push past their reservations and order another thirteen episodes. The renewal overjoys the Pythons. But as the second season proceeds, there’s tension in the air. Graham’s behavior - always erratic - becomes even more so. While he’s certainly functional in the morning, by the afternoons, Graham is almost useless - forgetting his lines and always late for rehearsals.

His troublesome behavior is the result of his increasing alcohol consumption, but his fellow Pythons still don’t realize the extent of Graham’s addiction. Most just see his inconsistency as the cost of doing business with such a brilliant, yet eccentric comic. In large part, this is because none of the Pythons are actually close friends. The comedians function much more as coworkers than anything else. And as a result, even though they work so closely together, none of the pythons are close enough to realize Graham is an alcoholic.

The extent of his drinking only becomes clear after the group wraps filming on their show’s second season and starts work on their first movie, titled “And Now for Something Completely Different.” One morning, in search of a script before a film shoot, John Cleese and Michael Palin open Graham’s briefcase. Inside is a bottle of liquor that they understood to be full just a couple of hours earlier, but now they are horrified to realize that it is over half-empty.

Graham’s alcoholism affects the morale of the entire troupe, but none more than his longtime writing partner, John Cleese. During writing sessions, Graham’s productivity sputters out almost immediately. By the afternoon, John struggles to collaborate with Graham who can’t even remember what the pair had written that morning. All told, Graham can only work for about an hour and a half per day. And increasingly, John finds himself doing the heavy lifting and the relationship between the two sours.

By the end of the third season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John is ready to leave the comedy troupe entirely. Despite the group’s success, the combination of Graham’s unreliability, the BBC’s growing efforts to censor the show, and creative burnout is too much to put up with. More than anything, John feels himself growing bored by the project, one that used to excite him with its originality.

Though he collaborates with the troupe on Monty Python’s several upcoming films, increasingly John focuses on his own solo career. The rest of the group presses on with a fourth and final season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the Pythons' last full work together as an ensemble is their 1983 film “Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life.”

It’s during their last few years together, that Graham stops drinking, and he will remain sober for the rest of his life.

After the release of “Meaning of Life,” all the members will go their separate ways, focusing on various creative pursuits. But over the coming decades, the Pythons will collaborate and appear on stage together just a handful of times. But even on these occasions, one member will be notably absent.

Act Three: The End of the Beginning

It’s October 4th, 1989, in the county of Kent in southeast England.

Graham Chapman is lying in a hospital bed, dying of throat cancer. At his side is his old writing partner, John Cleese, and their fellow Python, Michael Palin.

Since the release of their last film six years ago, the members have all gone in their separate ways. But today was supposed to be a celebratory reunion for the group. Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. A huge party was planned. But this morning, Graham’s health took an unexpected turn for the worse.

Less than a year ago, he was diagnosed with throat cancer — an effect of his lifelong pipe-smoking habit. A week ago, he was well enough to film scenes with the rest of the Pythons for a special anniversary broadcast. But mere hours ago, it became clear that the comic is nearing his end. The anniversary event was canceled and, instead of preparing for the celebration, the Pythons have been taking turns visiting Graham to say goodbye.

As John and Michael sit by his side, they chat and reminisce about their times together. But it’s not long before Graham shuts his eyes and his breathing grows shallow. As Graham’s body grows limp, John Cleese has to be led out of the room to deal with his grief.

Of all the Pythons, John and Graham have had the longest, and most complicated relationship. Although the pair have struggled with their friendship over the years, John never stopped caring deeply for his old colleague.

Weeks later, John is the one to deliver Graham’s eulogy at a memorial service broadcast across the UK on live television. His speech is both heartfelt and humorous:

"JOHN: Graham Chapman, co-author of the ‘Parrot Sketch,’ is no more.

He has ceased to be, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky, and I guess that we’re all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, such capability and kindness, of such unusual intelligence, should now so suddenly be spirited away at the age of only forty-eight before he’d achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he’d had enough fun.

Well, I feel that I should say, “Nonsense. Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard! I hope he fries.”

And the reason I think I should say this is, he would never forgive me if I didn’t, if I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste."

Over the next decades, the surviving Pythons will reunite on screen and stage several times, most notably for a live set of shows in 2002 and 2014. But these collaborations will be few and far between. Still, the Pythons will manage to hold onto their relevance and status as comedy icons as their work and unique brand of humor will continue to inspire generations of comedians and writers long after the group’s inception on May 11th, 1969.


Next on History Daily. May 12th, 1937. The coronation of George VI brings an end to the Abdication Crisis that shook the foundations of the British state.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by R. Colin Tait.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.