A quick typing of ‘Monty Python’ into the search bar on Netflix will drag up: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all four seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (this is the original show which started it all), Life of Brian, The Very Best of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (Parrot Sketch Not Included), Monty Python’s Personal Best, Monty Python’s Best Bits (mostly), and then various documentaries and live performances: Monty Python: Almost the Truth , Monty Python Live at The Hollywood Bowl, Monty Python Live (mostly) – One Down, Five to Go, The Meaning of Monty Python, Monty Python Before The Flying Circus, Monty Python The Meaning of Live, and Monty Python Conquers America. That is a lot of Monty Python. Nestled in there somewhere is Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus.
Who is Monty Python and what was their Fliegender Zirkus? Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a surreal, odd, intellectually driven cult British sketch show featuring John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, and Terry Jones. Terry Gilliam, an American, didn’t act in many sketches but provided the distinctive animation that sometimes spliced together sketches or took them into even weirder territory. Even the name of the program itself must have confounded viewers and BBC executives. It starts with a very British name (Monty, short for Montgomery) and then veers into Python (a surreal injection from the Brazilian rainforest) before adding ‘Flying Circus’ for a bit of high flying energy and slapdash fun. The six Pythons put out some forty-five episodes between 1969 and 1974. They’re a bit like the Velvet Underground – not supremely popular while they aired but extremely influential over time and within their respective field. We might still have gotten Saturday Night Live in the U.S. and Kids in the Hall in Canada but they’d probably have been different without the influence of the Pythons.
The Fliegender Zirkus covers two episodes the Pythons made for German television in the middle of their BBC run. Apparently, a German TV producer (Alfred Biolek) loved the Pythons’ work and convinced them to travel to Germany to make the episodes. This is interesting and unusual because A) why didn’t they simply option the foreign rights from the BBC and dub the material and B) why on Earth did they think that the Python humour (which the British viewing public were not exactly taking to like hot cakes) would go down well with the Germans? Despite their reluctance, the Pythons went over to Bavaria and attempted to enact this cross cultural experience.
What we get are two longer but qualitatively strong Python episodes. Python is not for everybody and given that some fifty years have passed, some of the sketches are going to feel too long, the rhythm will feel odd at times, the production values (they were using film and a lot of outdoor locations) will appear dated, and your body might feel out of sorts watching these sketches, not instinctively knowing when to laugh. Thankfully, the canned laughter they included in some of the British episodes is not present during the German production. Apparently, the episodes didn’t go over well with German viewers and so being able to find them on Netflix is excellent (especially if you’re like me and didn’t know these episodes existed to begin with) – someone uploaded them to Youtube about a year ago so they can be seen there as well.
There are some repeats or echoes of previous Python material (they redo the Lumberjack Song but in German!) but most of the material is new and somewhat German-centric. They even made a concerted effort to get their sketches translated into German and then learned the German dialogue for the first episode. Not being a German speaker, it didn’t make me grind my teeth or anything (English subtitles are provided) but apparently, the pronunciation is so poor that German viewers couldn’t understand them. The first episode begins with a German newscaster introducing the lads before the walls around her fall away to reveal that she is sitting at a desk by a lake before frogmen climb out of the lake and drag her into it. A running bit that is supposed to be a biographical piece on German painter Albrecht Durer completely gets upended. Perhaps my favourite element is footage of cows in the countryside who are supposedly putting on a performance of The Merchant of Venice. And there are other German-centric sketches like one in a Bavarian restaurant, one dealing with the fable of Little Red Riding Hood, and silly references to the Olympics which were held in Munich that year (1972).
For the second episode, they gave up trying to perform in German and simply did their sketches in English, albeit with a German focus. The episode begins with a William Tell bit; onlookers watch Tell straining to shoot the apple over his son’s head and then cheer as we see his arrow pierce the apple. The camera pulls back to reveal dozens of failed attempts and that the boy is peppered with arrow shafts all over his body. A running bit has John Cleese’s straitlaced newscaster report on economic luminaries of Europe (men) that simply drop whatever important things they’re doing and chase women. There is some good surreal fun with the Sycophancy Show and miners who toil underground to mine chickens. There are other bits but perhaps the star sketch is the soccer match between The German philosophers and the Ancient Greek philosophers. The commentary to this match is delivered (as the philosophers walk around the field and pontificate or debate each other instead of kicking the ball) in a way that seems very English so once again, Germans might not have understood this at all despite the pandering towards German philosophers like Marx, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and a cursory understanding of their philosophies.
The work of the Pythons, now fifty years old, is in some ways more iconic than relatable. We are further apart from the Pythons culturally than the Germans probably were at the time. Besides the intellectualism and anarchic surreality, what is it that endures about the Pythons’ work? Is there anything coherent or lasting in their comedy? Probably not, but they are giants, historical figures on the comedy landscape. The sexist japes (such as the European finance experts chasing women in the second German episode) are cringey at best by today’s standards, and the rampant homophobia is downright repugnant. They’re not too kind to the Australians and people of colour get less than flattering treatment. And yet, this isn’t Benny Hill or Black Adder or some other British fluff. What is the key to the Pythons’ popularity?
Part of it must be due to the revolutionary spirit in which the Pythons approached their show. Despite having significantly different styles and interests, they pulled off a format that was not just inspired but completely unheralded, even by the other British influences and projects they’d worked on before. Just like any other comedic troupe or rock band, they clashed over creative directions and decisions but somehow managed to make a lifelong career delivering unexpected, freshly intelligent, anarchic work. Given that they began in the late sixties, it’s hard not to see them as the comedic equivalent of musicians and artists and filmmakers who broke the stylistic and rhythmic conventions of their own genres and fell under the sweeping category of The British Invasion. Though the Pythons did not spread the message of love The Beatles did, they did seem to embrace the ribaldry of sex. Though they did not preach the overthrowing of the establishment, they did constantly mock it and its British mores. Though they didn’t promote transcendence and psychedelia, there is something that blows in out of left field about their work.
Python is best appreciated by people who are intelligent enough to converse with learning and ideas yet are skeptical about the institutions which truck in intellectualism. Much like the Harvard contingent that ends up writing for Saturday Night Live, the Pythons came out of prestigious British universities, participated in their comedy revue clubs, but chose not to follow their peers into paths afforded by those educations and connections. However, they do bring a certain intellectual pride to their comedy that shuttles around bits of learning and knowledge before inevitably upending it (the cows performing The Merchant of Venice for example). Their gags can only really be appreciated if you too are both intellectually motivated yet ill fitted for the establishment. The gags don’t really take you anywhere in terms of catharsis or commentary – they are a temporary reprieve from the futility of what we call society.
The Pythons are immensely talented – of that there is no dispute. Their solo careers, their rich ability to apply their intelligence, and their comedic acting chops are evident in everything they’ve done. One only has to watch them in interviews to see how gifted they are. However, there is also a certain blithe obstreperous spirit that I don’t think can be easily codified or replicated. The cast members of Saturday Night Live, despite being hugely talented, rarely have that. The Kids in the Hall had their own thing but not that exactly. Even the Pythons seemed to have more of it together than they ever did apart. Unto middle age and beyond, it burned brightly; I properly discovered the Pythons in high school not by watching their show but by borrowing The Meaning of Life from the library – that still remains my favourite work of theirs despite it being their last film and is generally less popular than Life of Brian or The Holy Grail. This abstract blitheness they have, despite the odd rhythms and shapes their sketches and work ultimately took, is what gives them enduring prominence. In that way, we’re lucky they came together despite their differences to do what they did. We’re lucky they chucked their privileged backgrounds for… something completely different.
Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus is available on Netflix to watch now.