First airing on The BBC on October 5, 1969, Monty Python's Flying Circus would go on to redefine comedy as we know it. Running for five years and across forty-five episodes, the show eschewed traditional comedic structure, breaking all the rules regarding how sketch comedy and television should function.
The show's name - and the eventual name of the troupe composed of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin - came about in a similarly surreal fashion. Reportedly Michael Mills - Head of Comedy at The BBC - wanted the show to have the word 'circus" in it, playing off the wild reputation of the comedians involved. The word "flying" was added to appease those who tuned in expecting an actual circus. Eric Idle and John Cleese added the name "Monty Python" - Idle suggesting "Monty" as the quintessential sleazy showbiz name and Cleese liking the slimy sound of the word "Python".
Despite their influence on modern comedy, many people are only familiar with Monty Python through their five films, particularly The Holy Grail, and have never seen Monty Python's Flying Circus! Thankfully, with Netflix having recently acquired the streaming rights to the entire Monty Python catalog, fans everywhere will soon be able to see these classic works of comedy.
In anticipation of the official release, here are twenty of funniest sketches from Monty Python's Flying Circus, free for the watching now via YouTube.
20. I Wish To Report A Burglary!
The simple premise of this sketch is based around a series of silly voices. What should be a fairly straight-forward premise - a man reporting that his home has been burgled to the police - becomes a chaotic nightmare as the man (Terry Jones) finds that the desk sergeant (John Cleese) is unable to understand his normal tone of voice, requiring that he shout in a shrill, nasal tone in order to be understood. Things grow more complicated as another sergeant (Graham Chapman) and a detective inspector (Eric Idle) are introduced.
While the sketch is amusing enough on its own, it is also a wonderful display of the Pythons' skill as performers. The four actors flawlessly and smoothly switch voices as they speak to one another, depending on what tone of voice is required for the targeted listener.
19. The Fish Slapping Dance
Another simple sketch that somehow became a classic, despite its relative brevity. There's no set-up to it. No introduction beyond a brief bit of Terry Gilliam's animation. Just two men dressed as if they are going on safari, performing what appears to be some intricate variation of Morris dancing involving slapping each other in the face with fish. The only joke is the sheer absurdity of folk-dancing with fish.
Despite this, later Python productions made reference to this skit. Michael Palin produced a short film about the history of the art of fish slapping. The Monty Python musical Spamalot also worked The Fish Slapping Dance into its opening musical number, along with a classic Monty Python song about the wonders of Finland, appropriately titled The Finland Song.
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18. Self Defense Against Fresh Fruit
This early Monty Python skit is fairly traditional by the standards of sketch comedy, but showed how the troupe was pushing against expectations even in their first year on the air. The skit depicts a Sergeant Major (John Cleese) overseeing a self-defense class. For reasons which are never explained, the Sergeant Major is obsessed with the idea of people attacking him with fresh fruit and has spent the last nine weeks teaching his charges how to handle the unlikely occurrence of a mugger coming at you with a banana or (heaven help you) a pineapple.
While many people go into martial arts classes with unrealistic expectations of learning how to throw a person on their first day, one has to sympathize with the students in this case - even the one played by Eric Idle, who seems to be similarly preoccupied by the thought of being attacked with a pointed stick.
17. The Ministry Of Silly Walks
While Monty Python's Flying Circus was best known for avant-garde, intellectual and surrealist humor, The Pythons were not above a little bit of visual humor or slapstick as appropriate. That fact is readily apparent in this skit, in which John Cleese spends the better part of a minute walking down the road in a peculiar manner, finally revealing that his destination is The Ministry of Silly Walks.
Cleese reportedly grew to hate this sketch in later years, as fans who encountered him demanded that he do a silly walk for them. Cleese also felt the base idea of the sketch - mocking the frivolous things the British government at the time would spend money on - was weak and that the only thing that made it work was the physicality of the whole thing.
Be that as it may, it IS a very silly walk and quite funny!
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16. Hell's Grannies
In the early days of the show, Monty Python's Flying Circus would purposely try to confuse its viewership, crafting skits that might look like any other BBC program up until a certain point. In this case, the show disguised itself as a news program and satirized the reporting of increasing gang activity among young people with a mock report about "gangs of old ladies attacking defenseless fit young men." Young people complain about the mischief the "senile delinquents" are causing, as beleaguered children wonder if they're responsible for what has become of their poor mothers.
What really sells this skit, however, is the inclusion of Graham Chapman's Colonel character at the end. One of Monty Python's few reoccurring characters. The Colonel would frequently appear between sketches and admonish the program for being "far too silly" and link the way to something different.
Perhaps the most overtly surreal sketch Monty Python's Flying Circus ever produced, the Confuse A Cat skit could be said to have predicted the development of animal psychiatry. While the merits of the science are still debated today, most animal experts agree that pets can pick up on the emotions of their owners and will respond in kind. Some theorize that dogs, cats, horses and birds may be capable of experiencing depression and feel like they are in a rut.
Regardless of the legitimacy of the idea in the real world, that concept lies at the heart of this sketch, in which a company that specializes in confusing cats is summoned to throw one apparently bored cat into sharp relief after its owners become concerned about their cat being unresponsive and uninterested to everything around it. What follows is stop-motion magic.
14. The Bishop
It was rare for Monty Python's Flying Circus to do direct parodies of any one particular show or genre. The Bishop marks one of those rare occasions, with Terry Jones playing a gun-toting, crime-busting Church of England bishop, in the same vein as the many historical priest detective characters as well as the classic 1960's action series The Saint.
Everything about this sketch is dead on perfect - from Terry Gilliam's animated credit sequence to the Jimmy Durante impression Jones adopts, as he races around trying to thwart an apparent plot to kill other holy men through increasingly cartoonish means. From the chase scenes featuring convertible muscle cars to The Bishop's moving to confront a villain with the unlikely name of Ron Devious, every element of the skit goes over the top in just the right way.
13. The Funniest Joke In The World
Perhaps the longest running single sketch that Monty Python's Flying Circus ever produced at just under ten minutes long, The Funniest Joke In The World presents a mock historical documentary/news program about how one joke writer accidentally created a joke that would literally cause anyone who read it to die laughing. Talk about slaying your audience!
The sketch quickly moves from the creation of the joke and the efforts of the police to retrieve it, to how the British Army attempted to weaponize the joke by translating it, one word at a time, into German, in order to use it during World War II. Graham Chapman's Colonel character narrates part of middle segment involving the war-time history of The Funniest Joke In The World, before a thrilling conclusion in which a British agent uses the joke to escape from his Gestapo captors.
12. The Architects Sketch
While one could hardly accuse Monty Python's Flying Circus of ever being subtle in their satire, the show reached new heights of absurdity with The Architects Sketch. Opening with an introduction by five Gumbys - the show's distinctive yokel characters, who were easily identified by their toothbrush mustaches, sweater-vests, wire-rimmed glasses, gum boots, and a distinctive way of talking that emphasized each syllable - the sketch quickly progresses into a segment where two rival architects show off their designs.
One can see the beginnings of the Basil Fawlty character whom John Cleese would later play in his series Fawlty Towers in this sketch, as his architect character loses his cool only to become immediately apologetic after an explosive temper tantrum. Things become even more ridiculous as the other architect, played by Eric Idle, begins his presentation.
11. The Cheese Shop Sketch
It's hard to quantify just what makes The Cheese Shop work so well. Unlike many skits from Monty Python's Flying Circus, there's no over the top insanity, no silly voices and no colorful costumes. Not even so much as a rude innuendo. The humor here comes from the absurd extremes to which John Cleese's customer is willing to go to try and guess what specific kinds of cheese The Cheese Shop run by Michael Palin has in stock at the moment.
The comedy builds as Palin responds to each request with a sad smile and a reasonable excuse about how a delivery van broke down or how they don't ever have that particular cheese at the end of the week, until the excuses become a bit less reasonable and Cleese quietly becomes more unhinged and sarcastic in response.
10. Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition!
The Spanish Inquisition was less of a sketch and more of a prime example of far how Monty Python's Flying Circus would go to avoid ending a sketch with a traditional punchline, In this case, every sketch in the second episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus' second season featured some character saying, "I didn't expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition."
This would be the cue for Cardinal Ximénez (Michael Palin), Cardinal Biggles (Terry Jones) and Cardinal Fang (Terry Gilliam) to run in, as Cardinal Ximénez declared, "Nobody expects The Spanish Inquisition!" The Inquisitors would then try, rather ineffectually, to torture the inhabitants of the previous sketch.
The episode concluded with a skit set in a courtroom and a frantic race against the closing credits, as the Cardinals rushed across London to get to the courtroom set in time for Cardinal Ximénez to deliver his line before the show ended.
9. The Dirty Fork
The Dirty Fork is another sketch where Monty Python's Flying Circus played with conventions by presenting a typical comedy concept and then cranking the volume all the way up to eleven.
In this case, a young couple (Graham Chapman and "The Seventh Python" Carol Cleveland) complain to their waiter (Terry Jones) about a dirty fork. This leads to a conga line of apologies as the waiter, the head waiter (Michael Palin) and the owner of the restaurant (Eric Idle) all arrive to deliver an increasingly pathetic series of pleas for mercy and promises that this will never happen again.
By the time the chef (John Cleese) emerges to tell the young couple off for having reduced the owner to tears, the histrionics have already reached their peak. The punchline can't possibly live up to the build-up, but that fact is in and of itself part of the joke.
8. Undertaker Sketch
Monty Python's Flying Circus was no stranger to breaking the fourth wall, but it never did so with quite so much glee as in The Undertaker Sketch.
Following up a sketch and a series of animations based around the theme of cannibalism and a protest regarding the aforementioned content, this sketch sees a young man (John Cleese) making arrangements to dispose of the body of his mother. The Undertaker (Graham Chapman) then asks if the body is "a burner, a bury-er, or a dumper" and then goes into graphic detail regarding the particulars of each procedure. The sketch grows even darker when the undertaker suggests other means of disposing of the body.
It is at this point that the audience, who have been audibly groaning during the sketch as things become more and more disgusting, decide that they've had enough and storm the stage with violence on their minds.
7. Nudge Nudge
Long before any mildly risque comment prompted choruses of "That's what she said!", Eric Idle pioneered the same type of "everything is an innuendo" humor on Monty Python's Flying Circus with The Nudge Nudge Sketch. The skit sees Idle playing an energetic barfly, who is needling a respectable looking businessman (Terry Jones) about his wife and what sort of things she might be agreeable to doing.
Every question is met with a polite obliviousness from Jones, who completely misses the point of Idle's insinuations despite his hardly being subtle and punctuating each question with a spirited "Nudge Nudge! Wink Wink! Say No More!" as he inquires into what games Jones' wife likes playing and what sort of photographs she might have posed for.
As for the ultimate punchline of this sketch, we will say no more. Nudge Nudge!
6. Hungarian Phrase Book
Humor is sometimes lost in translation but the problems of translation lie at the heart of this classic Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch. The skit has John Cleese playing a Hungarian national who is attempting to make a purchase at the shop of a tobacconist, played by Terry Jones.
Unable to speak English, the Hungarian turns to a helpful phrasebook to try and communicate his needs to the eager shopkeeper. Unfortunately, due to what later turns out to have been an intentionally botched translation on the part of a chaos-minded publisher, he finds himself informing the shopkeeper that "My hovercraft is full of eels."
This is not quite so bad as what happens when he asks how much he owes for his purchase and suddenly finds himself unintentionally requesting a different kind of service from the tobacconist.
Monty Python's Flying Circus forever changed comedy in the same way that The Beatles forever changed music. This sketch, however, has the distinctive honor of having shaped The Internet.
This scene set in a diner has the waitress (Terry Jones) listing off the breakfast menu to an older couple, played by Eric Idle and Graham Chapman. For some reason, the menu is full of repeated mentions of the processed meat-product Spam and each repeated mention of Spam prompt a chorus of singing about "Lovely Spam, Wonderful Spam!" from the Vikings who are the only other customers.
This never-ending chorus of "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam..." invited comparison to the never-ending streams of junk e-mail that many early Internet users received. That is why your e-mail filter drops all of the mass-mailed messages you don't want into... wait for it... The Spam Folder.
4. The Travel Agent Sketch
There are many levels to The Travel Agent Sketch. The polite inquiry from the secretary (Carol Cleveland) if a man has come to book a vacation or "go upstairs". The customer, Mr. Smoketoomuch (Eric Idle), having never had anyone make a joke about his name before today. Then there's the matter of Mr. Smoketoomuch's speech impediment...
All of this builds up to the highlight of the sketch - Mr. Smoketoomuch's monologue about the evils of package-tour vacations and the increasingly frantic pleas of the travel agent (Michael Palin) for him to stop talking after the first two minutes.
The Travel Agent Sketch has been recreated several times for various live shows and comedy albums since then. The most famous of these came during Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl, which saw Eric Idle running around the audience complaining as the rest of The Pythons attempted to corral him.
3. The Argument Clinic
Monty Python's Flying Circus may have unintentionally foreshadowed the eventual devolution of political debate in the age of Fake News with this skit that sees Michael Palin traveling to a unique social services office in search of an argument.
Palin eventually finds John Cleese, who promptly begins to argue with him about whether or not he had already spoken with Palin about the proper place to come for an argument. Palin soon insists that they aren't having a proper argument, as Cleese is only contradicting everything Palin says without offering a proper intellectual defense.
Arguing, insists Palin, "... isn't just saying 'No, it isn't'!"
"Yes it is," replies Cleese.
Things get even sillier, with Palin going off in search of a Complaints Department that is exactly what you'd expect it to be. The sketch ends with quite possibly the most self-aware ending of any Monty Python sketch ever.
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2. The Lumberjack Song
Used as a show-stopper for other sketches, The Lumberjack Song begins with a character declaring that they had always wanted to be a lumberjack. This leads to their best girl running out and a chorus of Royal Canadian Mounted Police joining him in a song about the joys of being a lumberjack. The twist comes after the first chorus, as the lumberjack sings to his increasingly horrified lady about his fondness for wearing women's clothing.
Probably the most popular song Monty Python ever produced, The Lumberjack Song has also been one of the most controversial. While the song has been accused of being transphobic and promoting gay stereotypes, some LGBTQ activists have turned the song into an anthem. The most recent live performances of the song still end with the woman running off in the tears but the chorus of Mounties sportively singing "He's a lumberjack and he's okay!"
1. The Dead Parrot Sketch
Perhaps the most quintessential Monty Python sketch of all time, The Dead Parrot Sketch details the efforts of Eric Praline (John Cleese) to return a dead parrot and the convoluted plotting of the pet shop owner (Michael Palin) to persuade Mr. Praline that the bird is "just resting." The sketch has been rewritten several times over the years, with Cleese and Palin adding onto the sketch and creating new punchlines for different live shows and albums.
Amusingly, this sketch is more firmly based in reality than one might think. Palin originally wrote a sketch based on his encounter with a used car salesman who insisted that "features" like the car's doors falling off were perfectly natural. Cleese reportedly suggested changing the car to a pet, as there was nothing particularly outrageous about a used car salesman doing anything for a sale, and a piece of comedy history was born.
What's your favorite sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus? Let us know in the comments!