Monty Python’s Flying Circus: The 14 Best Sketches
Ivan Radford | On 15, Apr 2018
With almost the entirety of Monty Python now available to stream on Netflix UK, prepare to lose hours upon hours to some of the funniest comedy ever produced in the world, let alone Britain. And that’s just the comedy group’s trio of feature films, not to mention the 45 episodes of sketch comedy that made the troupe famous to begin with.
Anarchic, subversive and stuffed with imagination, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is best consumed as it was created: in a relentless rush of imagination that held little regard for the way TV was supposed to be structured, exploding desks, interrupted continuity announcers, animated skits all flowing into each other. But if you’re pushed for time or unsure where to start, we delve into the back catalogue of the six comedy geniuses – Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin – to handpick Monty Python’s top sketches.
The Dead Parrot
Let’s get the obvious one of the way. The words “Dead Parrot” are almost synonymous with “Monty Python”, thanks to their most famous skit. It sees Michael Palin play a mechanic who visits a shop (staffed by John Cleese) to return a Norwegian Blue parrot, which has long since deceased. Much of Python’s smart-silly comedy is rooted in their ability to reword things that have already been said in longer words, and that’s showcased superbly here, in what moves from an amusing observation on a shop’s awkward returns policy into a shrewd collection of euphemisms for death that Brits have managed to come up with over the years.
The Killer Joke
Words can kill, but none more so than the words of Ernest Scribbler, a joke writer who writes a gag so funny that it immediately kills him. What follows is a string on unwitting victims being bumped up by the punchline, before the army (naturally) weaponises it on battlefield. We never hear the actual joke itself in English – which is exactly the point.
The Fish-Slapping Dance
The Monty Python boys had a knack for speech, but they were just as funny when not speaking at all, as this gleefully weird sketch proves – who needs dialogue when you can slap someone in the face with a fish? It shouldn’t be that funny, but it really, really is.
The Lumberjack Song
“I didn’t want to be a barber…” cried Michael Palin in December 1969, before launching into a song about how badly he wanted to be a lumberjack, leaping from tree to tree. It was a hastily written number, just so they could have an ending to their barbershop sketch, but it blossomed into one of the Python’s most memorable skits – partly because of its skewering of toxic masculinity, as Palin’s fellow lumberjacks become uncomfortable about revelations involving his choice of clothing in private, and partly because it taps into the unhappiness so many people feel with their everyday jobs. What could be more British than that?
The Dirty Fork
“You bastards! You vicious, heardess bastards! Look what you’ve done to him! He’s worked his fingers to the bone to make this place what it is, and you come in with your petty feeble quibbling and you grind him into the dirt, this fine, honourable Man, whose boots you are not worthy to kiss!” That’s John Cleese on signature ranting form in another finely observed slice of British mannerism, as a waiter (and chef) are shocked to find someone in a restaurant actually complaining about a dirty fork.
The Argument Clinic
Some of Monty Python’s best sketches simply allow Michael Palin and John Cleese to out-verbose each other, and The Argument Clinic is that formula honed to perfection. Written by Cleese and Graham Chapman, it’s rapid-fire series of gainsaying nonsense, all rooted in the gloriously absurd premise that Britain has its own Argument Clinic for people who just want a jolly good row.
Make Tea Not Love is the noble motto of the Hell’s Grannies, a group of fiendish old women terrorising the neighbourhood of their local village, as they harass men on the street and disrupt The Sound of Music matinees. It’s hard to tell what’s funnier, the undermining of expectations or the high-pitched screeches of these men dressed up as violent elderly women – something that Terry Jones refined to an art.
Upperclass Twit of the Year
Can you count up to four? Walk in a straight line? Kick beggars? Insult waiters? Then you could be in contention for the coveted title of Upperclass Twit of the Year, a tournament that unfolds with a laugh-out-loud lack of mercy, as it sends such rich idiots as Vivian Smith-Smythe-Smith, Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris and Gervaise Brook-Hampster through a series of impossibly simple tasks, before asking them to shoot themselves.
The Ministry of Silly Walks
If you’ve ever pretended to move through a crowd in a slightly unusual way, this gloriously simple sketch is for you.
Philosophers’ Football Match
Sport, but with brains, this absurdly silly sketch based at the 1972 Olympics sees Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Kant and Marx kick around philosophical ideas in the most underwhelming, over-thought football match ever conceived. It’s full of itself – and it knows it.
Eric Idle and Terry Jones take centre stage for this hilarious cousin to the Dead Parrot sketch, as a rambunctious man in a pub approaches a reserved Brit and quizzes him on his wife’s preferences, in increasingly euphemistic language. Delivered with a naughty wink and a filthy nudge, it’s a satire of tiresome blokey banter, and a clear precursor to such British comedy greats as The Fast Show.
Terry Jones is one of the select group of people in the world whose voice is inherently funny. Take that voice and make it say the word “spam” over and over again and you have the making of a timeless piece of comedy that defies logic, horrifies foodies everywhere and will have you struggling to breathe.
The Cheese Shop
A cousin to the Spam sketch, the Cheese Shop goes the other way, finding the inherent humour in simply listing an increasingly specific number of food products – only for the patron of the cheese shop to say they don’t have it in stock.
The Spanish Inquisition
Nobody expected this.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.