Eric Idle and John Cleese, two of the founding members of the acclaimed British comedy troupe Monty Python, are in town this week to perform two sold-out shows at the Majestic Theatre. The shows are part of the tail end of a wildly successful American tour, and it doesn't take a comedy nerd to understand why you can't get a ticket — at least not through legal means.
Even if you've never seen Monty Python's groundbreaking sketch comedy shows or any of their movies, chances are you've heard someone try to sing "The Lumberjack Song" or utter "Ni!" in a high-pitched squeal. The irreverent and absurd sense of humor that drove Monty Python are still very influential to comedy because they showed studios, network executives and audiences — first with their legendary BBC show Monty Python's Flying Circus — the joys of being silly, mocking and outright offensive.
Sketches like "The Fish Slapping Dance," "The Argument Clinic" and "The Dead Parrot" and animator Terry Gilliam's cut-out animations reveled in absurdity. The show and movies including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life amassed a fanbase that spans the globe and has influenced subsequent generations of comedians and humorists like Simpsons creator Matt Groening, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Late Show and Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert.
The Dallas PBS affiliate KERA Channel 13 was the first TV station in America to air Monty Python's Flying Circus shortly after the BBC comedy series written by and starring Idle, Cleese, Gilliam, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman ended its four-season run in Great Britain. KERA program director Ron Devillier discovered the series in the mid-'70s and was instrumental in introducing the comedy troupe to America, starting through Dallas' public airwaves.
"I got a call from a friend of mine who was at [Time-Life Films], who was a distributor of BBC products in America, and we had purchased a considerable amount of material from the folks at Time-Life," Devillier says from his home in Hilton Head, S.C. "He recommended this series, and actually what he said was that he couldn't sell it. I said that it sounds like our kind of show, so send it over."
Monty Python's Flying Circus had a tough time finding a home on America's TV. Several PBS program directors saw the sketch comedy series and thought they would never work in television again if they put it on the air. During a visit to Conan O'Brien's TBS talk show, Cleese described the horrified look on the face of one PBS program director who watched the series in the mid-1970s. "[It looked] as though he had seen a ghost," Cleese said.
TV comedy was more restrained back then thanks to a steady diet of safe sitcoms that showed the humdrum foibles of family life and were driven by carefully formulated jokes with definite punchlines. The major networks stamped out
Allowing an unfiltered comedy show on the air like Monty Python's Flying Circus seemed like a surefire way for programming executives to get their bosses to ask for their resignation. Devillier describes the show at that time as something that "might be the kind of thing you'd see on Broadway or some private settings" instead of television.
"They were afraid of it because it was rude for the 1970s," Devillier says. "It was very aggressive, and it's not anything that would typically have been on television. Some stations couldn't broadcast it because the one thing they [the members of Monty Python] didn't allow was any editing of their material."
Some of the BBC show's sketches also featured things that no one thought could go on public American airwaves such as female nudity, simulated
Devillier remembers the first time he watched Monty Python's Flying Circus at KERA's headquarters and how some of the sketches that have since become comedy staples had him ROFLing long before mankind came up with the term.
"I didn't think every piece of it was that funny or not uniformly across the board," Devillier says. "Some of the sketches were OK and you could go along with it, but when it was hysterical, it was unbelievably hysterical. I sat there screening those shows when they came in from New York for about 12 hours and I just couldn't believe what terrific writing and sketch material
Despite the apprehension of other stations, Devillier wanted to put it on the air immediately, but he had to get final approval from KERA manager Bob Wilson. So he arranged a screening for Wilson with only two of the show's sketches: Cleese and Palin's "Cheese Shop" sketch, in which the two experience an insane amount of trouble finding a single scrap of cheese in the place and Palin's famous "Lumberjack Song," in which he gleefully sings about the butch lifestyle of a logger who dabbles in transvestism.
"I had zero chance of getting that on the air if Bob Wilson said no way," Devillier says. "So I showed him two brief segments and the guy was on the floor laughing."
Monty Python's Flying Circus aired on KERA for the first time in 1975. Devillier figured the station's best bet for high ratings was to aim for a younger audience and air the show on a Saturday night. Devillier says no one ever thought the show would become KERA's most watched program.
"If you're familiar with Nielsen ratings, we were getting, maybe on a good night, a show would get a 1 rating but we also got a lot of 0.3s," Devillier says. "We got the Nielsens in and started looking at the Saturday ratings and Bob and I
News of the show's massive Dallas fanbase prompted other PBS affiliates to pick up the show, which expanded Monty Python's legion of fans just in time for the theatrical release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. ABC tried to air the series the following year using an edited version of Monty Python's Flying Circus minus all the naughty bits and Gilliam filed a successful lawsuit against the network.
"[Monty Python's Flying Circus] brought through a kind of phony baloney surface ethic that we all lived under and shot right through it and split it in half," Devillier says. "If you really let it happen, you could laugh at yourself. All the things that they were doing were really funny like playing on our sensibilities and making fun of them in a very funny way, pointing out how pompous we can be and making fun of themselves at the same time."
News of the show's new American audience reached the members of the troupe and it sparked a longtime friendship and business partnership between Devillier and the troupe that would last for years.
Some of the Monty Python members including Palin, Chapman, Idle and Jones traveled to Dallas in 1975 to make a personal appearance on KERA with Devillier during its annual pledge drive which attracted a large crowd of college-age fans to the studio.
"That was a big night for the station," Devillier says.
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Devillier kept in touch with all the members of the troupe over the years long after he left KERA and formed his own film and television company, Devillier Donegan Enterprises, which he founded with former WTTW Chicago PBS program manager Bob Donegan. Devillier's friendship with Monty Python's founders turned into a lucrative business partnership at Gilliam's behest in 1980. The group put Devillier in charge of Monty Python's global TV interests, a partnership Devillier says he held until his retirement in 2012.
"We did get to know each other for quite awhile, and there's a certain appreciation on both sides of that relationship," Devillier says. "It's been a good thing for them, and I've never
Monty Python has also been good to American comedy. If America's television viewing public had never seen "The Lumberjack Song" or "The Dead Parrot" sketch, we might still be holding up The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour as a supreme example of cutting-edge TV comedy.
"When [Monty Python] hit the airwaves, it really was quite shocking but it was shocking in a good way," Devillier says. "It set you up right and opened up a whole new form of comedy. 'Pythonesque,' it's in the book now. It's an actual word in the dictionary."