Monty Python was British comedy's answer to the Beatles: the Fab Six who broke the mold, broke records, broke America and were idolized by kids who learned by heart every routine from the Flying Circus television show and knew their parents would never get the joke. The Pythons were rock 'n' roll. So writing a definitive, collective autobiography to set the record straight just as the Beatles did in their Anthology is no act of hubris. And for all those now-grownup kids who still beg them to re-form and do the dead-parrot sketch one more time, The Pythons Autobiography (Orion Books; 360 pages), serves up a hefty slab of nostalgia.
Time is tougher on jokes than on melodies, but it's hard now to explain precisely why Monty Python's Flying Circus, which launched on Oct. 5, 1969 with a skit about sheep nesting in trees, should have so captivated viewers. There are precious few clues in the book, which is a hexagonal feat of memory, not self-analysis, though they rightly pay tribute to comic forebears such as Spike Milligan. The launch of Python was certainly a tribute to the laissez-faire latitude of the BBC's comedy department, which cheerfully commissioned 13 shows from John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin and Terry Jones Oxbridge graduates working on the hit satirical shows of the day who had no idea what they would be like except there were to be no stars, no musical interludes and no punchlines. "One of the great executive decisions," says Cleese in The Pythons Autobiography, "and something that wouldn't happen for a split second today."
Python's progress since then is a familiar tale 45 shows, 5 films, 12 albums and a few too many reunions and the only revelations in the book are the minor bust-ups of the Pythons, who inevitably wearied as their Circus labored into the 1980s. The narrative is nailed crudely together from sawn-up planks of new interviews with the stars and old ones with friends and family in the case of Chapman, who died in 1989 with no attempt to trim the overlapping reminiscences. As a result, some of the anecdotes like the one about the party Chapman threw to come out about his homosexuality and to which he invited his nearest and dearest, including his girlfriend get stale after the third telling. And it's hard to imagine the show would have lasted four seasons had it been called Bunn, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot, since you are fed up before the end of the chapter with reading that it might have been.
The saving grace of Autobiography is that it's a handsome beast of a coffee-table book. The special edition comes with snap-on legs and a set of crockery perhaps the book's best inside joke and it is crammed with photographs that remind you what a uniquely funny (and extremely silly) team they were. Terry Gilliam's graphics and stills of his sets and costumes remind you that Monty Python's Holy Grail and Life of Brian were two of the funniest films of modern times. But did their humor really have any lasting effect on us? Come on now, admit it: this is an ex-show! This Python is no more! It has ceased to be