One measure of a television series' cult popularity is how many times it gets repackaged for the home video market. By this measure, the British sketch comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus (MPFC) is a smash success. The massive, new 21-disc box set, entitled The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus - Collector's Edition Megaset, is the fourth (or fifth depending on how you tally them) complete release of this series on DVD in North America. This latest set which includes all 45 episodes of the series on fourteen discs, along with another seven discs of extras, is designed to entice owners of the prior releases to upgrade while also targeting new buyers with a list price lower than that of any of the prior releases.
Monty Python's Flying Circus originally aired on BBC One beginning in September 1969. In 1974, just as Monty Python stopped creating new television episodes, the series picked up steam in America playing on independent PBS stations. Beloved by fans, Monty Python went on to do a number of live performances and films. Monty Python is now considered by many to be the best sketch comedy troupe of all time.
Though MPFC was not the first sketch comedy television series, it proved to be the seminal series that overshadowed everything that came before and influenced everything that came after. MPFC was written and performed by five Brits (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry, Jones, and Michael Palin) and one American (Terry Gilliam). The series is notable for its satirical lampooning of British class, custom, and culture, as well as its surrealistic stream-of-consciousness structure, interweaving of sketches within episodic themes, iconic animations, and risqué content that never pandered (The Benny Hill Show, it most certainly was not).
A typical episode would have several sketches cut short just before the punch line to an elaborately setup joke was given. The interruption might come from an actor breaking the fourth wall and declaring the sketch too silly, a character from another sketch intruding or with a Cleese character pompously intoning "and now for something completely different." The episodes also were as likely to reference the likes of Wassily Kandinsky and Søren Kierkegaard as to include bawdy bits with Carol "Cleavage" Cleveland.
Though Carol Cleveland and other comely women were frequently employed to spice up the show, the Pythons played most of the female characters themselves. Typical of their female characters were the Pepperpots - the name collectively given to the late-middle-aged, lower-middle-class unattractive housewives commonly seen on BBC news programs when the opinion of an everywoman was needed. Typical of the opinions offered by the Pepperpots was that the new-and-improved Whizzo Butter really is indistinguishable from dead crab, and that Blaise Pascal was a swell Frenchman.
Many sketches from MPFC have been so influential that they've transcended their origin and been imprinted on the popular imagination. Quotes such as "Nudge, nudge, wink, wink" and "nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition" have entered the English language as idioms, while sketches like "Dead Parrot," "Ministry of Silly Walks," and "the Lumberjack Song" have become comedy touchstones that have inspired countless imitators.
The six members of Monty Python all brought something unique and imaginative to the show. Graham Chapman, a Cambridge-educated medical doctor, frequently played the stuffy military officers, judges, gentry and bankers, though he could also play a campy homosexual better than anyone. John Cleese best played maniacal or absurd authority figures. Terry Gilliam provided the iconic cut-out animations used extensively throughout the series. Eric Idle played the slick, perverted characters with zeal, and was arguably the best looking in drag of the six. Terry Jones, my personal favorite, was a guiding force behind the scenes and an irrepressible straight man on camera, and Michael Palin was the most dynamic of the bunch, capable of playing as straight or zany as the sketch called for, and able to change styles on a dime.
Though the Monty Python players nearly disbanded after every season, it was John Cleese's departure at the end of season three which had the most impact. Though the show continued on without Cleese for another six episodes, his absence was palpable. Post MPFC, the troupe reunited occasionally for live performances and movies (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python's Life of Brian, and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life).
Between the fall of 1999 and the fall of 2000, A&E released the entire 45 episode run of Monty Python's Flying Circus on DVD as fourteen single disc releases (MSRP $19.95 each) or seven two-disc sets (MSRP $39.95 each). Then as soon as A&E completed the individual releases, it rolled out a 14-disc box set, entitled Monty Python's Flying Circus - The Complete Collection (MSRP $199.95).
A year later, A&E released its first collection of supplementary material. Entitled Monty Python Live!, the two-disc set (MSRP $19.95) included four-and-a-half hours of bonus material consisting of Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982), Monty Python's Flying Circus: Live at Aspen (1998), Parrot Sketch Not Included: Twenty Years of Monty Python (1989), and Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus: German Episode #1 (1972).
In August 2005, A&E bundled the fourteen-disc release of the complete series with the supplementary two-disc set Monty Python Live!. Entitled The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus - 16-ton Megaset (MSPR $199.95), this new set replaced the bulky alpha cases of the earlier releases with compact Thinpaks.
Concurrent with The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus - 16-ton Megaset, A&E rolled out hour-long "Personal Best" discs for each of the six Pythons (MSRP $19.95 each). With almost no new material and highly edited segments, these discs were targeted presumably at that segment of the market that enjoys the concept of a "greatest hits" collection that doesn't want to plunk down more than a $100 for an entire collection in one go. In August 2006, A&E boxed the six "Personal Best" discs together and released them as Personal Best of Monty Python's Flying Circus (MSRP $44.99).
Now, two years later, A&E is back with yet another collection this time entitled The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus - Collector's Edition Megaset (MSRP $159.95). This latest collection includes everything in The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus - 16-ton Megaset, plus everything in the Personal Best of Monty Python's Flying Circus box set, plus two new documentaries Before the Flying Circus and Monty Python Conquers America.
The 21-disc set comes in an attractive and hefty package which contains two fold out sets of discs: fourteen for the entire series itself and seven more for the extras.
The 45 episodes of the series are presented in their original aspect ratio of 4:3. The video quality of this release appears unchanged from the original DVD transfers back in 1999 and 2000. The series mixed film and video elements in each episode and these elements have aged differently. The film elements show some print damage, but have acceptable sharpness and detail, while the video elements are the opposite -- mostly free from damage, but lacking sharpness and detail. Color levels throughout are typically good for 35-year-old television, though color bloom on the video elements is sometimes apparent.
Video quality on the extras ranges from excellent for the two new documents which are presented in 1.78:1 enhanced widescreen to poor. The live performances, particularly Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl suffer from the limits of low-grade video recording.
The original series was recorded in mono and sounds fine on 2.0 DD playback with mostly clear dialogue and only slight noise. As with video, audio on the extras ranges from the very good 2.0 DD on the new documentaries to the muffled audio of the live performances. Optional English subtitles are available for the episodes and the two new documentaries.
With seven discs of extras there's a lot here, though all but two hours of it has been included on prior releases and much of it is merely warmed-over clip shows better skipped. These include hour-long Personal Best highlights for each of the six Pythons as well as a 72-minute group highlight show hosted by Steve Martin entitled Parrot Sketch Not Included: 20 Years of Python. Also included from the prior Monty Python Live! release is one of the two episodes of the aborted German-language television series Monty Python's Fliegerder Zirkus, and stage performances (Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl and Monty Python's Flying Circus: Live at Aspen) which mix live performances of classic skits with film clips from the show.
The two new hour-long documentaries are each given their own disc though they'd have easily fit on one. Before the Flying Circus provides biographical details on the Pythons childhoods and early work as well as the formation of the troupe. Monty Python Conquers America recounts how the series developed as an underground phenomenon in America and eventually went on to great success on PBS. Comedians influenced by Monty Python including Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Davide Hyde Pierce, Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Luke Wilson are interviewed as well as the surviving members of Monty Python.
Rather than provide the redundant clip shows, A&E would have done better to include the second episode of Monty Python's Fliegerder Zirkus and leave it at that.
Though the attractive packaging and new documentaries on the origins of Monty Python and the impact of the show in America will surely entice some owners of the prior releases to purchase this latest set, most will likely be content with what they already have. Aside from the two hours of new documentaries everything here has been available before, and the clip shows remain as redundant now as they were when they were originally released three years ago.
The best bang for your buck is to pick up The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus - 16-ton Megaset which is widely available for under $60, but for hardcore fans now, or for the day that the 16-ton Megaset is no longer available, The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus - Collector's Edition Megaset is highly recommended.