Pop Culture

Top 5 Bookish Sketches from Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Erika Harlitz-Kern

Staff Writer

Erika Harlitz-Kern holds a doctorate from a Swedish university and can't get enough of history, books, and music. Her earliest memories involve a comic book and a Dutch troubadour. She has travelled South Asia on a shoestring, although nowadays she spends most of her vacations in the Mississippi Delta. Lives with her husband in South Florida, because sooner or later they would've ended up there anyway. Blog: The Boomerang Twitter: EH_Kern

I love Monty Python’s Flying Circus. That’s why I want to share with you my top five favorite bookish sketches from that show.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a comedy sketch show broadcast on BBC between 1969 and 1974, featuring five Britons (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin) and one American (Terry Gilliam). During the 1970s and early 1980s, Monty Python created the classic movies Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Life of Brian (1979), and The Meaning of Life (1983).

Before I list my top five favorites, I would like to mention that when watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus today, some of the comedy has not aged well. Monty Python consisted of five white men who drew from racial stereotypes when a sketch required it. When a female character appeared on the show, she was often the airheaded bombshell. At the same time, Monty Python pushed the envelope near its breaking point when it came to taboos concerning cross-dressing, sex, homosexuality, and nudity.

5) The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights

Episode 15. First aired on September 22, 1970.
The fictional movie company Twentieth-Century Vole presents Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights with Catherine and Heathcliff declaring their love by signaling each other using semaphore flags. In true Monty Python fashion (and one of the reasons why they make me laugh so hard), the sketch goes off on a tangent and presents other semaphore classics, such as Julius Caesar on an Aldis Lamp and Gunfight at O.K. Corral in Morse Code. The smoke signal version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes provides, in hindsight, the somewhat problematic punch line.


4) Fifteen Seconds to Summarize Proust

Episode 31. First aired on November 16, 1972.

In the annual All-England Summarize Proust Competition, contestants have fifteen seconds to summarize Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, a novel in seven volumes. Unfortunately, the sketch’s punch line hasn’t aged very well with the first prize going to “the girl with the biggest tits.” The clip below is labeled as “uncensored” because it contains the full statement of Graham Chapman’s character when he declares his hobbies as “strangling animals, golf, and masturbation.” BBC thought “masturbation” was offensive and cut it from the episode when it aired.


3) Poets

Episode 17. First aired on October 20, 1970.
East Midlands Poet Board recommends every home have a poet installed. The main part of the sketch is about a housewife (Terry Jones) letting a poet inspector (Michael Palin) into her house to inspect the poet installed beneath the stairs.


2) Housing Project Built by Characters from Nineteenth-Century Literature

Episode 35. First aired on December 14, 1972.
The British government has hired characters from The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy to build apartment buildings as a way of solving the housing crisis. Meanwhile, characters from John Milton’s Paradise Lost are building a highway interchange. Of course the sketch goes off on a tangent, this time about apartment buildings built by the hypnotist couple El Mystico and Janet.


1) Icelandic Saga

Episode 27. First aired on October 19, 1972.
This is my favorite bookish sketch by Monty Python because it jokes around with the medieval literary genre of Icelandic sagas. The sketch is about an attempt to bring Njorl’s Saga to the screen. Njorl’s Saga is a spoof of the actual Icelandic saga, Njal’s Saga. Another reason why this sketch is my favorite is because I doubt there would have been a Monty Python and the Holy Grail without it.


Which is your favorite bookish sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus?


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