Following a television interview in which Graham Chapman mentioned (not for the first time) that he was a homosexual, the Pythons received a letter from an enraged woman who said she heard an "anonymous" member of Monty Python had confessed to being gay. She enclosed several pages of prayers for his salvation and said that if he repeated them every single day he might acquire some form of purgatory. Eric Idle replied to her saying that they had found out who it was and had stoned him. Shortly thereafter, John Cleese left the show for the last season. The woman never wrote back.
After three seasons of 13 episodes each, John Cleese refused to return for a fourth because he believed the show was becoming repetitious and had run out of ideas. The rest of the cast only managed to produce a final fourth season of just six episodes without him. Despite this, Cleese had a writer's credit on most of the final six, because of sketches used that he had contributed to before leaving. He also had a cameo in one episode, and has continued to collaborate with the other Pythons in various combinations over the years.
The usual casting process for a sketch was that the lead role would be given to the member who came up with the idea. Michael Palin has said that if he'd known the abuse he would have to tolerate as the "It's..." man, he never would have suggested the idea.
The Pythons wrote all of their sketches in teams. Cambridge graduates John Cleese and Graham Chapman wrote together, as did Oxford men Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Eric Idle, another Cambridge alumnus, wrote alone. "Links" between sketches were the only pieces written by the entire group collectively. Animator Terry Gilliam worked independently of the five core members, but joined them for writers' meetings to help them piece it all together and act as a sort of test audience.
Other possible names for the series were "Gwen Dibley's Flying Circus", "Owl-Stretching Time" (which was used as the name for one episode), "Bun, Whackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot", "A Toad Elevating Moment", "Sex and Violence", "A Horse, a Bucket and a Spoon". One early working title for the series was simply, "It's..."
The head of comedy at the BBC said that the title had to include the word "Circus", because the people at the BBC had referred to the six cast members wandering around the BBC offices as a circus, so they added "Flying" to make it sound less like a real circus and more like something out of the first world war. And in front of that, added "Monty Python" because it sounded like a really bad theatrical agent, and also that the large, constricting snake was appropriate imagery.
At least two sketches can trace their origins back to How to Irritate People (1969), a TV special that John Cleese starred in and wrote with Graham Chapman prior to "Flying Circus". First, the "Silly Job Interview" in which Cleese rings a bell and has people scoring Chapman's reaction came directly from the special. Also the infamous/famous "Parrot Sketch" was adapted largely from a sketch Chapman wrote for the earlier show about a car salesman who flatly refused to admit that there was anything wrong with the car that was literally falling apart on stage.
One of the first things the Pythons decided was to get rid of the obligatory, though often disappointing punch line of most comedy sketches. The "Restaurant Sketch" (or "Dirty Fork Sketch") pokes fun at this.
The Pythons did almost all of their own stunts, including Graham Chapman (a qualified mountaineer) reading a sketch while hanging upside-down on a rope, and Michael Palin plummeting 15 feet into a canal in "The Fish-Slapping Dance" after John Cleese smacks him in the head with a trout.
The first few episodes were filmed in front of an older audience, due to the BBC Program Planners. Apparently, some of these older people thought they were actually going to see a circus. Many of the audience members didn't really understand what was happening, and the cast realized they weren't laughing as much as they should. Consequently, they asked family and friends to come to the studio for tapings so that there would be more laughter. Eventually, the BBC Planners recruited younger audience members, but also aired the show at a later hour, making it difficult to get younger viewers at home. As a result, the Monty Python troupe were constantly poking fun at BBC Program Planners, insinuating that they were uneducated and dim: stupider than penguins, easily replaced by penguins, being unable to be a Planner if you've got a degree, and even an entire sketch in "The Light Entertainment War," where particularly stupid Planners sit around a table talking nonsense.
Although the Ministry of Silly Walks is one of the most popular gags in the Monty Python canon, John Cleese disliked it. He felt the laughs it generated were cheap ones, and no balance was provided by what could have been the true satirical centrepoint.
The theme music is the concluding portion of John Philip Sousa's "Liberty Bell March". Reportedly, one of the chief reasons the song was used is that it was in the public domain and no royalties would have to be paid (the opening part of the march makes an appearance in the James Bond film Octopussy (1983)).
The BBC made the Pythons edit out the word "masturbation" from the "All-England Summarize Proust Competition", in which one of the contestants (Graham Chapman) claimed his hobbies included "golf, strangling small animals and masturbation". While the vocal track was edited to remove the last word, the huge laugh from the audience remained in the final recording. During one of the negotiation meetings on the topic, Eric Idle reportedly asked the head of the BBC, "Everyone masturbates. Don't you masturbate, sir?" He was not given a response.
This series was one of the first to deviate from the norms of television credits. Among the odd credits gags that were used were: an episode where the credits scrolled sideways; credits that used gag names for the cast & crew; ending credits rolled at the beginning of the episode (or the opening titles delayed until nearly the end); and credits that roll a few minutes early, followed by spoof versions of BBC broadcast announcements (even incorporating the BBC "rolling Earth" logo in use at the time).
Terry Gilliam was the only American in the group, and although he appears occasionally on-screen, his roles were generally non-speaking or with few lines. Gilliam's primary contributions, the animated sequences that "linked" the various live sketches, were one of the the key components that set Flying Circus apart from its peers, and remain among the most memorable elements of the show.
The internet term "SPAM" was inspired by the series episode Monty Python's Flying Circus: Spam (1970) depicting a restaurant scene with a menu that offered a mandatory helping of Spam with each and any ordered item.
Frequent targets for Python sketches were pillars of society such as doctors, lawyers, politicians, academics, and policemen. Graham Chapman was a qualified (but never licensed) physician, John Cleese attended law school, Terry Gilliam majored in political science, Terry Jones and Eric Idle majored in English, and Chapman's father was a constable.
The Knight in shining armour who crops up sporadically throughout the show was in fact played by Terry Gilliam, the American member of Monty Python, who normally provided the animated sequences. He would work seven days a week on them, and usually two-all nighters.
The Monty Pythons were inspired by Spike Milligan and The Goon Show more than anything else. But they wanted their humour to be impossible to categorise, so the term Pythonesque was coined to describe it. Terry Jones jokingly said that the fact they had inspired a new word in the dictionary shows how miserably they had failed.
DVD EASTER EGG: On the region 1 DVD box set (produced by A&E), each disc's main menu is a cartoon policeman who opens his coat to show a female body, which is then (mostly) hidden by the episode selection menu. If you sit at this menu without making a selection, about every 30-40 seconds, the policeman's eyes move.