Top 25 Monty Python Sketches
The following is a list of the 25 greatest Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketches. Scenes from movies are excluded and have not been considered. They would just further muddy up the waters, which are quite murky enough already.
The Bruces sketch involves a group of stereotypical Australians who are members of the Philosophy Department at the fictitious University of Woolloomooloo, and all named Bruce, with a common fondness for beer and a hatred of “pooftahs.” Terry Jones plays a “pommie” professor, Michael Baldwin, joining the department and meeting his colleagues for the first time. Since his name is different from that of everyone else, Baldwin is given the moniker “New Bruce” to avoid confusion.
The sketch is one of the most quoted from the series, partly due to the fact it also featured regularly in the team’s stage shows, where it would be capped with a performance of The Philosophers’ Song. The song does not feature in the original TV version, which instead ends with the first Bruces saying “Sidney Nolan! What’s that?” pointing to the ear of fourth Bruce returning to that episode’s running theme, “how to recognize different parts of the body.” It’s also a shame that in the televised version, Cleese blows the delivery of, perhaps, the funniest line in the script.
24. The Olympic Hide and Seek Final
You probably saw the ending coming, but it still works. This sketch is listed among Terry Jones’ favorites, featured on the PBS Monty Python’s Personal Best special.
23. Musical Mice
In this short skit, Arthur Ewing (Jones) has “musical” mice, reputedly trained to squeak at specific pitches. He claims they will then play The Bells of Saint Mary. The unbridled zeal shown by Jones even as he’s being dragged off the stage makes the sketch.
22. The Battle of Pearl Harbor
Though certainly not reaching Jones’ level in drag, Eric Idle was arguably the most feminine-looking of the bunch. He often played female characters in a more straightforward way, only altering his voice slightly, as opposed to the falsetto shrieking used by the other Pythons, which is illustrated perfectly by this short but hilarious sketch.
The Guild returned on a later episode to reenact the first heart transplant, in predictably similar fashion.
21. Department Store/ Buying an Ant
Buying an Ant appeared in season four episode two. This was shortly after Cleese had left the troupe, allegedly due to the repetitive nature of much of the work and difficulty in working with an increasingly drunken Graham Chapman. Eric Idle portrayed Chris Quinn, a naive patron of the “ant department”, in a large department store. Michael Palin played the exploitive salesman, as he often did in Monty Python bits.
The sketch was one of several in the episode featuring a recurring theme of ants and a mysterious individual named Michael Ellis.
20. Scott of the Antarctic/ Scott of the Sahara
Several cineastes report from the set of Scott of the Antarctic, where enthusiastic but incompetent director James McRettin (Cleese) and producer Jerry Shipp (Idle) battle their way through the demands of their dim-witted, big-name stars and the elements while shooting a Hollywood epic on location in England.
This sketch was apparently inspired by the 1948 film about Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to be the first to the South Pole, while braving polar lions and giant electric penguins. Okay, that last part may have been embellished in the Python version.
19. The Visitors
Graham Chatman plays the straight man enjoying a date at home as several obnoxious visitors including a goat with diarrhea (of course) arrive, throwing his quiet evening into chaos and tragedy.
18. Court Scene – Multiple Murderer
Through an endearing and resolute apology, Eric Idle gets away (well, almost) with murder.
17. Buying a Bed
Terry Jones and his wife, played by Carol Cleveland, visit the oddest mattress shop in England.
Commonly referred to as the “Seventh Python,” or the “Python Girl,” Carol Cleveland was the most important female performer in the Monty Python ensemble. Originally hired by producer/director John Howard Davies for just the first five episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, she went on to appear in approximately two-thirds of the episodes as well as in all of the Python films, and in most of their stage shows as well.
The premise of this sketch is that each salesman in the store has his own unique quirk, but are “otherwise perfectly all right”.
16. Ron Obvious: The First Man to Jump the Channel
In this sketch, Ron Obvious, played by Terry Jones, is encouraged by his less than scrupulous manager to undertake several dubious stunts for publicity. Michael Palin steals most of the scenery as Luigi Vercotti, a recurring mafioso-esque character who also appeared in the Piranha Brothers sketch.
15. The Idiot in Society
Palin and Jones collaborations were more visual, and more fanciful conceptually than the verbal, confrontational style of Cleese and Chapman. Cleese has confirmed that “most of the sketches with heavy abuse were Graham’s and mine, anything that started with a slow pan across countryside and impressive music was Mike and Terry’s, and anything that got utterly involved with words and disappeared up any personal orifice was Eric’s.”
14. Restaurant Sketch
Taking a mundane event and driving it to a melodramatic extreme can work if the actors are talented and witty enough. I imagine that this sketch was conceived, if not written, in less time than it took to act it out. It features dirty fork seppuku, an angry and bereaved knife-wielding French chef, and an intentionally anti-climatic punchline that had the audience booing the performers.
This sketch reflects Python’s thoughts about punch lines. The troupe had decided from the start that they were going to throw away punchlines, and this was a play on the shows that would use corny lines like the dirty knife. Most Python sketches just end abruptly, and sometimes-even characters say “What a stupid sketch” and walk out. In Monty Python Live in Aspen, Terry Gilliam explains: “Our first rule was: no punchlines. [some sketches] start brilliant, great acting, really funny sketch, but punch line is just not as good as the rest of the sketch, so it kills the entire thing. That’s why we eliminated them.”
13. Crunchy Frog
Long before Mike Judge brought you Frog Baseball, Terry Jones gave you these unconventional confectioneries made from “only the finest baby frogs, dew-picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in finest-quality spring water, lightly killed, and then sealed in a succulent Swiss quintuple smooth treble cream milk chocolate envelope and lovingly frosted with glucose.”
In a clear tribute to the famous sketch, among the many magical sweets enjoyed by the characters in the Harry Potter series are the crunchy “Chocolate Frog” and the Cockroach Cluster.
12. Ministry of Silly Walks
Whether you appreciate this simple sketch or not, you can’t but help but guffaw at the sight of John Cleese’s all knees and elbows lanky frame fumbling about. As the years went by, Cleese found it increasingly difficult to perform these walks. He’d say, when told about a new Python Tour, “I’m not doing silly walks.”
Some right-wing inspired observers claimed to see in this sketch a satire of government projects. But it should be noted that in the book The Pythons, members of the troupe indicated that they considered the whole scene nothing more than pure silliness. Cleese in particular is mildly dismayed that so many fans consider it their “best” sketch. A shortened version was performed at Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl.
11. Woody and Tinny Words
Graham Chatman, perhaps known as the consummate straight man, despite his sexual preferences nudge nudge, is at his best. It’s probably the most under-appreciated of all Monty Python sketches due mostly to the fact that it appeared in one of the post-John Cleese episodes. But that doesn’t take away from this at all. As a bonus, Chapman who drank up to 2 quarts of gin a day at this point, was possibly quite drunk when it was recorded.
10. The Argument Clinic
The sketch’s premise involves a service that exposes customers to unpleasant experiences for a fee. For example, one can pay to be verbally abused or hit on the head with a mallet.
Palin pays to have an argument with Cleese. Initially, Cleese simply gainsays everything that Palin says. This frustrates Palin, who asserts that “an argument’s not the same as contradiction”—(“Simply saying ‘No it isn’t’ isn’t an argument.” “Yes it is!” “No it isn’t!”)—until he realizes that Cleese is engaging him in a sort of meta-argument about what constitutes an argument.
9. Cheese Shop
Terry Jones is the proprietor of the finest cheese shop in England that doesn’t actually have cheese. Not even Venezuelan Beaver Cheese. It’s a typical example of the writing collaborations of Cleese and Chapman whose characters often find themselves in ever escalating disagreements.
8. Self Defense Against Fresh Fruit
Cleese is the 16 ton-weight wielding self-defense expert who teaches you how to defend yourself against fresh fruit. Notice how the cardboard weight breaks as Terry Jones is slow in ducking. The first half of the sketch was remade for the movie “And Now for Something Completely Different”.
7. Nudge Nudge (Candid Photography)
Originally written by Eric Idle for another comedy show, it was rejected as a script. Eric Idle openly admits the script is confusing, the joke being mostly in the delivery. While the other Pythons’ writing was broken up into partnerships, Idle preferred to work alone.
The quote, “Nudge nudge, wink wink”, has entered the English language as an idiom meaning to imply sexual innuendo.
6. Homicidal Barber / The Lumberjack Song
While the sketch has appeared in several forms, the common theme is of a man who is dissatisfied with his current job and dreams of being a lumberjack. Both Michael Palin and Eric Idle have performed the song. Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Fred Tomlinson, whose Fred Tomlinson Singers are in the background dressed as Mounties, wrote it.
The sketch took its inspiration from a discussion Palin had with an assistant cameraman, in which the subject was, the cameraman’s former jobs. One of the jobs was revealed to be that of a lumberjack.
There is a reason that most of the Python members felt that Terry Jones was the funniest of the team while in drag, and his waitress character demonstrates why.
The sketch was conceived in response to the fact that Spam was one of the few meats excluded from the British food rationing that began in World War II and continued for a number of years after the war. The British, naturally, grew very tired of it.
4. Hitler in England
Here we see Mr. “Hitler” on a visit to England. The sketch speaks for itself.
3. The Funniest Joke in the World
This bit appeared in the very first episode broadcast on October 5, 1969. The premise is that a man writes a joke that is so funny that it is fatal to anyone who reads or hears it. The joke is eventually acquired by the British Army to succeed the great pre-war joke – seen held aloft by Neville Chamberlain – a reference to the PM returning to the UK with the Munich Agreement. Under careful testing, as a single word can be harmful, they translate it into German for use in World War II.
Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! … Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput.
Don’t bother attempting to translate it as it’s completely non-sensical.
2. Upper Class Twit of the Year
This classic sketch is about an obstacle-course race among five stereotypical upper-class twits to determine the 127th Annual Upper-Class Twit of the Year. Notice the small crowd cheering the twits on is mostly made up of cardboard cutouts of donkeys.
Cleese has humorously suggested that this one sketch is the reason why he never received a British honor. In reality, he declined the honor of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for politically motivated reasons.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus was cancelled after four episodes in Finnish TV in 1970s after this sketch appeared. This was done because it was said that the sketch was offending people who had cerebral palsy.
1. Dead Parrot
The Dead Parrot sketch, alternatively and originally known as Pet Shop sketch or Parrot Sketch, is one of the most famous in the history of British television and voted number two on Channel Four’s list of 50 greatest comedy sketches.
It portrays a conflict between disgruntled customer Mr. Eric Praline (played by John Cleese), and a shopkeeper (Michael Palin), who hold contradictory positions on the vital state of a “Norwegian Blue” parrot (an apparent absurdity in itself since parrots are popularly presumed to be tropical and not indigenous to Scandinavia, or perhaps a riff on the African Grey parrot).
The sketch was based off an acting exercise where, if one of the actors repeat a line, they automatically lose. It was inspired by a Car Salesman sketch that Palin and Graham Chapman had done in How to Irritate People. In it, Palin played a car salesman who refused to admit that there was anything wrong with his customer’s (Chapman) car, even as it fell apart in front of him. That sketch was based on an actual incident between Palin and a car salesman.
Over the years, Cleese and Palin have done many versions of the Dead Parrot sketch for various television shows, record albums, and live performances.
Bonus: Fish Slapping Dance
Honorable Mention: Police Station (Silly Voices), Kilimanjaro Expedition, Vocational Guidance Counselor, Confuse-a-Cat, Ltd.