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Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Image: EMI Films

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How to get into Monty Python’s groundbreaking comedy

The comedy group’s best sketches and films are on Netflix

It’s just about impossible to discuss sketch comedy without bringing in Monty Python. Everyone from The Simpsons’ Matt Groening to Tina Fey to Jim Carrey has cited the comedy troupe as an influence. The group — British comedians Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, plus American animator Terry Gilliam — was so unique that the word “Python-esque” was coined to convey their specific brand of straight-faced absurdist sketch comedy, in part so people trying to reference their endless imitators and followers had an easy label to apply.

For newcomers, though, getting into Monty Python can be daunting. There’s a lot of Python work to process: The Pythons’ sketch series Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on the BBC from 1969 to 1974, and the group went on to produce movies, live shows, and even reunion shows up until 2014. On top of that, the group’s impact on comedy has spawned best-of compilations of their work, books and biographies, and documentaries devoted to their history.

Luckily, Netflix has most of Monty Python’s work available, and the sheer amount of variety means there’s a starting point for everyone, regardless of your interest level or available time. You can find all the titles below streaming on Netflix.

The best overall introduction

king arthur stands before a knight missing an arm
King Arthur and the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Image: EMI Films

The feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail is Monty Python’s best-known film, and the one most often quoted by people and on merchandise. A comedic take on King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, the film neatly encompasses what people love about Monty Python. There’s a high level of absurdity throughout — a killer rabbit, tall knights who are obsessed with shrubberies — and every actor pops up in multiple roles, distinguishing each with a colorful new costume (beards, horns, etc.). Broad humor also finds a balance with smarts as the film could serve as a crash course in Arthurian legends, at least as far as the knights are concerned. If you’re looking for the easiest way into Monty Python, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is it. Netflix also has Monty Python’s Christianity sendup Life of Brian, in case you want to stick to the movie route. (Alas, no The Meaning of Life, their classic sketch-comedy film.)

The best sketch introduction

Steve Martin hosts the sketch collection Parrot Sketch Not Included – 20 Years of Monty Python, which was assembled to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the debut of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Though Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the best cold introduction to the group as a whole, Parrot Sketch Not Included is the CliffsNotes way into their humor and the material that made them famous. Following a brief introduction from Martin, the special launches directly into a series of sketches, including such hits as “The Lumberjack Song” and “The Spanish Inquisition.” It’s an easy way not only to become acquainted with some of Monty Python’s most famous sketches, but to get a sense of whether their humor is for you.

A more personal introduction

silhouettes of each python member in flasher coats
The art for Monty Python’s Personal Best.
Photo: PBS

If you have a little more time to spare but still don’t feel like committing to the entirety of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the miniseries Monty Python’s Personal Best may be the route for you. These six episodes, five of which are introduced by different Pythons, feature their favorite sketches. The sixth is a tribute to Chapman, who died in 1989. It’s six hours of sketches, which isn’t the shortest path into their oeuvre, but the personal touches (and write-around sketches) do a good job of introducing each Python and letting viewers get a sense for each group member’s specialties and quirks: Cleese’s crankiness, Gilliam’s longer-form animation, Idle’s musical talents, and so on. It’s a little more informative and intimate than the greatest hits in Parrot Sketch Not Included.

The complete sketch experience

john cleese and michael palin in monty python’s flying circus
John Cleese and Michael Palin looking at a diagram of a sheep.
Photo: BBC

At the end of the day, the best way to experience Monty Python’s work is by diving into Monty Python’s Flying Circus from start to finish. Tackling the whole series isn’t actually as daunting as it may seem — the series ran for 45 episodes, each around 30 minutes long. It’s not an introduction to the group so much as it is the complete package (excepting their film work), but it’s their biggest and most influential work, and is worth exploring as a whole.

The best introduction to the group’s history

eric idle, michael palin, john cleese, graham chapman, and terry jones in a school setting
John Cleese acts as teacher to the rest of the Pythons.
Photo: BBC

If watching any of the above makes you curious about the people behind the absurd sketches, or you want to get a better idea of who the artists are before getting to the art, the documentary film Monty Python: Before the Flying Circus is the way to go. The documentary covers the years leading up to the show, focusing on each Python during their college years, and how they met and formed one of the most famous comedy groups of all time.

If you’d like to know more, Monty Python Conquers America focuses on the group’s attempts at breaking into the United States, and Monty Python: The Meaning of Live covers their live reunions in 2014. The most comprehensive look at their history is the docuseries Monty Python: Almost the Truth, which covers 40 years’ worth of Python antics.

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