Neil Gaiman once claimed that ranking the best Monty Python sketches was one of the worst things you could make someone do. The second or third or fourth of fifth worst thing is an unexpected Spanish Inquisition, but his claim makes sense once you start picking favorites. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam don’t make it easy.
There are 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with an astonishing number of sketches per episode. Then there’s the variety of styles: Intense wordplay; brain-melting farce; satirical slap fest; naked absurdity. The chaotic bounce from one to the next makes weighing the best against the best almost futile. Plus, figuring out where one sketch ends and another begins is enough to make you reach for an aspirin or the dead crab.
With every episode now on Netflix, binge-watching Flying Circus offers a comforting rhythm to the foolishness. You pick up the patterns of TV announcers, animal inserts (like a leaping vole), shopkeeper skits, and when the fourth wall is about the burst, but their boundless creativity still makes the imagination reel.
So, it’s a daunting task, but this is my list. It is mine and belongs to me, and I own it and what it is, too. I don’t know who owns the vole.
11. “Mr. Hilter and the Minehead by-election”
Season one, episode 12.
Opening as a nondescript shop sketch with Idle as a route-obsessed traveler seeking lodging at a B&B, it plummets off the deep end with the introduction of Cleese sporting a tiny mustache and thick German accent as Mr. Hilter. The way it leans so aggressively into the obviousness of the gag is pure magic, as is Hilter, Bimmler, and Vibbentrop’s inability to stop revealing who they are to British simpletons who don’t seem to notice. Come for Cleese ranting in German gibberish at a near-empty lot, stay for Chapman quietly hyping the crowd of one.
10. “Police Station”
Season one, episode seven
Look, it’s just Cleese, Jones, and Chapman doing silly voices for a few minutes, but it’s also a gymnastic display of comic timing. Python pulled off a handful of these silly linguistic setups (people who only say the first, middle, or last part of words meetings; a guy who speaks in anagrams), but they always cut before they could overstay their welcome. This, on the other hand, is a shouting, high pitched meal where Jones as the straight man trying to report a burglary is drawn fully into the silliness.
Season two, episode 13
The second season finale went out with a disgusting bang involving an intellectual and gastronomical argument about who should eat whom on a lifeboat. Leave it to Python to find inspiration from a 19th century English court case about naval cannibalism. The whole gang discusses who they’d like to eat with such plainness and enthusiasm that you almost appreciate the generosity through the laughter, but it can’t be separated from the running gag of the episode that this is the night the Queen will be tuning in or from the even nastier follow-up “Undertakers” sketch where a rude Chapman convinces Cleese to eat his dead mother.
8. “Salad Days” – Season 3, Episode 7
Season three, episode seven
Quick and unrelenting, Python slams together the saccharine flavor of a carefree, upper-class musical with the blood-by-the-bucket violence of a Sam Peckinpah Western. A sweet summer picnic kicks off the laughter, Palin’s stilted enunciation sets the table (“What a simply super day!”) and the special effects crew covers everything in Caro syrup and red dye. Chapman gets a piano keyboard through the thorax, and everyone has a jolly good time.
7. “Fish Licence”
Season two, episode 10
What could have been a rehash of “Dead Parrot” instead displays a powerful maturity that switches up the roles so that Cleese’s Eric Praline character is the loony with a pet halibut named Eric (as well as a dog, cat, fruit bat and half-bee with the same name). The sketch simmers, letting Cleese grow increasingly ridiculous in defense of his odd behavior until it collapses into ornate chaos with a 12-foot-tall Chapman entering into the scene as the Lord Mayor with full retinue. It gets funnier and funnier and funnier, but it’s also a killer experiment in form — either Python getting bored or Python getting even more adventurous.
6. “The Spanish Inquisition”
Season two, episode two
The whole episode (with its semaphore version of Wuthering Heights) slashes the tires on the loftiness of liberal education, but this sketch is a classic because it goes for the absurd gusto, portraying the horrific cardinals as buffoons who can’t even torture an old lady. There’s one reason it’s so fantastic: the inanity of historical figures popping out of nowhere and Gilliam’s twisted face. Two! Two reasons. The inanity of historical figures popping out of nowhere, Gilliam’s twisted face, and Palin’s persistent inability to count. You get the picture.
5. “Scott of the Antarctic”
Season two, episode 10
An enormous commitment in Python terms, they let the greasy, deeply idiotic Hollywood production grumble so long that the great Robert Falcon Scott ends up in the Sahara where electric-tentacled penguins menace his crew. It isn’t desperate for the laugh, and our reward is Palin wrestling a stuffed toy lion for an uncomfortably long time. The opening credits popping up afterward (17 minutes into the half-hour show) is anarchic icing on top.
4. “The Argument Skit”
Season three, episode three
This is classic Cleese and Chapman molding an off-kilter premise built on word play and misunderstandings into its ideal form. It’s telling that it came after the bulk of an episode that dissolved into madness even more than usual, following an announcement of “Next on BBC1, 6 more minutes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus” — as if the whole group knew they had something special to set apart from the usual, manic fray.
But after Palin and Cleese spar over whether contradictions count as an argument, it, too, devolves into a meta-gag on Python’s reliance on ending sketches with police figures. Chapman shows up as a cop (“Flying Fox of the Yard!”), Idle shows up as a self-aware cop to arrest Chapman, Cleese can barely be seen as a cop arresting Idle, and a fourth hand on Cleese’s shoulders before an abrupt end seals the deal on this sketch’s sheer magnificence.
3. “The Funniest Joke in the World”
Season one, episode one
Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!
Still alive? This was the world’s true introduction to the group’s sensibilities, capping off the pilot episode with an epic tale built from a goofy premise that would have been stretched far too thin, far too early in lesser comedic hands. “The Funniest Joke in the World” has got everything: a high-concept gag, regular people taking absurdity at face value, a spoof on military life, clown shoes on Hitler, a purposefully unfunny joke and strong, varied performances from the whole crew.
2. “Restaurant Sketch”
Season one, episode three
Appreciated almost entirely by masochists, “Restaurant Sketch” is the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories. The entire goal of the exercise is to crater the punch line, which must be the loftiest goal in all comedy. The writing is inspired, but it’s also the greatest showcase of each member’s strongest talents. Jones’ joyful awkwardness, Palin’s warm mania, Idle’s raw intensity, Cleese’s loud insanity, and, of course, Chapman’s so-so-serious deadpan. “The Dirty Fork” goes from banal to bonkers in only a few minutes, telegraphs its punchline, and delivers the self-aware boos.
1. “Dead Parrot Sketch”
Season one, episode eight
A “Who’s on First?” for the modern era, so well-known that Cleese once wondered what the point of performing live was since everyone in the audience knew it by heart. This astonishing feat of comic nonsense sends up British euphemisms for death by tapping into the rising blood pressure of every customer service encounter everyone has ever had. It’s ingenuous because it’s both absurdist and completely realistic. A vaudeville riff with a dab of LSD. Like many others, the immortal sketch was given its key ingredient by Chapman, who suggested changing a busted toaster into a dead “Norwegian Blue,” evolving it from a similar, earlier car salesman sketch to the stuff of hilarious legend.
A 10-year veteran of movie culture criticism, Scott’s writing appears at Nerdist, Vanity Fair, Slashfilm, IndieWire, and more. He also co-hosts the screenwriting podcast Broken Projector, and his fiction has been published by Mulholland Books and Mythic Magazine. He wants to be Buster Keaton’s best friend.