Monty Python, or The Pythons, is the collective name of the creators of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a British television comedy sketch show that first aired on the BBC on 5 October 1969. A total of 45 episodes were made over four series (the last of which dropped the 'Flying Circus' from the title and thus was also called Monty Python). However, the Python phenomenon developed from the original television series into something much greater, in scope and impact: it spawned touring stage shows, four films, numerous albums, several books and a spin-off stage musical—as well as launching the members on to individual stardom.
The television series, broadcast by the BBC from 1969 to 1974, was conceived, written and performed by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Loosely structured as a sketch show but with a highly innovative stream-of-consciousness approach (aided by Terry Gilliam's animations), it pushed the boundaries of what was then considered acceptable, both in terms of style and in content.
The group's influence on comedy has often been compared to The Beatles' influence on music, a self-contained comedy team responsible for both writing and performing their work and changing the way performers entertained audiences. The Pythons' creative control allowed them to experiment with form and content, discarding the established rules of television comedy and breaking new ground for those who came after (George Harrison, who became friends with several members of the cast, said that he regarded Monty Python as 'continuing the spirit' of The Beatles). Their influence on British comedy of all kinds has been apparent for many years, while in America it has coloured the work of many cult performers from the early editions of Saturday Night Live through to more recent absurdist trends in television comedy.
There are differing accounts of the origins of the Python name although the members agree that its only 'significance' was that they thought it sounded funny. In the 1998 documentary Live At Aspen the group implied that 'Monty' was selected as a gently-mocking tribute to Field Marshal Lord Montgomery, a legendary British general of World War II; requiring a "slippery-sounding" surname, they settled on 'Python'. On other occasions Idle has claimed that the name 'Monty' was that of a popular and rotund fellow who drank in his local pub; people would often walk in and ask the barman, "Has Monty been in yet?", forcing the name to become stuck in his mind. These explanations aside, some believe that 'Monty Bodkin', the name of a character in several books by humourist P. G. Wodehouse, served on some level as an inspiration.
In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, three of the six members were voted among the top 50 greatest comedians ever, by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. Palin was at number 30, Idle was voted 21st and Cleese was at two, just beaten to the top by Peter Cook.