Synopsis: 1970 war der neue Unterhaltungschef der Bavaria Atelier GmbH auf Suche nach neuen Talenten. Sein Name: Alfred Biolek. Seine Entdeckung: Eine britische Komikertruppe, die seit einem Jahr bei der BBC mit ihrer Serie “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” für komische Furore sorgte. Biolek war von den Pythons begeistert und machte den Briten das Angebot, eine “Flying-Circus-Sendung” bei der Bavaria für das deutsche Publikum zu drehen. Einzige Bedingung: Die Show sollte speziell für Deutschland geschrieben werden. Die Pythons schlugen ein und drehten im Sommer 1971 zum ersten Mal in ihrer Karriere mit einer richtigen Kinoproduktionsfirma. Und zwar auf deutsch! Am 3. Januar 1972 lief “Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus: Blödeln für Deutschland” von 21.00 bis 21.45 im ARD. Noch im selben Jahr drehte die Bavaria eine weitere Sendung – “Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus: Blödeln auf die feine englische Art”, die im Dezember ’72 ausgestrahlt wurde…
eyelights: its many zany rarities.
eyesores: the longer, more structured sketches.
“Look, we haven’t got a sense of humour, but we understand you do. Can we use yours?” – Eric Idle, on the proposal for ‘Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus’
In 1971, after Monty Python won second prize for a special compilation they made especially for the Golden Rose at the Montreux Festival, German TV producer Alfred Biolek of Bavaria Films decided to offer the Pythons a special in his native land.
Thus was born the first of two 44-minute episodes of ‘Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus’.
By this point, the troupe were in between series two and three of their landmark show. They never considered Germany a viable market for their brand of humour, but decided that it was an opportunity they shouldn’t miss. In July of 1971, off they went.
Their first pit stop was the Dachau concentration camp. Eric Idle still wonders to this day what the point of that visit was (“Was it to get it out of the way?”, he mused). Amusingly, it was closed and Chapman had it reopened by saying they were Jewish.
As irreverent as its forebear, ‘Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus’ consisted of all new material shot on film (instead of video as the BBC did) and did not make use of studio audience laugh tracks. It also didn’t have the same stream-of-consciousness vibe.
But it yielded some classic Monty Python moments, such as:
- “The Bavarian Restaurant”, wherein the head waiter and staff have an obnoxious tradition for everything they do – no doubt just to irritate their simpleton American tourists.
- “Part 4 of The Merchant of Venice as performed by a herd of cows”. In Bovine, with subtitles. A bit long, but hilariously surrealist.
- The “27th Silly Olympiad” sketch, which was re-used as interstitial material during their live shows and which could be seen in “Live at the Hollywood Bowl”. Interestingly, this was inspired by the Munich Olympics.
- “Stake Your Claim”, a talk show spoof where a man claims to have written Shakespeare’s oeuvre. A bit ridiculous, but well played by Idle and Palin.
The best part is that the Pythons made the programme topical by referring to German culture in the inept documentary on Albrecht Durer (it was his 500th anniversary at the time) and morphing their classic “Lumberjack Song” sketch for the occasion.
Sadly, the first episode was not a success (or it was a mixed success, or it was popular enough to warrant a second episode, or it was adored by the public and critics alike – depending on which webpage you consult). (Ah, the accuracy of the interwebs!)
Some say that the problem was that it played during an England/West Germany football match, while others blame the Pythons’ poor Deutsch, which they had learned phonetically; German audiences apparently couldn’t understand them.
It wasn’t intended to be in German, but the Pythons had sent the scripts over to the producers and there was a misunderstanding about their ability to speak the language; they were stuck cramming their lines and using reference boards while shooting.
As far as I’m concerned, while the episode has some excellent gags, the pace is a bit slow in comparison to their earlier efforts. And, at 44 minutes in length, it might be a bit long for a sketch show. It ends up being entertaining, but not outstanding.
Still, Alfred Biolek decided to give it another shot, and the troupe filmed the second episode from September 15 to October 5, 1972. This time, however, the episode was shot in English and later overdubbed in Deutsch for the television broadcast.
There are mixed accounts as to why this episode was shot in English, with the Pythons saying that the grueling experience of the first one had put them off, whereas the producers felt that doing it in German prevented them from selling the show elsewhere.
This would prove true: it would be seen in English markets a few times over the years, whereas the previous one was only made available to the home video market in 1998. Until then, it was considered a “lost” Monty Python episode that few had seen.
It was no great loss: the programme was marred by the Pythons’ growing love of continuity, trying hard to tie it all together at the expense of their zany genre-bending. These less-inspired sketches were also often longer and overstayed their welcome.
Still, once again, it had its moments of glory between the drudgery:
- “Colin “Bomber” Harris vs Colin “Bomber” Harris”: This is a sketch that Graham Chapman used to do in college and that was recycled here. It consists of him skillfully wrestling himself for a couple of minutes. It was also a staple of Python’s live shows.
- “Hearing Aid”: A customer (Idle) walks into a hearing aid clinic whose clerk (Cleese) can’t hear. So he asks for help from the clerk (Palin) at the eyeglass counter nearby. The latter can’t see, and thus begins a ridiculous few minutes of miscommunication.
- “The Philosophers’ Football Match”: Filmed in an outdoor coliseum, it’s a classic skit about a football match between Greek and German philosophers. Brilliant. Like “27th Silly Olympiad”, this one was re-used as interstitial material for live shows.
- “The Sycophancy Show”: This is basically a talk about sycophancy, with one guest who’s a sycophant and one who’s not. It’s brief, and perhaps not well fleshed out, but I love where it’s going.
- “William Tell”: A short intro to the programme, that has William Tell succeed after many false starts. Nice.
Unfortunately, the two most dreadful sketches are also the longest of the bunch: a nature reserve for mice (and another for fish) and “The Tale of Happy Valley”, which is tedious and grating (primarily due to Jones’ high-pitched and dissonant singing).
Broadcast on December 18, 1972, this second episode would be the last television episode that Monty Python did with John Cleese in their fold: he had had reservations about making a third series in the first place and left the show before the fourth one.
It was apparently a hit in Germany (again, as per the interwebs), but it wasn’t enough motivation for all parties to do any more. So these episodes aired and were largely forgotten. Python would carry on with a final, six-episode series before moving on.
Then came their first cinematic classic, ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘.
In North America, ‘Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus’ is available on DVD in separate packages: the first in the ‘Monty Python Live’ set, and the second in ‘The Life of Python’ set. Sadly, the latter is a rare find, nearly putting that episode out of circulation.
For completists and die-hard fans it’s a huge issue. Others can sleep soundly knowing that they aren’t missing much.
Dates of viewings: March 18 + 21, 2015