Monty Python, perhaps the most influential sketch comedy group of all time, consisted of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones (unofficially some, including myself, also list Carol Cleveland and/or Neil Innes as contributing members). While most of them went on to larger success in comedy and filmmaking, it is their work within the group with which they are most largely associated.
Scholars have long debated questions regarding the Pythons: Who was the driving force behind the group? Who the funniest? The most intelligent? The silliest? Who, if any of them, were responsible for the assassination of JFK? (we at MFR, or probably just myself, have been poring over the recently released documents searching for any connection and so far the results have been…well, there haven’t been any results. So far.) Debates raged among historians. What started out as a gentlemanly discourse soon devolved into childish name-calling, personal feuds, and eventually a series of bloody wars that nearly wiped out a generation of academics from both Oxford and Cambridge, as well several hundred chartered accountants.
Finally, an armistice was declared and, with a tone reminiscent of certain religious matters, it was declared that the answers to these questions were beyond the realm of mankind’s understanding and should be pursued no further. Anyone found attempting to answer these holy questions would be burned at the stake or tarred and feathered, as time permitted. Thus, the matter of debating Pythons was closed for years.
Until now. Upon secretly researching the troupe in a cave on an unmarked island off Sumatra, one handsome scholar found a loophole. A matter about which there could be no serious debate and one by which one Python could be singled out to stand above the rest: height. Yes at 6’5″, one Python: John Cleese, stands head and shoulders (assuming the head and shoulders in question measure approximately 3 inches) above his colleagues. So, in honor of the 78th birthday of Mr. Cleese, we at Monkeys Fighting Robots proudly present to you The Top 7 or 8 John Cleese Sketches From Monty Python.
Cheese Shop Sketch
A similar set-up to another (and obviously higher-rated, since this is the first) sketch on our list, “Cheese Shop” is classic Cleese. He starts off as stodgy and devolves (with some help from Michael Palin’s cheese shop proprietor) into murderous as each progressively more common cheese is unavailable.
Self Defence Against Fresh Fruit
If Cleese shines in “Cheese Shop” due to his restraint, he exemplifies the other end of the spectrum here, gleefully shouting at his beleagured students like a demented drill sergeant. Not only is this sketch uproarious, but it might save your life if you ever find yourself walking home from the wrong produce stand late at night.
It’s the Arts
This time the tables are turned as Cleese is the target of rage rather than the source of it. “It’s the Arts” is chronologically the earliest sketch on this list, taking place in the debut episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Wither Canada”.
The Architects Sketch
Here Cleese plays a passionate young architect pitching his dream project to a group of apartment investors. Sadly for him, though, his dream project is not the desired block of flats, but a slaughterhouse, and a doozy at that. Watching Cleese fluctuate seamlessly between stoic and hysterical in a manner few comedians can pull off, one can’t help but root for him, even if it means a few tenants end up on the killing floor. Note the mustache which, as we all know, increases anyone’s funny-ness by between 5 and 15%.
Ministry of Silly Walks
One of the Pythons’ most famous sketches (various stills of Cleese from this bit are featured on the DVD release of the show), this would be a classic if it featured nothing but Cleese’s physical comedy. The progression into political satire elevates it to legendary status.
Perhaps not as well-known as some of the others, in “Kilimanjaro” Cleese takes a simple premise (a man who sees two of everything) and builds it into a comedic tour de force. Using and occasionally subverting the gag of pluralizing everything is pure Python. Also note the mustache and, for perhaps the only time in history, the audience is treated to two Cleeses, through the magic of special effects.
The Parrot Sketch
“Parrot” is perhaps the most famous sketch in television history. Generations born too late to be familiar with Monty Python’s Flying Circus (or circuses in general) know this sketch, and for good reason. This one has it all: the magical interplay of Cleese and Michael Palin, breaking the fourth wall, meta-jokes, and even a palindrome joke. If you’ve heard the term “Norwegian Blue” or the phrase “Pining for the fjords”, this is the reason why.
“You yellow bastards!” When I was about ten years old, my cousin said I just had to watch a film called Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Being an ignorant child, I thought he was referring to one of those awful-looking bible cartoons from the 80s and refused to watch it. Luckily for me, he didn’t listen and popped in the VHS cassette. As soon as King Arthur and his coconut shell horses appeared I was convulsing with laughter and hooked on the absurd humor of Monty Python. I think we watched the movie another 5 or 6 times that weekend, and I know we must have rewound and watched this scene twice as many times. The ridiculous squirting blood, the taunting in the face of what for anyone else would have been mortal wounds, kicking a king in his head while he prayed; the Black Knight was the greatest character I had ever seen. This was and still is maybe the funniest thing ever recorded and Cleese was the man behind the mask.
Note: Some of you may be thinking (erroneously) that this is not a sketch and shouldn’t be included on this list. Let me enlighten you. While this is technically a scene from a film, it works perfectly well outside of that context and could have just as easily been featured on the show or in one of their sketch compilation movies. If you still insist that it shouldn’t be here, then I challenge you to a duel, but I must warn you that you’ll leave said duel with more than just a flesh wound.