Every Monty Python Member’s Best Character
Well before Saturday Night Live made American sketch comedy fashionable again, the naughty boys of Monty Python waged their own Spanish Inquisition on the world of comedy. John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam were responsible for a collection of surreal satires that holds up remarkably well today, thanks largely to the menagerie of bizarre characters that populated their sketch shows, live performances and movies. Here then are our choices for each Python’s most iconic character…
John Cleese: Mr. Praline
Our first instinct was to anoint the Argument Clinic’s insufferable Mr. Barnard, the professional debater who profits from engaging in utterly unsatisfying quarrels. It’s not hard to imagine the real Cleese trolling this way, contradicting friends and family for his own amusement. Also considered: Mr. Teabag, the herky-jerky Minister of Silly Walks (now enjoying a ridiculous comeback as a way to improve cardio fitness), and Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s limb-losing Black Knight, both of which display Cleese’s considerable and underrated talent for physical comedy.
But for a pure exhibit of Cleese’s essential comic gifts — the slow burn, the overly proper observer of social protocol, the barely contained rage — no Python character can touch Mr. Praline, the disgruntled customer from the Dead Parrot sketch. The character is also a virtuoso example of comedic wordplay, written by Cleese with Chapman, spooling myriad hilarious variations on a single line of doomed dialogue.
Michael Palin: Aspiring Lumberjack
“Dead Parrot,” at least the version we’re using here, ends appropriately with Palin expressing his latent desire to leap from tree to tree as a lumberjack.
More than any other Palin Python performance, this one lives on in mass consciousness, no doubt thanks to the catchy, singalong quality of “Lumberjack Song.” But give credit where it’s due — the sketch works because we believe Palin harbors cross-dressing desires beneath dreams of life among the majestic pines with his lumber-loving brothers.
Also considered for Palin’s most remarkable character: the shrubbery-grubbing screech of the Knight Who Says Ni, the pet shop owner who offers Cleese a slug in exchange for his dead parrot and the everyday Superman who secretly rights wrongs as Bicycle Repair Man.
Terry Jones: Mr. Creosote
We’re fans of Jones’s Spam-hawking waitress, one of the stars of a sketch that named our unwanted email. And thumbs up to the teacher who inexplicably introduced Italian to a classroom full of Sicilians. But no Jones character has made more of an explosive impact than Monty Python’s Meaning of Life’s paean to culinary excess, Mr. Creosote. If you’re going gross-out, might as well shove all your chips to the center of the table. Arguments for any other Jones character are wafer-thin.
Eric Idle: Arthur Nudge
Idle, a comedy Swiss Army knife, arguably has more candidates for Best Character than any other Python. Among them: The Marriage Guidance Counselor who can’t help seducing Palin’s wife (honorary Python Carol Cleveland); Holy Grail’s Dead Collector who refuses to pile the nearly dead on his cart until they’re properly deceased; and a door-to-door joke and novelties salesman, peddling gags guaranteed to break the ice at parties. But we’ll insinuate that Idle’s finest Python creation was Arthur Nudge, the rib-poking master of innuendo who’s desperate for a sexy tale. WInk-wink, know what we mean? Say no more.
Graham Chapman: Brian Cohen
While other Pythons delighted in oddball eccentrics, it was Chapman’s calm at the center of the storm that anchored individual sketches and entire feature films. His greatest characters include Sir Edward Ross, the esteemed film director who withstands Cleese’s too-familiar nicknames; Raymond Luxury-Yacht (pronounced “Throatwobbler Mangrove”), a recurring character with an absurdly large nose; and the working-class playwright father who berates his son for choosing to leave the family business to be a coal miner.
But could there be any other choice than Brian, the would-be savior of Life of Brian? While other Pythons were skilled at extreme silliness, Chapman may have been the only one with the acting chops to pull off the film’s titular character. (He also would have had a field day with the word “titular”). All of the Pythons were funny. Chapman was the only one (at least in Python films) who got reviews like this from The Guardian: “What a triumph this film was for Chapman, who gave a convincing, touching performance as the bewildered everyman who decides to make a stand.”
Terry Gilliam: The Nude Organist
Would it be cheating to name Gilliam’s unhinged animations as his best character? If not, those demented cartoons are a no-brainer.
Gilliam made more of a Python impact with film directing (Holy Grail) and animation than as a performer, but he did have his share of funny live-action moments as well. There’s the (once again animated) Conrad Poohs and his Dancing Teeth, the question-posing keeper of the Bridge of Death and King Arthur’s trusty, coconut-clacking aide Patsy. But for pure silliness? The Nude Organist gets our vote.
Play us out, brother.