It’s nearly 50 years since Monty Python unleashed their Flying Circus on to an unsuspecting public on 5 October 1969. Forty-five episodes and 4 series later, the Python phenomenon was well and truly embedded in the public’s consciousness.

A disparate bunch, Messrs John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and the sadly departed Graham Chapman brought surrealism, absurdism and razor-sharp, intellectually driven wordplay into the nation’s living rooms on a weekly basis. Largely eschewing punchlines, backed by Gilliam’s instantly recognisable animated sequences and gleefully satirising the idiosyncrasies of British life, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is now widely regarded as seminal television comedy. Live performances, albums and movies followed as Python-mania continued. Each of the troupe’s members went on to forge individual careers (from Gilliam’s rise as an auteur to Palin’s turns as a TV traveller), while their collective influence was felt on each new generation of funny men and women.

Get the latest from the BFI

Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.

Here are 10 sketches that find the Pythons at their funniest.

The Dead Parrot Sketch

The Dead Parrot sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74)

The most famous of Python’s countless routines, the Dead Parrot skit was voted the best alternative comedy sketch in a 2004 poll run by the Radio Times. Appearing in the eighth episode of the first series of Flying Circus, it drew inspiration from an encounter Palin experienced with a car salesman who “had an excuse for everything”. Palin’s pet shop owner becomes the satirical face of dreadful customer service as Cleese’s rightfully disgruntled Mr Praline tries to complain about his deceased Norwegian Blue.

Replete with fourth-wall-breaking asides and exceedingly daft dialogue – including a lengthy outburst from Mr Praline on exactly how ‘ex’ the parrot is – the sketch may revolve around an exaggerated premise, but the customer’s frustrations are entirely relatable. Just as Mr Praline says how things are getting sillier, Graham Chapman’s Colonel marches into the pet shop and commands “Get on with it” to bluntly wrap things up.

The Lumberjack Song

Reportedly dashed off in a quarter of an hour in lieu of a punchline to the Homicidal Barber sketch, The Lumberjack Song is one of the troupe’s most easily identified skits. Written by Jones, Palin and Fred Tomlinson and performed by Palin with backing singing courtesy of other Pythons together with The Fred Tomlinson Singers dressed as Canadian mounties, the song would become the bane of lumberjacks the world over due to its unexpectedly confessional lyrics.

Starting as a celebration of a rough, tough and manly lifestyle chopping down trees in the great outdoors, the song soon develops into something completely different as Palin’s lumberjack passionately sings about pressing flowers and wearing high-heels, suspenders and a bra. The nonplussed mounties are joined in their befuddlement by the transvestite lumberjack’s ‘best girlie’ (Connie Booth), who angrily storms off with the image of her ‘butch’ man shattered forever. A gloriously silly and irresistibly catchy upending of macho stereotypes.

Four Yorkeshiremen

We know that technically the Four Yorkeshiremen isn’t an original Monty Python skit and didn’t feature in Flying Circus, but it’s become so synonymous with the troupe that it warrants inclusion. Written by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Marty Feldman, Cleese and Chapman and first performed in 1967 on their ITV comedy show, At Last the 1948 Show, Four Yorkshiremen is an increasingly absurd parody of nostalgia, oneupmanship and northern grit.

Including script tweaks each time the sketch was performed live by the Pythons (and other performers), the 4 well-dressed, holidaying Yorkshiremen in question enjoy a bottle of Chateau de Chasselas and try to best each other with outrageously exaggerated yet rose-tinted tales of childhood hardship. With septic tanks and shoeboxes for homes and fathers that would slice them in two with breadknives (if they were lucky), the 4 friends are united in agreement that “if you tell that to young people today, they won’t believe you”.

Argument Clinic

Apparently popular with philosophy students – who muse on the potential benefits of paying for professional debate – the Argument Clinic sketch is an adroit exploration of the English language and consumer culture. Penned by Cleese and Chapman, it’s a prime example of the intense wordplay that characterised the sketch writers’ work at the time. The quick-fire dialogue is delivered beautifully by Palin and Cleese in a verbal jousting contest.

Purchasing a 5-minute argument, Palin’s character is caught off guard by the immediacy of Cleese’s character’s argumentative approach, growing ever more frustrated by the latter’s verbal and mental gymnastics. Containing a near-verbatim dictionary definition of the word ‘argument’, Palin’s character tries in vain to get his opponent to admit that contradictions and ad hominem attacks do not make an argument. Storming off, Palin’s angry customer is first verbally abused and then hit over the head in 2 more rooms where the public can purchase absurd experiences.

Nudge Nudge

Originally written by Idle as a script for Ronnie Barker that was rejected, Nudge Nudge finally saw the light of day in the third episode of Flying Circus. Performed by its writer and Jones, the skit sees 2 strangers in a pub entering into a conversation that one of them finds oddly cryptic and then uncomfortably intrusive. Riffing off British repressiveness and our love for complex double entendres, Nudge Nudge is all about Idle’s hilariously enthusiastic delivery as a sex-obsessed bachelor.

Stuffed with slang references, Nudge Nudge is an exercise in convoluted sexual innuendo as the bachelor’s relentless barrage of wink-wink, say-no-more proclamations drives Jones’ stiff-upper-lipped pub-goer to distraction. Finally getting the single man to speak plainly and ask Jones’ character if he’s slept with a lady, the sketch is one of the few Python routines to end with a clear punchline as the bachelor pauses for a second before asking: “What’s it like?”

Spam

The Spam sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74)

Stupendously daft even by Python standards, Spam somehow combines a greasy spoon café setting, the titular canned meat, Vikings and a British historian into a sketch that shouldn’t work but somehow does. Taking as its cue the ubiquity of spam on the British menu post-Second World War, the Pythons concoct a skit that lodges in the memory banks. Given how often the word is mentioned, it’s unsurprising that the modern, digital meaning of ‘spam’ is indeed derived from this sketch.

Self-reflexive and fourth-wall-smashing, Spam sees 2 would-be diners lowered by wires into the Green Midget Café – which is surreally patronised by Vikings – and greeted with a menu dominated by spam. Like a fever dream, the skit sees the Vikings break into a chorus of “spam, spam, spam, spam…spammity spam, wonderful spam” before Palin’s historian first analyses their actions and then is himself drawn into the relentless, ear-worm chorus.

The Spanish Inquisition

Split into 3 parts that appear in the second episode of series 2 – itself titled The Spanish Inquisition – this delightfully absurd sequence of sketches is predicated, as you would expect, by a character exclaiming that they “didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition”. A parody of the real thing, the Pythons’ Spanish Inquisition is far less savagely repressive and a whole lot sillier. Not shy of lampooning organised religion, and skilled at joining incompatible elements for comedic effect, Palin, Gilliam and Jones respectively perform the troupe’s 3 inquisitors – Cardinals Ximénez, Fang and Biggles – as ineffective buffoons whose idea of torture includes exposure to cushions and comfy chairs.

The 3 less than fearsome inquisitors stumble and bumble their way through unsuccessful attempts to strike terror into those accused of heresy. Managing to turn up late for their final appearance – bursting into the Old Bailey seconds before the episode ends – Cardinal Ximénez lets out an exasperated and deflated “Oh bugger”.

Dirty Fork

Dirty Fork skit

If you’re ever in a restaurant and are faced with some cutlery that could do with another visit to the dishwasher, just remember the Dirty Fork skit and consider what might happen if you take the very un-British stance of highlighting the fact. In this sketch, when a diner politely asks for a dirty fork to be replaced it kick-starts a meltdown of epic proportions among the proud staff of a 3-star French restaurant.

Existential crises, philosophical despair, violent recriminations and even suicide abound when the titular unclean item of cutlery is flagged up by Chapman’s restaurant goer, as he and his wife ponder over the menu. Presenting the opposite of the customer service experienced in the Dead Parrot sketch, here the staff cannot cope with the inferior quality of the couple’s dining experience and unravel at frighteningly amusing speed. Exaggerated and intense, the skit also marked the first time the troupe responded to the live audience’s reactions.

The Funniest Joke in the World

Also known as Killer Joke, this lengthy sketch from series one of Flying Circus revolves around the writing of a gag so powerful that all who read or hear it die laughing. Complete with voiceover narration and shot in a quasi-documentary style reminiscent of Peter Watkins’ films, the sketch evolves into what is in essence a mini-Second World War comedy movie in which the lethal joke is translated and used against the German army.

Featuring actual footage of Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, The Funniest Joke in the World is a laudably well-executed routine. In the hands of Monty Python, the premise gives rise to all manner of silliness as the British army take the translated killer joke into combat. Proving to be so fearsome, Joke Warfare is subsequently banned under the Geneva Convention. The translation of the unheard English killer gag is made up of German-sounding gibberish.

The Ministry of Silly Walks

A sketch from the first episode of the second series of Flying Circus, The Ministry of Silly Walks makes hilarious use of Cleese’s then slender and gangly 6ft 5’’ frame. Playing Mr Teabag, a bowler-hatted, be-suited Whitehall civil servant, Cleese’s gift for physical comedy – here inspired by Max Wall’s own similar talents – has never been better exemplified than in this skit. Though the dialogue is intrinsic to the sketch’s success, it’s undoubtedly the silly walks themselves that are the highpoint, despite Cleese himself apparently not being overly fond of the routine.

Arriving at his place of work – the titular fictional governmental department – and having greeted several of his silly-walking colleagues, Mr Teabag is less than enamoured by the underwhelming efforts at comical bipedal locomotion of one Mr Putey (Palin). Kafkaesque bureaucracy and stuffy self-importance are mercilessly skewered in under 3 minutes simply by the act of walking peculiarly in an utterly deadpan manner.