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But the place to be seen was on the stage of Cambridge's Footlights Club. When Cleese and Chapman entered the Footlights around 1960, it had a glittering comic cachet. That was due largely to Peter Cook, who was a god to the younger members, his monologues passed down by oral tradition in the pre-tape era. David Frost, a Footlights secretary, would soon launch himself as a TV comedy mogul with That Was the Week That Was and The Frost Report, for which he drew on Oxbridge grads, including all five British Pythons, as writers and performers. (Later Footlighters included Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Douglas Hitchhiker Adams and, some sources say, Baron Cohen.)

Cleese and Chapman, whose senior revue was directed by Trevor Nunn, were stars from their first auditions, with John doing "a routine of trampling on hamsters" (Pythons always had an animal fetish) and Chapman, in pre-med as Miller had been, impersonating "a man with iron fingertips being pulled offstage by an enormous magnet." Chapman's gift for physical comedy blossomed in a sketch about a man who wrestles himself — a bit reprised in Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl.

But no athletic dexterity could match the gyrations of Cleese's barbed satire, such as a skit "about a dog that has got trapped somewhere and people were being killed in the hundreds trying to rescue it." His 6ft.4in. frame nurtured a majestic scorn, whose clipped syllables instantly evoked centuries of institutionalized English sarcasm and sadism in the form of teachers and civil servants. He could apply this furious condescension to petty bureaucrats, a cheese or parrot shop customer, a professional arguer — almost anybody.

This choleric temperament would define Cleese's post-Flying Circus personality: as Basil Fawlty in his Fawlty Towers sitcom; as the martinet sergeant in the film of Peter Nichols' Privates on Parade; and, right now, in Spamalot, as the Voice of God. When Arthur cravenly compliments Him on the notion of a quest for the Grail, Cleese the Almighty bellows in that distinct and cutting tenor: "Of course it's a good idea. I'm God, you stupid tit."

John was older by a few years — a seniority crucial to lads just down from university. Cleese was the only one who had hit 30 by the time Flying Circus began, and the one who had become a familiar television personality pre-Python. He was also the first to get bored by the show. Cleese did go on the lam a lot, leaving the Pythons more times than Judy Garland sang "Over the Rainbow." He wrote little for the third season of the TV show (he claims doing only the two most famous sketches, Cheese Shop and Dennis Moore) and was absent from the fourth.

In the writing room, he was head boy, and possibly a stern one, in the minds of the two youngest members, Palin and Idle. "In an odd way he always still looks on us as if we're still just junior people coming around," Idle says in the book. "But of course at this age it's good to be four years younger than John." At other times, Python writing sessions sometimes deteriorated into skirmishes between the C's (Cambridge alums Cleese, Chapman and Idle) and the O's (Oxonians Jones and Palin and Occidental College graduate Gilliam). It wasn't so much a clash of school ties as a debate of which was the more important element in their comedy: the verbal or the visual. It was also, Gilliam would have you believe, a tussle between the queen bees in the first group and the worker bees in the second.


Idle followed Cleese and Chapman to Cambridge, where he didn't cram for his exam a lot. He spent most of his time at the Footlights Club. "And one night I did a sketch John had written before, a thing called ‘BBC BC' in which Bill Oddie read the news: ‘Good evening, here beginneth the news. It has come to pass that...' And I did the weather forecast: ‘Over the whole of Egypt, plague followed by floods, followed by frogs, and then death of all the firstborn — sorry about that Egypt.'" (Spamalot echoes this in the historian's opening narration: "...In Mercia and the two Anglias: Plague. With a 50% chance of pestilence coming out of the Northeast at 12 miles per hour.") Eventually, Idle recalls, "I became the Grand President and changed the laws and admitted women" — Germaine Greer was one of his first recruits — "and I've been admitting women ever since."

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