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Thursday, November 7, 2013

The story of Monty Python's 'Dead Parrot Sketch', with bonus Maggie Thatcher

The “Dead Parrot Sketch” developed out of something Cleese and Chapman had previously written for a one-off special called How to Irritate People. Produced by David Frost, How to Irritate People was a collection of sketches introduced by Cleese, and co-starring Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Michael Palin, Connie Booth, Gillian Lind and Dick Vosburgh. The program was notable for being the first time Palin worked with Cleese and Chapman, a year before they created Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as Palin explained in Bob McCabe’s biography of Chapman, The Life of Graham:
‘...that was the first time I’d ever worked with John and Graham, as an actor, and that was very much like a miniPython, except that I wasn’t writing with Terry [Jones]. I was an actor with their material, but we changed it a little bit in rehearsal and we’d really enjoyed doing that, even though the end result had not been successful, largely due to problems with recording.’
The show appears never to have been shown on British television, but was aired in the US on January 21st, 1969. The program contained elements of material later used on Python, in particular the “Car Salesman” sketch, which eventually became the famous (Dead) “Parrot Sketch.”

The “Car Salesman” was more than a piece of creative comedy, it was an idea suggested by Palin, and based on his own dealings with a less than scrupulous garage owner, as Cleese explains:
‘..that was based on a man called Mr Gibbins, which is Helen [Palin’s] unmarried name. And Mr Gibbins ran a garage somewhere in Michael’s area, and Michael started to tell me about taking his car in to Mr Gibbins if there was something wrong with it, and he would ring Mr Gibbins and say, “I’m having trouble with the clutch,” and Mr Gibbins would say, “Lovely car, lovely car.” And Michael said, “Well, yes, Mr Gibbins, it is a lovely car, but I’m having trouble with the clutch.” “Lovely car, lovely car, can’t beat it.” “No, but we’re having trouble with it.” “Well, look,” he says, “if you ever have any trouble with it, bring it in.” Michael would say, “Well, I am having trouble with it and I have brought it in,” and he’d say, “Good, lovely car, lovely car, if you have trouble bring it in,” and Michael would say, “No, no, no, the clutch is sticking,” and he would say, “Sign of a quality car, if you had a sticky clutch first two thousand miles, it’s the sign of good quality,” and he was one of those people you could never get to take a complaint seriously. And Michael and I chatted about this, and I then went off and wrote a sketch with Graham about a man returning a second-hand car…’
The sketch has Chapman dealing with Palin’s furtive car salesman.

How to Irritate People wasn’t successful, but when they started writing sketches for the first series of Monty Python, Cleese recalled the “Car Salesman Sketch,” instinctively recognizing there was “something funny in it”.

Cleese considered the garage a cliched location and together with Chapman, it was changed to a pet shop. They then discussed whether the pet should be a dog, whereupon Chapman suggested the idea of a parrot. (An earlier idea had a customer attempting to return a non-functioning toaster.)

After Chapman’s death in 1989, Cleese re-worked the “Dead Parrot Sketch” as the opening of his eulogy to Chapman (NSFW- language).

And even Margaret Thatcher (wiki) could “do” Python lines (although not very well):


  1. Oddly, Cleese has also indicated that it was based on his experience with a "fawlty" toaster. I imagine the sketch is as lasting as it is--eternally so--because we all have experiences like that.

  2. I think Maggie did the sketch very well indeed...

  3. Thatcher was great and the use was clever.

  4. I enjoyed the Piece by Prime Minister Thatcher most. She shared two Traits with President Reagan:
    - They stated Policy with simple Clarity
    - They had a powerful Sense of Humor, which made them difficult to mock, since they often were able to mock themselves and other so deftly