There are two different kinds of Monty Python's Flying Circus fans: one likes to see each episode in its original, complete format, with all of the lead-ins, animation and callbacks, and the other just wants to see the funniest sketches. There's something for both fans in this new Collector's Edition -- especially fans who just want the sketches, because they're presented in a staggering variety of formats. Even though it's pretty much a repackaging of the 16-ton MegaSet and the Personal Best retrospectives, two additional (and very good) documentaries make it a must-have collection. Just don't come crying to us when they release an even bigger set, this time with all of the movies in it.
For episode completists, all 45 episodes are spread out over 14 discs, with three or four episodes per disc, plus miscellaneous "extras," mostly clips, trivia and biographies. On the seven bonus material discs, we also get the first all-German episode made for German TV (Disc 18), although not the second, which is a mark against the set right off the bat. We also get a deleted sketch, cut from the re-broadcasts of one episode for being too political (Disc 15). (The members of a political party are shown learning a dance routine for a TV ad from a choreographer. I'm sure that if I had been British in the 1970s, I would have found it scandalous.) There are no commentary tracks on the episodes, sadly, but there is a segment where Terry Gilliam does commentary on the show's three different animated openings, explaining what he was thinking about and where the various pictures came from (Disc 15). While he doesn't remember where a lot of the art and ideas are from, it's fun to listen to Gilliam make the logical connections in his head between a naked woman and a cardinal on a tricycle. You can even take close-up looks at the different cutouts he would animate with, in the extras sections of most of the episode discs, under "Gilliam's Attic." A lot of thought has been put into these galleries, as each piece of clip art links to an alternate view, or trivia, or just a visual joke involving it.
For the specific-sketch connoisseur, you get not only the Live at the Hollywood Bowl concert (Disc 17), you also get the Steve Martin-hosted clip show Parrot Sketch Not Included: 20 Years of Python (Disc 18). Then you get all six Personal Best clip shows, showcasing the best work of each Python member (Discs 19-21), plus four "Second Best" sets of bonus clips, a funny behind-the-scenes with John Cleese on his shoot and an interview with Terry Gilliam about how he and the boys hooked up. Cleese's Personal Best is worth watching if only for the lengthy opening sketch, "Fairy Tale," which is taken from the missing second German episode -- there may be other clips from that episode elsewhere, but good luck finding them. After all, most of the set's "extras" are clips, taken from their homes elsewhere in the set and sprinkled onto the other discs in themed groups of three or four and given titles like "Confusing Musings" (long, bizarre explanations from the show), "Bleeding Critics" (just critic sketches), "The Cleese Shop" (all Cleese, all the time), "Gillianimations" (cartoons), "Spriechen zie Python?" (clips from the first German episode) and "Monty Karaoke" (where you can sing along with hits like "Sit on My Face" -- which you can already do with any song in the collection, thanks to the magic of subtitles). They don't seem to serve any purpose, except to possibly slow you down and prevent you from getting to the next episode, where you would likely have seen one or more of the sketches anyway. As an obsessive organizer who hates redundancy, I have found it best to ignore most of them, and to not think about how many times certain sketches, like "The Fish-Slapping Dance," are repeated between the six Personal Best specials.
For the Python historian, two new documentaries are fairly fascinating -- one, called Before the Flying Circus (Disc 15), chronicles the Pythons' lives from childhood up to the first episode, explaining exactly how they got into comedy, how they all met, and how they set about getting a ridiculous, ridiculous TV show approved, all in glorious black-and-white. The other, which is perhaps even more fascinating but for totally different reasons, is Monty Python Conquers America (Disc 16), which explains how they got onto TV in the United States. The sprawling saga of how the Pythons, after killing in Canada and bombing on the Tonight Show, could barely manage to get aired on a PBS station in Dallas, Texas, run by the father of Luke and Owen Wilson (Luke is interviewed) is totally frustrating to someone who discovered Monty Python at the age of 13 and instantly loved them. It really made me think about how much they changed comedy, TV programmers in the 1970s couldn't even crack a smile at them, and yet a 13-year-old in 1990 had been raised to appreciate their bizarre sensibilities. New interviews with the cast were filmed for both, but anyone wanting to hear from the Pythons circa 10 years ago can check out Live at Aspen (Disc 17), which is an on-stage team interview featuring host Robert Klein, quickly discovered Graham Chapman impersonator Eddie Izzard, and Terry Gilliam in a Tintin sweater accidentally kicking over the real Graham Chapman's ashes. And mini-bios and film credits for the boys appear on nearly every disc.
It's hard to nit-pick the set, with the exception of that missing German episode -- a shame, considering it's been released by A&E before, on the Life of Python DVD. In fact, I would have liked to have seen most of that material (the new sketches, the 1971 May Day Festival film, Michael Palin's tour of Pythonland and the South Park tribute) in this collection. I would also have liked to not have to sit through the opening menu animation every time I put in a new disc, but that's neither here nor there.
Buy it now, or your desire for it will be like an albatross around your neck.