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10 Monty Python Sketches That Were Surprisingly Factual

Debra Kelly

Beginning in 1969, Monty Python took the world of comedy by storm, forever raising the bar for surrealist comedy. The five remaining members of the British troop recently put their collective persona to rest with their final stage show, but after 45 episodes of Flying Circus and three original movies, they’ve already irrevocably changed the world. As life imitates art, life can also imitate laughs, and vice versa.

10The Funniest Joke In The World

The very first episode of Flying Circus contains a sketch featuring the so-called “Funniest Joke in the World.” Developed by British manufacturer of jokes Ernest Scribbler, played by Michael Palin, the joke is translated into German to be used as a weapon during World War II. It’s so funny that it literally kills people. The translation (Wenn ist das Nunstuck git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!) might be gibberish, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.

It turns out that the premise is sound—it’s entirely possible to die laughing. The stress of hard, continuous laughter can aggravate certain preexisting conditions, causing cardiac arrest and rupture, esophageal rupture, asthma attacks, severe headaches, and ruptured hernias. It can even dislocate someone’s jaw.

There are plenty of stories about people dying from laughter, including an ancient Greek philosopher named Chrysippus who supposedly died while laughing at a drunken donkey and a Danish doctor who did the same while watching A Fish Called Wanda—a movie that, eerily, stars two Python members. A case study from all the way back in 1898 details the experience of a 13-year-old Italian girl who suffered heart failure from laughing too long.

There is, in fact, a funniest joke in the world, too. British researcher Richard Wiseman started a project called Laughlab in 2001 in an attempt to determine that exact thing, the results of which were featured in a book published in 2014 called Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why by Scott Weems. Wiseman asked one million people to rate the humor of various things. If you’ve ever wondered what animal is considered the funniest, the answer, scientifically, is a duck. Without further ado, the funniest joke in the world, as determined by science:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He’s not breathing and his eyes are glazed, so his friend calls 911. “My friend is dead, what should I do?” The operator replies, “Calm down, sir, I can help. First make sure that he’s dead.” There’s a silence, then a loud bang. Back on the phone, the guys says, “Ok, now what?”

9The Llama Sketch

In the sketch known as the “Llama Sketch,” John Cleese warns us about the dangers of llamas. He cautions that llamas are bigger than frogs, live in rivers like the Amazon, have beaks for eating honey and fins for swimming, and most of all, can be extremely dangerous.

Oddly enough, he’s not entirely wrong. Male llamas that are bottle-fed and over-handled when they’re young can become unnaturally attached to their humans. This can sometimes result in the appropriately named Berserk Male Syndrome, or Aberrant Behavior Syndrome, in which the llama becomes insanely territorial upon reaching adolescence. It charges, pushes, shoves, steps on, and even bites humans. Since male llamas have six incredibly sharp teeth that are used solely for fighting, the damage a llama can do can actually be pretty extensive.

Behavior modification can curb many of these berserk tendencies, but some attacks don’t have happy outcomes. In 2007, an Oregon mother and daughter barely escaped alive after being kicked, bitten, and spit on by a llama. It ultimately took five people to restrain the animal, which was euthanized after the attack.

8The Pornographic Bookshop

In the third-season sketch “E. Henry Thripshaw’s Disease,” a man walks into the Tudor Jobs Agency, supposedly looking for a new job. It’s actually a front for a pornographic bookstore, one that’s ultimately raided by a police constable who’s gone undercover as part of his mission to rid the world of pornography.

In the real world, a number of governments, including Britain, have declared war on pornography. In 1857, Britain adopted the Obscene Publications Act, a piece of legislation that greatly restricted the sale and distribution of literature deemed inappropriate and obscene. Despite public outcry against the law, it wasn’t changed until 1959, and even then, it was only revised to exclude scientific, literary, and artistic works. In 1977, it was changed again to cover the distribution of films and movies.

In the decades before the law was enacted, streets in London like Holywell Street were known for advertising everything from pornographic novels and prints to catalogs that featured local prostitutes and described their particular talents in graphic detail. According to George Reynolds in his 1844 book The Mysteries of London, Holywell Street was known as a home to “temples of infamy,” and it was only after the enactment of the new anti-porn laws that the street regained something of a respectable air.

America hopped on the anti-pornography bandwagon shortly after Britain. In the 1870s, Congress passed a series of laws known as the Comstock Acts, named after their originator, Anthony Comstock. He was horrified that he kept seeing ads for birth control, which he considered indecent. After the creation of the laws, not only could the pills not be advertised, they couldn’t be shipped or distributed, either. Women lost all access to birth control until Margaret Sanger opened the first, then-illegal birth control clinic in 1916. The laws weren’t completely repealed until 1936.

7Ron Obvious

The season one episode “Untitled” tells the story of Ron Obvious, who’s trying to set a new record by being the first man to jump the English Channel. Not dissuaded by failure, he also attempts to be the first man to eat Chichester Cathedral, split a railway carriage with his nose, and run to Mercury.

Ron Obvious has a kindred spirit in Ashrita Furman, who has set more than 501 records over the course of his career. His record for the most records held at a time is 201, and many of them are for things that probably would have made Mr. Obvious a little jealous. Furman has held records in underwater pogo stick jumping for three hours and 40 minutes, running 1.6 kilometers (1 mi) in seven minutes and 47 seconds while balancing a milk bottle on his head, somersaulting 1,330 times in a row, catching 46 pancakes in one minute, climbing a 2,865-meter (9,398 ft) mountain wearing stilts, extinguishing 31 blow torches in one minute with his tongue, and walking 1.6 kilometers (1 mi) in 24 minutes using shovels as stilts. He credits his unbelievable success to long years spent practicing meditation and increasing his stamina and endurance.

6Life of Brian

One of Python’s most controversial productions, Life of Brian, tells the story of a young man born in the manger next door who’s definitely not the son of God and most certainly not the one who’s going to bring peace to Earth, although a lot of people think that he is. But while every Christmas we hear stories about the one born in the other manger, Jesus actually wasn’t the only person of his time who claimed to be the true messiah.

In 4 B.C., there were three other claimants to the messiah throne. During that time, there were a number of revolts against Roman rule, and those who were particularly charismatic or successful tended to gain a religious following.

Judas (son of Hezekiah, not Iscariot), Simon of Peraea, and Athronges were all proclaimed to be the Christ. Judas was martyred after being murdered by King Herod and subsequently gained a following in Galilee. In southern Judea, they looked to Simon, a former slave of King Herod’s, to take on the role of their king. Meanwhile, Athronges was a shepherd who led a rebellion against the son of Herod the Great. Historians of the time remember him as a tall freedom fighter of unnatural strength who fought against the Romans for two years, during which time he was declared the ruler of his messianic kingdom.

5Mr. Creosote

Probably the most cringe-worthy moment in Monty Python’s catalog is Terry Jones’s turn as the morbidly obese Mr. Creosote in The Meaning of Life. Mr. Creosote is noted for projectile vomiting caused by overeating and finally exploding after just one more wafer-thin mint.

While it’s thankfully rare, it is possible for someone to die from a ruptured stomach after eating too much. One traditional Alaskan story tells of a man who ate dried hemlock bark and then drank water, which re-hydrated the bark and caused his stomach to burst. More current deaths include the 2002 case of a man found dead in a public restroom with a ruptured stomach, caused by a combination of overeating and an ulcer that reduced his stomach’s capability to expand.

According to Dr. Rachel Vreeman from the Indiana University School of Medicine, a stomach can hold about 1.5 liters (0.4 gal) of food on average. It can expand to hold about 3 liters (0.8 gal), but stuffing yourself with more than 5 liters (1.3 gal) of food in a short period of time puts you in the danger zone.

Luckily, our bodies are usually wired to automatically vomit, like Mr. Creosote, before we reach that point. Chronic overeating can weaken the muscles in the stomach, though, which interferes with the digestive system’s ability to purge itself. Of course, stomach ruptures aren’t usually as dramatic as the one shown in The Meaning of Life. Most simply tear, push their contents out into the rest of the body, and cause severe pain and necrosis of surrounding tissues.

4The Walking Trees Of Dahomey

In the last season of Flying Circus, Michael Palin plays an explorer tracking the Walking Trees of Dahomey. After six months and three days, he thinks he’s found the tree, which has walked more than 3,200 kilometers (2,000 mi) to its home in Cape Town. Unfortunately, he’s mistaken—the tree that he’s looking at is only one of many stationary trees, and the actual walking tree set off earlier that morning.

But Monty Python didn’t make up walking trees, though accounts vary in their potential veracity. If you visit Latin America, chances are you’ll hear the story about their walking trees at least once in your trip. According to the legend, which has been reported as fact in numerous biology texts, the walking trees track the light, growing new roots closer to the sun as the rainforest canopies block their access to light. Old roots in the shade gradually die, and the tree “walks” in the sunlight.

Another tree, the walking palm, has roots that start partway up its trunk, making it look like it really is growing roots up and reaching for sunlight. Biologists have tracked the tree’s life, though, and it turns out that the trunk, sadly, doesn’t actually move. More recently, however, it has been found that there are plants that do walk, in a fashion. Some spores contain microscopic structures that curl and uncurl under certain environmental conditions, allowing the spore to “walk” and even jump, hitching rides on air and water currents to spread.

3The Montgolfier Brothers

Monty Python’s Montgolfier brothers, played by Eric Idle and Terry Jones, are just as obsessed with washing as they are with ballooning, undoubtedly a comment on their opinions of the 18th-century French. Opinions on cleanliness aside, it’s a decent history lesson on just how we started exploring the possibilities of flight.

The inception of the hot air balloon began when the real Montgolfier brothers wanted to know what it was that made smoke rise. Originally thinking that it was the gas or the smoke itself that caused a paper bag to float, they soon began to think on a much larger scale. Their first public demonstration featured a balloon made of silk and paper. After they suitably impressed King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the next flight was manned by a rooster, a duck, and a sheep to find out whether a living creature could survive the journey.

When all the animals safely survived the eight-minute flight, they decided to try it with a human passenger. Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier went down in history as the first person to fly in a balloon after his October 15, 1783 flight of four minutes. Bizarrely, he found another place in the history books for being the first person to die in a balloon accident, when his balloon exploded in an attempt at crossing the English Channel two years later.

2How To Defend Yourself Against Fresh Fruit

In a sketch called “Owl-Stretching Time,” John Cleese teaches a less-than-enthusiastic class how to defend themselves against an attacker armed with fresh fruit. They did passion fruit, mangoes, grapes, and both red and black cherries, but not bananas. It turns out that the class should have paid attention during some of these lectures.

According to Ig Nobel–prizewinner Dr. Peter Barss, the dangers of walking under a coconut tree are very real. Part of the public health physician’s research has been devoted to investigating the dangers specific to different environments around the world, and that includes looking at how many people are killed by falling coconuts each year. In his paper, he documented the number of people treated at hospitals in Papua New Guinea for injuries caused by falling coconuts. Other parts of his research included the likelihood of being killed by rampaging wild boar or impaled by fish leaping out of the water.

Eventually, it was extrapolated from his data that 150 people per year are killed by falling coconuts. While that’s still up for debate, it has become a standard comparison for relative safety. Surprisingly, though, it turns out that the durian is a much more dangerous fruit. Numerous accounts in newspapers throughout the durian’s native region of southeast Asia have reported people being killed by getting hit with the fruit. In a recent study by the University of Tsukuba in Japan, even eating durian can be deadly if you do it while drinking, apparently because it impedes the body’s ability to process alcohol.

1Organ Donor

In The Meaning of Life, surgeons go door to door, approaching living people to ask for their organs. It’s a dark turn for Python, but it’s also not far-fetched. The black market for human organs has continued to flourish decades after the movie first hit the big screen.

According to World Health Organization estimates, somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,000 kidneys are illegally harvested worldwide every year. In China, buyers openly advertise for people willing to donate their organs for some quick cash. “Transplant tourism,” which means visiting a country with less strict regulations to donate a piece of yourself to black market brokers, is an emerging trend in China.

When there’s a shortage of people willing to donate their organs, shady surgeons aren’t above just taking them. China has been accused of harvesting organs from prisoners against their will, and Western countries aren’t above suspicion. In the US, where organ donation is highly regulated, doctors have been accused of letting patients die in order to harvest their organs or “accidentally” cremating a body so no one would know its organs had been taken. It’s an issue that’s become increasingly more troublesome, especially with scientific advancements that have shown that some kinds of death preserve organs better than others.

Debra firmly believes that the meaning of life is to try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.