By Robert Wilonsky
Dallas (AP) – On Sept. 22, 1974, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” made its television debut in the United States, in Dallas, on KERA (Channel 13). Perhaps you already know this, especially if you have spent most of a lifetime memorizing absurdist sketches about dead parrots, lumberjacks, fish slapping and silly walks. But in recent days I’ve found many a native-born friend for whom this comedy milestone is a revelation.
For this point of civic pride, a footnote deserving a chapter in this city’s history, we must thank Ron Devillier, who at the time was program manager at Dallas’ public television station. Credit often goes solely to Robert Wilson, father of Owen and Luke and Andrew. Wilson was the station’s president and general manager in ’74 and allowed the British Broadcasting Corp.’s series on Dallas’ airwaves.
But without Devillier, Wilson never gets to make that call.
This, John Cleese told me recently, is the real reason he went to Oak Cliff’s Texas Theater on Dec. 4. Not merely to collect the Dallas VideoFest’s annual Ernie Kovacs Award, named for another television revolutionary, but to express gratitude to the man who kept the Pythons from landing in the dustbin of history.
“They asked me if I’d come to Dallas, and I thought, `Well, I’ve always wanted to thank Dallas and to thank Ron Devillier,”’ said Cleese, a man who made me laugh long before I even understood why or how. “This is a chance to say thanks for putting us on the map. Because it was so completely unexpected.”
It’s not as though John Cleese has never been to town. As early as October 1980, he’d come here to give a speech on creativity in business. Speaking of something completely different, The Dallas Morning News reported.
How the Pythons, Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, landed in Dallas is a story that could have had a tragic ending. Had KERA not picked up “Flying Circus,” which began in 1969 and ended its 45-episode, four-season run in the U.K. shortly before its Dallas premiere, it might have been tossed into the rubbish pile with all the other rejects.
Imagine a world without Cleese as the Minister of Silly Walks or the man trying to buy a parrot that has not “shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible.” Or Palin as the lumberjack who likes to press wild flowers, put on women’s clothing and hang around in bars. Or Hell’s Grannies, the Gumbys or The Cheese Shop. Imagine a world in which everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition.
“It was a great surprise and a happy event for me to have discovered the Pythons,” Devillier said last month from his home in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
In the spring of ’74, Devillier took a phone call from a friend who worked for Time Life, which, 45 years ago, provided a significant bulk of KERA’s programming. This rep was upfront with Devillier: He was pitching KERA a show that no one else wanted called “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
Early on there had been some interest from American public broadcasters. Cleese said a program director from Boston’s WGBH caught wind of Monty Python, flew to the BBC, met the troupe and watched some episodes.
“And when the lights went up, he’d turned white,” Cleese said. “He was like someone who’d seen a ghost, or perhaps seen his career disappearing into the mist. He was hardly speaking, he was so scared. He was nice, but he was just rattled by the thought of putting out a show that was as strange as Python. So he disappeared into the distance, and we more or less forgot about American television. We thought, well, `If that is the response from WGBH .’ ”
In 1974, the name Monty Python was not completely unfamiliar in the States. By then some of its sketches had been released on vinyl, and in 1971, the Pythons reshot some early bits for the film And Now For Something Completely Different. But as Cleese likes to remind people, the records sold poorly. And the movie, released here in ’72, came and went without much of a ripple. Critics didn’t much like it, and audiences for whom the name meant nothing stayed away.
The Time Life rep told Devillier that Dallas was the show’s last chance. If KERA didn’t buy it, Devillier said he was told, then the BBC “will take it back and they will bury it wherever they bury shows they can’t sell.”
The call came on a Wednesday, Devillier recalls the day like someone who has told this story more than once. By Friday, two boxes filled with giant videocassettes arrived. The next afternoon he went to the office, “to give it a shot,” and took about half the tapes into the old video room, expecting to screen a few episodes before meeting his then-fiancee for dinner.
“And I wound up falling in love with them,” Devillier said. “I stayed all day watching those damned things. I was that enamored of the show. I don’t know why. They just hit my funny bone. I called them back and said, `We’d like to buy them.”’
But he made the deal without first consulting Bob Wilson, who two years earlier had created Newsroom, “a news examination show that zeros in on the pressing, sometimes controversial issues of the moment,” this paper called it. Overseen by Jim Lehrer, who also served as its host, Newsroom hadn’t been an easy sell back then.
“Image was big for Dallas,” Devillier said, which, of course, is as true now as it was then. “And so you had to sort of be careful with what you were doing. I realized I gotta talk to Bob, because this thing could blow up in his face if it didn’t go well. So on Monday morning, I set up two sequences on the video machine and told Bob I had something really fun. I tried like hell to prep him for what was coming. I told him it was a little raw but that the time was right.”
Devillier cued up the Cheese Shop sketch and the lumberjack musical number, after which Wilson “threw his notebook across the room and was rolling around laughing.” They bought “Flying Circus” that day. But there was still a hurdle to clear: KERA’s board, which counted among its ranks Dallas Museum of Fine Arts president Betty Blum Marcus, wife of former Neiman Marcus board chairman Edward Marcus (and Stanley’s sister-in-law).
Wilson screened “Flying Circus” for the board while Devillier waited outside, pacing anxiously. If they said no, the deal was dead. After the screening, everyone filed out expressionless, Wilson among them. Devillier asked how it had gone.
“Well, they didn’t walk out,” Wilson said.
“That was that it?” Devillier said. “Nobody laughed?”
One person had, Wilson told him. Betty Marcus.
“And that was it,” said Devillier, who remained close to Wilson after both left KERA and eventually became the man charged with selling the Pythons’ television work to the rest of the world. “It just seemed right. It wasn’t that it was a perfect time, but Dallas was such a buttoned-down city, and I thought this was a wonderful tonic.”
“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” made its American debut at 10:45 on a Sunday night 45 years ago. And when the Channel 13 switchboard failed to light up with complaints, when the city didn’t riot, other stations quickly followed. A year later, the Pythons came to Dallas to participate in a KERA pledge drive; Idle and Cleese didn’t make the trip. For this reason, he has asked Devillier to join him on stage when he comes to collect the VideoFest’s honor, so he, and we, can thank the man.
“When Ron Devillier put it out,” Cleese recalled, “all these PBS executives who loved the show but were terrified of it called him and said, `They’re going to burn the studio down! Were you stoned on the way to work?’ Ron said, `It’s gone out, nobody’s noticed, and everyone’s happy.’ And then all the others hiding behind him began airing it. Dallas was the start of it all. And it was absolutely vital to us.”
To us, too.
The Flying Circus debuted on the BBC 50 years ago. Bottom from left, Terry Jones, John Cleese and Michael Palin, and top from left, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam