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Celebrating 50 Years Of 'Monty Python's Flying Circus'


You know, rarely has there been a closer relationship between a comedy troupe and a chopped and formed meat product than Monty Python and Spam. Their fortunes became inextricably linked after a memorable sketch on their BBC program "Monty Python's Flying Circus." That show is celebrating its 50th anniversary tomorrow, and NPR's Phil Harrell has this appreciation.

PHIL HARRELL, BYLINE: Trying to explain the humor in a Monty Python sketch is impossible. But here goes. A couple is lowered from the ceiling into a small diner where a disheveled waitress recites the menu options.


TERRY JONES: (As Spam Waitress) ...Egg and Spam, egg, bacon and Spam...


JONES: (As Spam Waitress) Egg, bacon, sausage and Spam, Spam, bacon, sausage and Spam...

HARRELL: Here, Spam is unavoidable. That's OK for the husband. He loves the stuff. But the wife - well, she'd prefer to substitute.


JONES: (As Spam Waitress) Can't have egg, bacon, Spam and sausage without the Spam.

GRAHAM CHAPMAN: (As Mrs. Bun) Why not?

JONES: (As Spam Waitress) Then it wouldn't be egg, bacon, Spam and sausage, would it?

CHAPMAN: (As Mrs. Bun) I don't like Spam.

HARRELL: And for some reason, there's a table full of singing Vikings.

THE FRED TOMLINSON SINGERS: (As Vikings, singing) Spam, wonderful Spam. Spam, Spam, Spam...

HARRELL: Look. Either you find it funny, or you don't. But I assure you a lot of people found it hilarious. And it's been immortalized on a TV screen at the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn., where it's on a constant loop.


ERIC IDLE: (As Mr. Bun) Why don't you have egg, bacon, Spam and sausage?

CHAPMAN: (As Mrs. Bun) That's got Spam in it.

HARRELL: Has anybody counted how many times they use the term Spam?

SAVILE LORD: I was just thinking about that.

HARRELL: This is NPR, so we're going to have to go back and count.

LORD: We're going to have to go back and count. I think so.

HARRELL: That is Savile Lord. She's the manager here. And I did count. I gave up after the 400th time - if you count the Vikings individually, which I do. Savile Lord says the image of Spam in the U.K. before that sketch was different. The English ate Spam during the rationing of World War II. For them, it was about necessity. Monty Python changed all that.

LORD: They really did help bring it back to life. I mean, it was definitely a war ration. And the 1970s really helped bring it back into something that was an everyday person's food. This made it more kitschy, and it made it more fun.

HARRELL: Monty Python kept having fun with Spam. In the film "Monty Python And The Holy Grail," King Arthur and his knights approach Camelot, where they stumble upon an elaborate musical number.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters) (Singing) We dine well here in Camelot. We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot.

HARRELL: And that line, of course, led to the Tony-winning musical "Spamalot," based on "The Holy Grail."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters) (Singing) We're knights of the round table. Our shows are formidable.

HARRELL: The Monty Python Spam association continued into the Internet age. That original sketch is why we call mass email advertisements spam. Internet historian Brad Templeton was an early adopter back in the '70s and '80s.

BRAD TEMPLETON: You know, the nerds of that generation had grown up with "Monty Python."

HARRELL: And the term spam didn't begin with advertising but with a text-based online fantasy game.

TEMPLETON: And if they posted the same message again and again, that reminded people of the repetition in the famous Spam sketch - (imitating Spam Waitress) Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, eggs and Spam - my very poor imitation of Monty Python there. So people started saying that if you did this, you were spamming. So it wasn't advertising. It wasn't junk mail.

HARRELL: But once those emails started pouring in, spamming stuck. And Monty Python's association with Spam became even more prominent, as if including it more than 400 times in a sketch wasn't enough. Phil Harrell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning Edition
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.