October 6, 1974. The day that charted the British comedy course in the U.S. for decades to come. Thanks to a ground-breakingly brilliant decision by then KERA President/CEO Bob Wilson and Program Director Ron Devillier, the legend of Monty Python’s Flying Circus had its American beginning on KERA/Dallas as part of one seemingly uneventful Sunday evening 48 years ago today.
Thankfully, the British sketch comedy series has gone on to not only be one of the foremost comedy efforts of the last half century but continues to be a major influencer of comedians on both side of the pond to this day.
Given the relatively conservative climate in Dallas at the time, this decision was monumental…for Dallas, but not for public broadcasting in North Texas. KERA, under Bob Wilson, was already known for its efforts in local news journalism when it launched Newsroom which started the television career of Jim Lehrer among others.
On October 6, 1974, the collective comic genius of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Graham Chapman conquered North Texas. While it was probably uncertain at the time what the audience reaction would be, both Wilson and Devillier knew they had witnessed comic greatness.
Fortunately, for us all, their intuition was correct in that that initial broadcast garnered the largest audience KERA had seen in years. The rest, as ‘they’ say, is history as PBS stations in New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia followed suit by acquiring the broadcast rights from the BBC.
It was March of 1975 when four members of the original Python group (Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam) came to KERA and other PBS stations to support their fundraising efforts. Their time in Dallas was immediately after a screening in Los Angeles of a little known film, at the time, Monty Python and the Holy Grail which is arguably the funniest film of all-time.
Watching that evening, it struck me the same way it did when watching early interviews when the Beatles came to America. Four very young individuals that, at the time, had no idea what lay ahead for them in the future. It was also definitely a different time for TV as throughout the evening you could watch Graham Chapman alternate between the contents of a Coors beer cup and smoking a pipe on air.
Now, fast forward to December 2019 when KERA brought John Cleese and Ron Devillier together in the KERA studios (both were in town as John Cleese was set to receive the Ernie Kovacs Award from the Dallas Video Festival) for a 60+ minute reunion and to tell the backstory of how Python came to KERA and America that fateful day in 1974.
Unfortunately, just a couple of months after this once-in-a-lifetime interview, the world essentially shut down for the beginning of a 2+ year global pandemic making the editing together of this interview nothing short of difficult. Not to worry, however, as KERA is making plans to edit and broadcast this as we speak! More soon.
Until then, wherever you are, remember this day when you watch British comedy on your local PBS station as the day that started it all!