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All the best Spam

Forget the Magna Carta, Churchill's memoirs, the book of common law - Britain's greatest export to America was a six-pack of loonies out of Oxford and Cambridge who concocted Monty Python.

The sketch comedy show began as an afterthought on BBC1 and gradually metastasized into one of America's favorites.

Now, 37 years later, they resuscitate some of their classic bits in Monty Python's Personal Best, a series of one-hour specials featuring each member's favorite sketches, premiering tonight on PBS. The shows will air in two-hour blocks over three weeks.

Each of the five living members has chosen his cherished skits from the 1969 show Monty Python's Flying Circus, and all have collaborated to pick for Graham Chapman, the Pythoner who died in 1989.

Whether they were extolling the qualities of dead parrots, crooning about macho lumberjacks or populating a soccer game with the world's famous philosophers, the Pythoners were able to nudge the funny bone on both sides of the pond.

"The one thing we knew for certain was that Python would never work in America," says Eric Idle, known for his "Silly Olympics" and his endlessly cheery sycophants. "That's the one thing we all held in common as an absolute certainty.

"And so it sort of trickled into Canada. It was quite big in Canada. People found it. But they were used to English shows, and then I think it first went on PBS in Dallas. I mean for us, it was just an amazement that people were watching it in Dallas, of all places, and were loving it."

The Pythoners were unique because they began as writers, not performers.

"I think the special thing about Python is that it's a writers' commune," Idle says.

"The writers are in charge. The writers decide what the material is. And only afterward did we divvy it up to say who would act what. ... I don't think there's anything ever quite been like that, where the writers write everything and they're the same people that do the acting. And I think that's what gives it its strength."

Tall and gangly John Cleese, who utilized his height for antic physical comedy, says he was the first Pythoner to hone an edge on the comedy.

"I started to make harder jokes before anyone else did. And the producers would get anxious. They'd say, "That's a little bit hard-edged, isn't it?' And I'd say, "Let's just try it and see how the audience reacts. If they don't like it, let's cut it out.' And the audience roared with laughter, so I learned you could do this harder humor and people loved it."

Though some skits are more memorable than others, Idle says there's no consensus.

"I think with Python, it's such a strange ragbag that nobody can ever agree what the best bits are because everybody has their personal view of it," he says.

"I think what you don't notice is that although it's the same cast, every four or five minutes there's a different writer on. So there's a different sensibility, and the comedy isn't all the same at all. It just is blended into one apparent thing. So the things that I didn't like then, I probably still don't like now particularly.

"I think from the Personal Best, you'll see that people have quite different choices about what they find funny."

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