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No one expects the cable intervention 

If you've ever drawn glares by loudly declaring, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" or discovered what "blancmange" is by watching a tennis tournament, or recited a litany of euphemisms to describe a dead parrot ("bereft of life ... gone to meet its maker ... this is an ex-parrot!" ), you're probably wondering why the source of your inspiration, the groundbreaking sketch-comedy series "Monty Python's Flying Circus," has been missing from the airwaves of late.

Really, though, fans of the British cult fave who are perplexed by the disappearance are just a teeny bit spoiled. After all, "Monty Python" has repeatedly aired (sporadically in some markets) in the States virtually since the BBC-produced show wrapped up production of its five-year run in 1974. Even after the Python troupe (John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and the late Graham Chapman) parted ways in 1983, the program continued to be a pledge-drive staple on PBS.

In the 1970s, '80s and into the '90s, "Python" appeared only on public-television stations (airings that fostered the troupe's fervent Stateside cult), but for about a year starting in late 1994, reruns aired on the cable channel Comedy Central. And last year, the program's 30th anniversary, "Python" popped up on the A&E cable channel on its Saturday late-night schedule. In December, A&E re-scheduled the anarchic chestnut earlier on Saturday (in a viewer-punishing 6 a.m. slot), but within the past few months the show has disappeared from the A&E lineup. Which leaves fans wondering: Could "Monty Python's Flying Circus" finally be a bereft-of-life, gone-to-meet-its-maker ex-rerun?

Well, not exactly. A&E spokesperson Gary Morgenstein says the video rights became available to the cable network last year, shortly before the channel began airing the program. He declined to elaborate on the deal, adding that the show's ratings on A&E were "just OK" and that he didn't know if "Python" would be back on air in the future.

Not so coincidentally, A&E Home Video is making all of the show's five seasons available to viewers by releasing them on video and DVD in seven sets, the last one having arrived on shelves at the beginning of August. David Walmsley, director of consumer products for A&E Television Networks, says sales are brisk; A&E has sold more than 1 million units of various "Python"-related products. And he notes two advantages of buying the series in video or DVD form: It isn't edited for commercials (as it is when it appears on cable), and the DVD version features commentary and other expository content.

"Python" junkies looking for a free fix fondly remember a time when "edited for commercials" was a phrase alien to the "Python" experience -- more than a year and a half ago, to be exact. That's when American Public Television, a company that distributes programs to PBS stations, lost the rights to air "Python" in syndication, says Zvi Shoubin, Maryland Public Television's vice president of programming. He says the series' producers/owners opted to take the show to cable TV: "In theory, I'd venture they got more money for it."

Shoubin says MPT had optioned "Python" for two seasons before American Public Television lost the rights. He says the show was instrumental in increasing and enhancing viewership of MPT's lineup of "Brit-coms" -- U.K. comedies such as "Keeping Up Appearances," "As Time Goes By" and "Waiting for God" -- which can lure as many as 60,000 households at a clip, a huge number for the local public station.

"Python" attracted what Shoubin describes as a "slightly younger, off-the-wall type of viewer" compared to most Brit-coms.

Regardless of their eccentricities, "Python" cultists seem to be a sought-after audience. Who knew? "We would have got the program again, if we could," Shoubin laments. "We just never had the opportunity."

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More by Adele Marley


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