Ever wonder what it must have been like to be at the taping of the first episode of ''Monty Python's Flying Circus'' in 1969? In the fabulously big and revelatory The Pythons: Autobiography (St. Martin's, $60), director/animator/token American Terry Gilliam says you could almost hear ''the sound of hundreds of jaws dropping.'' The BBC considered canceling it. The ''middle-aged, middle-class'' studio audience ''didn't know what it was: 'We came here to see a circus of some sort.''' Michael Palin notes that the show was very nearly called ''It's...'': ''We liked the idea of...'It's...' and then not having a title at all.''
An oral biography featuring memories from all the original members (Graham Chapman, who died in 1989, is represented via various interview snippets and comments from his longtime partner, David Sherlock), ''Autobiography'' is a coffee-table book that comes with its own caffeine. There's a rush of reminiscences as these five clever Oxford-Cambridge grads (plus Gilliam) come together via Brit shows such as David Frost's satirical revue ''The Frost Report'' and quite possibly the best-named radio show ever, ''I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again.'' They form the Flying Circus and endure, as Palin remarks ruefully, ''hearing people around you doing ['The Parrot Sketch'] for the next 30 years.'' Did you know that Palin wrote John Cleese's immortal ''Ministry of Silly Walks''? And that it bombed the first time he performed it? Did you know the Pythons appeared on the Johnny Carson-era ''Tonight Show''...and bombed there as well? Or that ''The Life of Brian'' was originally called ''Jesus Christ -- Lust for Glory''?
As is usually true of pop-culture phenomena, the going gets tougher with time, success, breakups, and tragedy (Chapman's death to cancer is recalled with typical clear-eyed candor). You come away thinking, yes, Python really were the Beatles of comedy.