Nancy Lewis, the Pythons’ Ticket to America, Dies at 76

Nancy Lewis, whose single-minded belief that Americans would find a quirky British comedy troupe amusing was instrumental in getting that troupe’s breakthrough show, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” broadcast on American television, died on Dec. 20 in Manhattan. She was 76.

Her husband, the actor Simon Jones, said the cause was leukemia.

Ms. Lewis was head of publicity for Buddah Records, an American company, when in 1971 it struck a distribution deal with the British label Charisma Records that included two albums by Monty Python. The troupe had become famous in Britain after the debut of “Flying Circus” on the BBC in 1969 but was virtually unknown in the United States.

Ms. Lewis championed the albums and then the television series, finally getting it on the air on PBS in 1974. The next year, when ABC broadcast an edited compilation of the show in its weekday late-night slot, she urged the troupe to go to court to try to stop a second such broadcast on the grounds that the editing ruined much of the Pythonesque humor, which relied on running gags, incongruity and absurdity.

The suit didn’t stop the second broadcast, but on appeal it did establish that the Pythons owned the copyright to the “Flying Circus” episodes, an important precedent.

Ms. Lewis alternated between the United States and England, working for Island Records and Track Records before landing at Buddah in 1971. Among her proudest accomplishments there, Mr. Jones said, was helping to introduce the English band Genesis in the United States. It was part of the Charisma distribution deal, which brought Ms. Lewis a stack of the label’s releases.

“There were quite a few interesting records,” Ms. Lewis wrote in a program note for “No Naughty Bits,” a play by Steve Thompson that was based on the Pythons’ case against ABC and that was produced in London in 2011. “but what really caught my eye were two LPs at the bottom of the pile — ‘Another Monty Python Record’ and ‘Monty Python’s Previous Record.’”

She began taking the troupe’s records to FM radio stations, which she knew were willing to try new things and play longer cuts. The Pythons started developing American fans, but there was still a reluctance to import the TV series. Converting the episodes to the format used in the United States was expensive, and there was a fear that “Flying Circus” was too full of Britishisms to interest Americans, not to mention too saucy.

But Ms. Lewis kept at it, and on Aug. 12, 1974, Mr. Palin was able to write in his diary (which he later published in book form): “Stop Press: Writing my diary at 11:15 when the phone rings. It’s Nancy from New York, almost speechless with good news. As from October, the entire Python first series is being screened on American TV by PBS.”

PBS affiliates began showing the series, and Ms. Lewis became the Pythons’ American manager. In 1975, when ABC (which had bought the rights to the show’s fourth season from Time-Life) broadcast the first installment of the intrusively edited compilations, it was Ms. Lewis who brought the butchery to the Pythons’ attention. They were displeased.

“Any reference to bodily function, any slightly risqué word, anything, as Douglas Adams put it, ‘to do with life,’ was single-mindedly expunged,” Mr. Palin wrote in his diary.

“Our reaction,” he added, “turned from disbelief and amazement to anger and outrage.”

Ms. Lewis was among those who pushed the troupe to sue ABC.

The case led to a sometimes comical proceeding in federal court in New York in which the Pythons, seeking an injunction to stop the second broadcast, tried to put across why the unabridged versions of their sketches were funny and the edited ones were not. Ms. Lewis was among those who testified.

Morris E. Lasker, the judge, agreed that the editing had caused the material “to lose its iconoclastic verve.” But he denied the request for an injunction on the grounds that ABC would suffer substantial losses if the broadcast, less than a week away, were canceled, and that the ownership of the copyright for the material was unclear. An appellate court ruled the next year that the troupe owned its material.

Ms. Lewis continued to represent the Pythons in the United States. It was while working on the 1983 film “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” that she met Mr. Jones, who was in the cast. They married in late 1983. (Ms. Lewis went by Nancy Lewis Jones thereafter.)

Mr. Jones, in a phone interview, said Ms. Lewis had also helped the Pythons on their individual projects. When Mr. Gilliam got into a dispute over the editing of his acclaimed 1985 movie, “Brazil,” Mr. Jones said, it was Ms. Lewis who clandestinely showed Los Angeles critics Mr. Gilliam’s cut of the movie. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave the film its best picture, best director and best screenplay awards.