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The Life of Python
Monty Python, the six-man British comedy troupe that brought you "The Ministry of Silly Walks," "The Dead Parrot," and "The Man with a Tape Recorder Up His Nose," is quite alive and all over the tube. And not just in Monty Python's Flying Circus, their now legendary series.
Available on videotape are their first and last movies, And Now for Something Completely Different and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, featuring collections of offbeat sketches. There are also the "narrative" films that came in between: the loony Monty Python and the Holy Grail (more or less about King Arthur, showcasing the Holy Hand Grenade and the Killer Rabbit); Monty Python's Life of Brian, sending up biblical epics (with a cameo by Christ); and Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, capturing the freshness (in both senses) of the troupe's stage show.
The group – called madcap, tasteless, unfunny, and innovative – has not performed together since 1983. Yet its members (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin) are still going strong. On the hig screen, Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a feature film starring Idle and free-form Pythonesque comics like Hobin Williams, is tentatively scheduled to open around Easter. The film follows A Fish Called Wanda, the summer box office hit starring Cleese and Palin.
On stage, Chapman has been touring the States with a one-man stage show, while Idle has appeared in a critically acclaimed television production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, whieh aired in October on PBS's Great Performances series. And finally, there is the original show itself. Since its American premiere in 1974, Monty Python's Flying Circus hasn't left the airwaves for long, cropping up first on public television and now nightly onthe MTV cable network.
"It's amazing it's held up so long," said Cleese recently. Amazing, too, is that there is so much Pythonabilia around: 45 episodes of the original 30- minute series (16 have been released on tape), five movies, tell record albums, and six books. Not to mention the group's solo efforts: such films as Time Bandits, Brazil, Clockwise, The Missionary, and Personal Services; such TV efforts as Fawlty Towers, Ripping Yarns, and The Rutles. And their influence is felt constantly. Saturday Night Live and SCTV both acknowledged their debts to Python's brand of silly yet sophisticated sketch comedy, while the English language has accepted "Pythonesque" as a new word, loosely defined as "offbeat humor, bordering on the tasteless and/or insane."
This was hardly standard British TV fare when the Pythons debuted in the late 1960s. British television programming of the time more or less reflected venerable British vaudeville: a lot of stand-up comedy, some satire, some sketches, a few songs. Nothing was very risque or very visual. Five of the Pythons – Cleese, Chapman, Idle, Jones, and Palin – had, in fact, written (and occasionally appeared in) such shows; Chapman, a non-practicing M.D., and Cleese, a would-be barrister, had even written the pilot for a popular, conventional sitcom entitled Doctor in the House.
In 1969, however, things changed.
The five, who had known or known of each other in the past, joined forces (along with expatriate American cartoonist Gilliam) to write and star in a new 30-minute comedy for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Monty Python's Flying Circussnuck onto the tube in October 1969 as a late-night replacement for a religious talk show. Few were watching, and few at the BBC knew what to expect.
The ambiguous title – alternatives were "Owl Stretching Time" and "A Horse, a Spoon, and a Bucket" – was meant to keep as many people in the dark as possible. When it premiered, it was like no other series. The Pythons were the first true video comedians, using the medium brilliantly to poke fun at politicians, the clergy, the military, doctors, surrealism, documentaries, television, and life in general.
"When we decided to do Python," recalls Jones, "I was thinking, 'What kind of shape are we going to give it'?' And I remember looking at Spike Milligan's show, Q5, on television and thinking he was doing outrageous things in comedy. He'd start a sketch, then it would suddenly turn into something else. Or someone would push a door on-screen and he'd walk through it. I suddenly realized we had all been writing cliches until then."
The Pythons planned their comedic chaos very carefully. Sketches would not simply follow one another or be separated by guest singers, as was the custom. Instead, there would be routines, non-sequiturs, subtitles, voiceover narration, and general silliness, all tightly linked. "We tried to interrelate everything," says Gilliam.
In one show, for instance, a sketch called "A Book at Bedtime" finds a man reading a description of a picturesque castle aloud, stumbling over words he can't pronounce. The scene shifts to the castle being described; a Scottish Highlander falls from a turret. Next we are in a segment about "Kamikaze Highlanders" who jump from turrets. One man remarks to another, "We have no time to lose," which segues into a sketch about the "No Time to Lose Advice Center" where people are given advice on how to use the expression. This turns into a cartoon about "No Time Toulouse," a French impressionist gunslinger in the Old West, before a return to the "Kamikaze Highlanders." More sketches follow before the show comes full circle, ending with the "Book at Bedtime" sketch.
The format came about partly because the Pythons, as writers, had felt trapped by what they called "the tyranny of the punch line"-the requirement of concluding a funny sketch with a joke, and a good one the writers hoped. "We kept seeing so much good work being done by other people that was always weakened by a weak ending," says Gilliam. "So we did the obvious thing. We said, 'Let's get rid of the weakest link.' "
Gilliam played an important role in that decision. A former magazine illustrator, the transplanted American had made a mark on British television with Elephant, an animated short film. In that stream-of-consciousness exercise, a man is hit by a falling elephant, squashed, and then transformed into something else.
"Terry had been very worried about it, because he said, 'It doesn't really make sense,''' notes Jones. "I said, 'Why don't we take the use of freedom that Spike Milligan's got-not having punch lines-and lise Terry's animations to flow in and out of sketches?' "Besides giving the series a shape, Gilliam's wild animations-a TV set drilling holes in a man's eyes, a man slicing off his head while shaving-gave the series a violent tone that bled over into some of the sketches. "Sam Peckinpah's Salad Days," for example, opens with a tennis garden party. A ball is tossed to one of the picnickers, hitting him in the head, which suddenly explodes. Another man grabs the arm of a companion and it comes off, spurting a fountain of blood in slow motion. And so on.
The Pythons wrote and performed their own material. ldle and Gilliam would usually create alone, while Chapman and Cleese and Palin and Jones would collaborate. Recalls Palin: "Terry and I would write together for a week, working quite closely in the same room, swapping ideas. Then, at the end of that there'd be a [group] reading session. And you could tell from the laughter around the table when something had worked and when it hadn't."
Group discussion led to more rewriting, with one member often suggesting ideas another would write. Palin recalled a difficult car salesman wit whom he had dealt – "He would never admit there was anything wrong with a car" – and Cleese and Chapman turned it into a sketch about a customer trying to return a parrot that was sold to him dead (and nailed to its perch). Similarly, Chapman and Cleese tried to write a sketch about a "Ministry of Anger" and Palin and Jones turned it into the "Ministry of Silly Walks."
"In 'Python,''' notes Palin, "any loose ends could lead to something that made a nice surrealistic whole."
Low Budgets, High Creativity
Through it all, the deadlines (ten days to do a show) and a slim budget led to great creativity. "Necessity always makes us make leaps," remarks Gilliam. "That was the advantage in television. We did nothing but take chances to fill up that half an hour every week. I've always been convinced that with enough money we could really have been mediocre beyond belief."
But they weren't, and in 1974, just as American audiences were discovering the bizarre Brits, the group began to splinter. "What I hate most is repetition," explains Gilliam. "I hate the feeling that I know the answers to things. I like being constantly surprised." Adds Palin: "There's a certain desire within you to try and find out what you can do on your own."
Although they went solo, they kept their partnership-they set up a group company, Prominent Pictures – and their unique vision of the world. Cleese, for instance, co-wrote and starred in the brilliant, biting satire Fawlty Towers, a 12-part TV show about a rude hotel owner. Idle created The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, a mock documentary of a Beatles-like rock group, which employed the same techniques he had used in Python's "Hell's Grannies" (a look at a small town terrorized by "Senile Delinquents" on motorcycles). And animator Gilliam took his slightly warped visual sense into Brazil, a tale of comedy and terror that is probably the most unusual-looking film ever.
As a matter of fact, the real-life behind-the-scenes story of Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen could almost have been written as a Python sketch. The story, based on popular tales of an 18th-century adventurer, Baron Munchausen, features 6O-foothigh moon men with detachable heads, a man balancing on top of a fountain of hot air above an erupting volcano, and, says Gilliam, "a horse that's chopped in half by a portcullis. And the Baron's riding around on the front half not realizing the back half isn't there. And he sews the two halves together using laurel branches."
Such fantastic scenes echo Gilliam's cartoons but were much harder to accomplish with real people and objects. "The difficulty is you're doing an eighteenth-century science fiction fantasy film, not dealing with spaceships and [more easily animated] mechanical things." Such troubles would make the movie difficult to film in any event, but Gilliam has also had to contend with 8,000 extras, shooting mishaps (in one instance, the cast flew to Spain for location filming, but all the costumes
were left behind in Rome), and financial problems. Some $2 million was spent on preproduction, and unforeseen delays meant the whole film was put on hold for a week, costing another $1 million. Then, in the middle of the film's 22-week shooting schedule, Alan Buckhantz, a Lithuanian movie investor who holds rights to a Czechoslovakian film about Munchausen, filed an $80 million lawsuit, saying Gilliam was stealing his property.
Other problems occurred: InNovember 1987, the movie was shut down for two weeks because it looked like it was going $10 million over its $25 million budget. Star Sean Connery quit when his part was reduced to almost nothing (he was replaced by Robin Williams). Scaffolding on a set collapsed and delayed filming for a week. There was even talk of firing Gilliam.
Nonetheless, the ex-Python persevered through it all, retaining much of his original concept (although he trimmed his 126-page script by 44 pages). Remarks Gilliam, "Each film becomes a little battle, and it's about discovering something. Munchausen is about mortality, about an old man who is choosing to die because the world doesn't need liars and fantasists and outrageousness. Or so it seems. And Munchausen comes back to life basically because a little girl listens to his stories. If you're a liar, you've got to have an audience."
The Ealing Influence
That could also have been a theme of Cleese's A Fish Called Wanda, a movie that draws not only on Python's collaborative methods but also on an earlier British film tradition: the black comedy of such 1950s Ealing Studios films as The Lavender Hill Mob and Kind Hearts and Coronets. That's no coincidence either, since writer/executive producer/ star Cleese called in 78-year-old director Charles Crichton, the director of Mob and The Ladykillers, to collaborate on the original story and to direct.
The tale, about how a dull barrister (Cleese) gets involved with three zany robbers, is pure Ealing. But the villain, OUo (Kevin Kljne], is pure Python; a moronic hit man who likes to read philosophy. "Don't call me an ape!" he yells, adding, "Apes don't read Nietzsche!" Responds Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), "They do! They just don't understand it!"
Wanda owes much to Python in the behind-the-scenes collaboration between Cleese and his fellow actors. Cleese took notes from his costars and made his character, Archie, less of a caricature and more of a person, a man in love.
More like the Python of old and less like Wanda, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a film that questions how we look at the world. "I've put Munchausen at the end of the eighteenth century," notes Gilliam, "the age of reason, the age of enlightenment, which was really the beginning of the scientific thinking that dominates our world now. Munchausen is really a throwback, a baroque character, because his world is the incredible, fantastic one that doesn't exist in this world of science, of reasonable men."
Like that of the Flying Circus, Munchausen's universe is one where a balloon is made out of silken underwear and a man can ride on a cannonball. "On the moon," says Gilliam, "there are sixty-foot-high people with detachable heads that float around separately. While their bodies are getting on with physical things, their heads can deal with other matters."
For the Pythons en masse, other matters are solo matters. "There is a ten percent chance we'll work together again," predicts Palin. "John [Cleesel is dead set against it, which is silly really because nothing is absolute in this world. Everything changes."
Or as Cleese once said to a radio interviewer, "As you get a bit older and you develop more and more of your own style, it's harder for six of you to agree. I don't think we can do it again unless, miraculously, we all got one idea that we thought was fantastic."
Tom Soter has written for Video, American Film, and World Screen News. He has applied for a grant to develop his own silly walk.
DIVERSION DECEMBER 1988