Entertainment Weekly Magazine - March 25, 2005 Article "The Full Monty"
The Full Monty
Monty Python gathers to discuss its history -- The five surviving members of the British comedy troupe come together to talk about the highs and lows of their collaboration.
On the night of Oct. 5, 1969 a strange sketch-comedy show called Monty Python's Flying Circus debuted on the BBC. Perhaps strange is the wrong word. After all, the show opens with a shot of an old man with scraggly hair, a mangy beard, and tattered clothing walking out of the ocean. Was he a castaway? A comedian? Did he have anything to do with a circus whatsoever? As he staggered onto the beach and collapsed on the sand, he managed to mutter one strained word. . . ''It's. . .''
Then, a voice-over announced, ''Monty Python's Flying Circus.'' Absurd title animation unspooled. The rousing marching-band overture of ''The Liberty Bell'' kicked in.
For the next 30 minutes, Monty Python rained a machine-gun fusillade of skits about Mozart, Genghis Khan, and men in Viking helmets with only the slightest of strings connecting them all. There was almost no laughter from the live audience. In fact, they had no clue what the hell they were witnessing. Monty Python was made up of five Cambridge and Oxford grads (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle) and one American (Minneapolis-born animator Terry Gilliam). And they knew more about television than they let on. They'd all been writers and performers on shows like David Frost's The Frost Report and the kiddie program Do Not Adjust Your Set. Still, it wasn't until the Pythons banded together during their four seasons on the BBC that they were able to desconstruct and reassemble TV comedy on their own terms, revolutionizing the medium — and comedy — forever.
Now, after three decades of nearly messianic devotion on both sides of the Atlantic, the Pythons are storming Broadway (though not in person) with Idle's musical, Monty Python's Spamalot, inspired by the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Here, the five remaining troupe members (Chapman died from a cancer-related stroke in 1989) relate the Python story in their own words.
Eric Idle John Cleese was already a star in England. And the BBC wanted him to do a show because he was on The Frost Report. John should by all accounts have done The John Cleese Show.
Terry Jones When we went in to the BBC, all the executives asked, ''Well, what's the show going to be about?'' Well, we don't know. ''Well, who's it going to be aimed at?'' Well, we don't really know. ''Is it going to have music in it?'' Well, we don't really know. ''Well, what's it going to be called?'' Well, we don't really know. And then they said, ''Okay, we can only let you have 13 shows.''
Michael Palin It was on at 11 at night. In Britain, everyone's gone to bed by nine. Insomniacs and burglars are the only people up at that time. But because no one was watching us, we could break rules. We didn't have to have beginnings of sketches, or middles, or ends. We could run the titles upside down if we wanted to.
John Cleese I remember saying to Michael just before we went out to record that first show, ''We could be the first comedy team in history to record a program to complete silence.''
Palin My memories of the first show are borne out by the soundtrack. There are very few laughs. A lot of people's jaws are dropping. What is going on here? Sheep falling from trees?!
The Pythons wrote their sketches in teams. Chapman and Cleese, friends since Cambridge, wrote together. Palin and Jones, who'd met doing plays and revues at Oxford, were another team. Idle and Gilliam worked on their own. Every few days, they'd meet back up at Jones' house to review skit ideas — skits that often featured middle-class British housewives whom they enjoyed playing themselves. A bit too much, perhaps.
Palin Eric was good at songs and music and very adept at wordplay — people who could talk only in anagrams and things like that. John and Graham wrote more of the violent stuff — that sort of scream-and-shout stuff. Terry and I were more on the whimsical side. We were slightly interested in more surreal situations — going on location and shooting on film. Like the sketch with the hermits who live together.
Cleese Mike and Terry used to write pieces that always started with a long panning shot of the countryside with a voice-over.
Idle Comedy writers are usually in pairs so they can bounce ideas off each other. But I don't like talking in the mornings.
Terry Gilliam Everyone else in the group had to submit their material to the group. I didn't have to. I just turned up on the day with a can of film. With me being an American, it allowed them to feel superior to somebody. That was my role.
Idle It's always competitive. You're trying to make the others laugh. And if you have a writing partner, it's a lot easier obviously. There were violent arguments about what's funny and not funny. People take comedy very seriously. You couldn't argue that something was funny. If you didn't make the others laugh, it was out.
Jones We did try to get women to play some of the parts, but it didn't seem quite as outrageous.
Palin Terry looked like his mother in drag. And she was a lovely lady. John looked pretty terrifying in drag. A night of passion with that would probably leave you pretty traumatized.
After a few episodes, a small but enthusiastic Python fan base started to develop. It's safe to say that BBC brass were not among that fan base. Still, the group had no delusions of crossing over to America.
Gilliam After the fourth show, the BBC pulled it off of the air. They were totally confused by it.
Palin Every now and then they would cut the program and run The Horse of the Year Show. But it meant that we could plod away unnoticed, plotting more outrageous things. After about two or three shows, it was clear there was a cult. There were people who liked it because so many other people didn't.
Idle We really annoyed a vast quantity of middle-class England. Now we're all lovable, in the mists of history, and nonthreatening old farts.
Jones The show nearly got wiped [erased]. The BBC had a policy in those days to wipe shows after a while. And we got a tip-off from our video editor that they were about to wipe the Python shows. And we snuck in and actually stole the tapes and dubbed them.
Gilliam I remember when we did the first film, [1971's] And Now for Something Completely Different, which was our attempt at breaking into the States, we had a big fight with Columbia Pictures because the film ends with the sketch ''The Upper-Class Twit of the Year,'' and they didn't understand it.
Palin We hoped and we prayed, but had very little real hope that it would work in the States. When it began to take off [after PBS began airing the BBC shows in 1974], it was extremely exciting. What amazed me was that it played in America with all the English terms about cricket and vicars. But that seemed to work in its favor. People liked it because it was English.
Idle It was always axiomatic in Python that the show would never be understood in America because we were snobs. . .and wrong! One of its big appeals is Terry Gilliam being American. He introduced those two American popular elements — tits and violence.
Building on their American success, Python decided to send up the Knights of the Round Table with 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But during their Hollywood heyday, the Pythons were slowly unraveling due to Chapman's drinking and Cleese's decision to leave the show.
Gilliam Directing The Holy Grail [with Jones] was my lucky break. All I ever wanted to do was make movies. Terry Jones and I literally learned on the job. On day one, we were up in the highlands in Scotland at this great precipice shooting ''The Bridge of Death'' and the camera sheared its gears on the first shot.
Jones It was a nightmare. We had such a small budget — 150,000 or 200,000 pounds — and everything went wrong. Our leading man, Graham Chapman, was having DTs because he was taking himself off the alcohol. He was going cold turkey.
Cleese Graham was a tremendously good actor who basically ruined his ability with the booze. When you look at some of his performances in the first series before he really started to drink, they're superb. But once he started to drink, he couldn't remember the words. We were not very good about confronting people.
Palin I always thought there was a good physical thing — there were two tall Pythons and three medium-sized Pythons, and then there was Terry Gilliam, who's positively stunted. There was something about the height thing in Graham that he used very well. He looked like the Thoughtful Man puffing the pipe and all of that, and then he'd completely let rip, like in the ''Argument'' sketch. There were things he could do that none of the others could do as well. Life of Brian is a terrific performance: ''I'm not the messiah!''
Jones After The Holy Grail, John Cleese didn't really want to do it anymore. So we decided to do one series [season 4] without John. It was a bit odd.
Cleese I felt we were repeating ourselves. And also I was writing with the alcoholic, and no one else wanted to.
Idle John had been doing sketch comedy for far longer than any of us. And he was through with playing with that form — and bored with it. The others of us were just getting our stride.
Palin John felt a little claustrophobic. He and Graham had written some wonderful sketches, but they were not writing such good stuff by the third series. It was just the desire to go off and try something with other people, like Fawlty Towers. That's when I felt rather lost. And I felt, we're never going to get anything as good again. Some of us got quite angry.
Gilliam I had a theory that on the last season we should have been doing shows that were less and less funny so that people were switching off all over the country. And so by the time we were done with the last show, only two people would be watching somewhere up in Scotland, and then we would do the funniest show we'd ever done. I was outvoted.
After Python disbanded, the group reunited for two more movies: 1979's Life of Brian and 1983's The Meaning of Life, which finally earned them some overdue riches. But despite their post-Python success, it's sometimes been hard to live up to the show's legend.
Cleese If you had a success, you begin to realize how Citizen Kane was a kind of boulder on Orson Welles' back. Because whatever you do, people say ''It was good, but not as good as that.''
Idle It was enormously annoying for about 20 years. It was dreadful. You could try to escape it — John still tries to escape it — but there's no escape.
Gilliam Most of us have escaped from that. When I did [1977's]Jabberwocky, which was the first film on my own, it sort of fell on its face because it was being compared to Python. By Time Bandits [in 1981], I was still slightly sketchy. But by Brazil, I think I pulled completely away from Python and could be judged on my own merits — whatever they are.
Jones I've fallen into doing these TV documentaries, which kind of annoys me because I didn't really want to do documentaries. We're lucky because we own the rights to the Python TV shows and we now own two of the films. We're not exactly rich, but there is an income that allows me to goof off and write academic books.
Idle With the Grail, some of our original investors were Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin, and so they'll still get some money out of Spamalot. I love that. Jimmy Page will get a check.
In 1998, the five surviving Pythons reunited at the Aspen Comedy Arts Festival. On stage with them — or so they claimed — was an urn containing Graham Chapman's ashes. The audience exploded when Gilliam knocked it over. For a while, the reunion got some of the Pythons itching for more.
Jones Eric Idle was keen to get us all together to do a stage show after Aspen. John Cleese wanted to do it too and Eric was setting it all up. But Michael Palin didn't want to do it, and the whole thing collapsed. Eric was furious, actually.
Idle I think [Palin] was never really up for it, but he didn't say no at the right time. He could have saved us the time and energy.
Palin I've been Mr. Nice Guy for so long it was nice to be the villain. Actually, I was interested in a film idea that Eric had where we'd all go off and do a movie about the Knights of the Holy Grail 40 years later. A Holy Grail sequel. I was positively not in favor of a stage revival — because Graham wasn't there. I remember thinking it was sad to be going over the old sketches and not being able to hear each other's lines because we don't have our hearing aids in.
Jones Eric went off and did his own shows, like Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python, which I went to New York to see, and I thought it was really good. And then he decided he wanted to do Spamalot. So we said, ''Well, if Eric wants to do it, okay.'' There was a little bit of a discussion about whether we should allow them to call it Monty Python's Spamalot.
Palin There was a time a few years ago when I would have said, ''Well, Python is very precious and it's like an ancient book of law that can't be changed.'' But it's kind of changed because of age and greed.
Jones I think we've all relaxed a bit about Python. In the old days, we were very precious about it.
Palin When I first heard the title, Spamalot, I thought it's another of Eric's great titles. He's very good with titles. It was Eric who came up with Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory, which was the original title of Life of Brian. Then I realized he was serious about Spamalot and prepared to work hard on it. It would've been mean and churlish to say no.
Gilliam People always try to rip off Python, and I think in the end we felt it was better to be ripped off by one of our own than an outsider.
Palin The worst that could come from Spamalot is my character is completely unfunny and all the rest are great! But I'm quite happy for Eric to be even richer than he is at the moment.
Idle If Spamalot fails, it will be my failure. If it succeeds, it will be their success. For them, there was no downside because it was clear The Holy Grail's a movie and there it stays forever. . .You know, not a day in my life passes without someone saying the words ''Monty Python'' to me. You can try and hide from that, but eventually you have to come to terms with it and say, ''Well, yeah, we were good!''
Age 65 Post-Python He and first wife Connie Booth starred in BBC's Fawlty Towers, 1975 -- 79; wrote and starred in 1988's A Fish Called Wanda. Etc. Family name was once Cheese.
Age 64 Post-Python Directed many films, including '95's Twelve Monkeys and '05's The Brothers Grimm. Etc. Got so stressed making '85's Brazil he tempo-rarily lost use of legs.
Age 61 Post-Python Wrote and directed the '78 Beatles send-up The Rutles; now overseeing Spamalot. Etc. In 2002, beat Martha Stewart and Charles Barkley on Celebrity Jeopardy!
Age 63 Post-Python Auteured '89's Erik the Viking, starring Cleese and Tim Robbins; hosts BBC documentaries; pens scholarly books. Etc.Proudest of ''Every Sperm Is Sacred'' song.
Age 61 Post-Python Wrote and hosted TV/book travelogues such as Pole to Pole and Around the World in 80 Days. Etc. His fave Python sketch: ''The Fish-Slapping Dance.''
Born 1941 Died 1989 Post-Python Co-wrote '83's Yellowbeard, co-starring Cheech and Chong; cameoed in Iron Maiden video Etc. Held M.D. from Cambridge.