Lewis Grossberger
August 02, 1982 12:00 PM

Alarm bells! Flashing lights! Screaming meemies! An outbreak of silliness has been reported in London. A cursory investigation eliminates Maggie Thatcher, Wee Willie Windsor, the Queen’s midnight visitor and the Argentine Navy as suspects. The truth is far more disturbing: Monty Python is back at work.

Yes, Monty Python, a name to make the stiffest upper lip tremble. Six hardened perpetrators of silliness, comedy recidivists who’d stop at nothing to tickle an innocent victim. Seemingly no form of humor is beyond them, low or high, whether it be the tossing of pastry or the dropping of names like Hegel and Kant. They can. And will. At will.

Already, in 13 harrowing years, their notoriously silly Monty Python movies, TV shows, records and books have inundated vast areas of the globe, triggering laughing jags in numerous dialects. Even now a film called Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, hot on the heels of The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (starring four of the Pythons), is at large in the unwary U.S. But is all this enough for the archfiends? No! The grim reality is only too apparent: The Pythons are coiling to strike again. They have fleeced a major studio (Universal) of $8 million to foist on us the silliest Python caper yet—something titled, heaven help us, The Meaning of Life, to be released next summer.

Quickly, the perpetrators are tracked to an office suite in a row of graceful old houses across the street from pleasantly verdant Regent’s Park—the very lair from which the gang and its six employees direct the sinister Python empire. Yet behind their zany-nutty-wacky-cuckoo-woowoo-yaha image, the Pythons, it turns out, are capable of behaving like six perfectly normal, even dull, middle-aged Englishmen. No pies, no silly walks, no ladies’ dresses or Australian drinking songs. Decorum! They sit around a serious table looking for all the world like writers putting the finishing touches on a screenplay. Who are they, then, these men called Python? What are they made of, and will it spoil without refrigeration?

In fact, though their temperaments are wildly diverse, the Pythons are remarkably similar in age and background, all between 39 and 42, with good verbal skills. They hail from unassuming middle-class families; one was fathered by an insurance salesman, others by a banker, an engineer and a cop. All seem British, though one, Terry Gilliam, insists against all evidence that he was American born and bred. All live in separate houses in London with separate wives and sometimes children (the average Python parent has 1.5), except Graham Chapman, the gang’s token gay, who rooms with a man just to be different.

And there is this highly incriminating detail, blurted out by John Cleese: All six have very strong mums. As Cleese himself acknowledges, “Most people who have stronger mothers than fathers tend to have a difficult relationship with authority. They’re usually more or less anti-Establishment.”

We could really stop right there. That admission explains all that follows. But no, the whole story will out. As in so many cases, it was higher education that knocked tender minds from the path of duty and virtue. At Cambridge (alma mater of Cleese, Chapman and Eric Idle) and Oxford (of Terry Jones and Michael Palin), the Pythons joined theatrical clubs and began writing and performing in college revues. It warped their brains. Cleese read the law but never lawyered. Chapman finished medical school but never doctored. Jones had wanted to be a poet. He never poed.

A few years earlier another crew of Oxbridge types, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, had produced a schoolboy satirical revue called Beyond the Fringe that made it to London and then onto Broadway. Afterward, packs of producers came barking up to school each year to sniff out new talent. The future Pythons had no trouble landing jobs at the BBC. At one point five of them wrote for David Frost. Soon No. 6, Gilliam, arrived. A carpenter’s son from Minneapolis, he had worked on humor magazines in the U.S., then in advertising, but not happily. In London he did animation for a kids’ show on which Jones, Palin and Idle were writers.

In 1969 the six got together and conspired to start a new show with material more outlandish than the BBC norm. The BBC okayed the concept and suddenly had on its hands a half hour of unbridled madness. The show careened wildly from one sketch to another, glued together precariously by Gilliam’s frequently grotesque graphic cartoons.

Only a name was needed—one so obviously meaningless that people would ask for years afterward, “What does it mean?” The program was called Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The rest is pathology.

The new show quickly soared to heights of obscurity. England yawned, except for proper middle-class types who loathed it, possibly because the Pythons delighted in portraying them as idiots. It took years for Python to catch on, infect America via public TV, and find its cult. The show’s attraction proved slow to take hold but insidious—not so much Pythonmania as post-Python drip. The program was still in American reruns years after the Pythons had quit filming it.

One reason they quit was that John Cleese got bored. Immensely tall and stately, perhaps closer to being a tree than a person, Cleese looks highly respectable, quite like the people he ridicules. He often portrays cardinals or Cabinet ministers or judges—cross, starchy men who brook no nonsense though they often turn out to be utterly nonsensical themselves.

“John is obsessed with authority figures, father figures, respectability,” says Gilliam. “He has a secret admiration for them, I think. He also believes the response he gets is to the way he uses his intellect and his reason, not because of the fact that he looks weird. He could never accept that.” “John has a waspish tongue,” says Palin. “In the world verbal-abuse championships, he would do very well.”

When Cleese quit appearing on the show, some of the other Pythons proved competently abusive themselves. “The ones who were most dependent on the group were fairly rude,” he says. “They talked about treachery, which I thought was infantile.”

The tensions and disagreements within Python had often polarized around Cleese and Terry Jones, who are emotional opposites. Cleese, methodical, orderly, a champion of rationality, argued for structure. Sketches had to have “internal logic.” Jones, the poetic Welshman, passionate, instinctive, a champion of natural-brewed beer and other dangerous causes, preferred grabbing ideas and letting them fly in all directions. Each fought for his way. Once an ashtray was hurled in anger. The other Pythons would variously take sides, cheer, laugh or shout them both down. Comedy resulted.

When Cleese stopped performing, the other five put out a short series of shows without him, then gave it up. But Cleese had not quit Python entirely, just Python TV. The whole gang went off on a concert tour of England and Canada. They also wrote a movie script, a takeoff on the Camelot legend, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

This was the point at which Monty Python could have been stopped. The group had difficulty financing the movie. “No one actually realized how valuable Python was, even though they’d already sold hundreds of thousands of books and records,” testifies John Goldstone, executive producer of Holy Grail. The money was finally obtained, partly from the rock groups Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. The movie grossed some $12 million in the U.S. alone.

Without really planning to, Python had switched mediums while staying intact, a unique feat for a satirical comedy group. Holy Grail had a plot of sorts, but also some of the sketchy flavor of the TV shows, filled as it was with hordes of loony characters, most played by the six Pythons. King Arthur was Graham Chapman, the troupe’s most vivid eccentric—though hardly as eccentric now as several years ago, when he was a major drunk and provocateur. In a restaurant he might have been found crawling under the tables, kissing the feet of strangers, for example. But before the next Python film, Chapman dried out. “I had to stop, really, or I was about to die,” he says. “Because of my medical background I’d begun to notice incipient signs of liver damage.”

Nowadays, at first glance, Chapman has the look of a mild-mannered academic, puffing his pipe, saying “Mmmm” a good deal. Then you peer into his mad blue eyes and you know that he is still quite daft. Cleese says: “Graham is a fascinating mixture of a man who’s extremely bright and strangely vague. There’s a kind of wonderful, disconnected dreaminess about him, a slightly unfocused quality.” Palin says: “Graham is a man who can very often unblock a sketch which has unfortunately fallen into some sort of logical streak. He will come up with something totally out of left field.” Idle says: “He produces the bizarre just when you think he’s asleep.”

It was Chapman who took the title role in the next Python travesty, the blasphemous, unforgivable, hilarious Bible epic, Life of Brian. Originally the story was supposed to focus on an incompetent 13th apostle. But Cleese and Chapman hit on the inspired idea of making Brian a messiah figure. Cleese and Chapman frequently have written together as a group within the group, as have Jones and Palin. Gilliam puts together oddball montages, while Idle works with Idle, except when idle.

Eric is the gadabout Python, the musical Python, the one most plugged into international showbiz. Gilliam says: “He’s very, very fast and the most punchy when it comes to laughs. And he’s the most chameleonlike in the group. If you talk to him and find out his position, you’ll come back a couple of days later and he’s adopted a new one.” Jones says: “Eric is sort of the best at living. He moves around the globe a lot and he has a house in France, a house in London and lives in Los Angeles. He knows all the people I’d like to know.”

The people he knows include stars like Robin Williams, Paul Simon and George Harrison. Harrison came in handy once when Life of Brian lost its first backer after someone foolishly showed him the plot. Harrison forked over $4 million. Not a bad investment. Brian so far has grossed about $22 million in the U.S. and Canada, doubtless aided by the publicity windfall of countless bannings and demonstrations.

Thus Python slithers on. Partly by accident, partly of necessity, the incorrigible six have fallen into a pattern of pulling a Python job every few years and in the interim a rash of capers on their own—enough to cause total consumer confusion about what’s an official Python movie and what’s just a movie with a couple of Pythons in it.

For instance: Idle wrote a play for London’s West End and has directed a cable TV fairy tale starring Robin Williams. Jones wrote a book about Chaucer (a very funny guy) and, with Palin, a TV series, Ripping Yarns, which is still in syndication in the U.S. Chapman wrote a semi-true book, A Liar’s Autobiography, and a pirate tale, Yellow-beard, that starts filming soon. Cleese was a big hit in England, and later on public television in the U.S., playing an apoplectic hotelkeeper in Fawlty Towers, a show that ended after only 12 episodes because Cleese got bored again. He then started a highly profitable company that produces training films for business firms.

Palin, who just finished filming his screenplay of The Missionary, with Maggie Smith and Trevor Howard, is the Python closest to normality, an extraverted nice guy whom nearly everyone likes. Most Pythons consider him the group’s most talented actor, the one best able to immerse himself in a role. “He’s extremely sensible,” says Chapman. “It’s quite appalling, really.” Observes Cleese: “Michael is the easiest and best adjusted of us. But I think he lacks a little bit of steel. He’s like a good, gentlemanly public school chap. If he has slightly negative feelings about something, he doesn’t show them. But he acts on them in the end.”

Haven’t we forgotten someone? Oh, yes. Probably the most successful on his own—financially speaking—has been Gilliam, whose comedy adventure Time Bandits, featuring Michael Palin and John Cleese, made $40 million—nearly twice as much as any Python film. A workaholic with boundless energy, Gilliam has a visual imagination teeming with mayhem and as nasty as anything in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Palin defines him thus: “Gilliam is a sort of fierce, fast-moving creature. Gilliam defines his target and homes in on it, not quite as accurate as an Exocet but as relentless. It’s the most wild and exciting part of Python, I think, the Gilliam edge. If Python was made up of six Gilliams, there would be this total explosion of creativity and bits of Pythons spattered all over the walls.”

Gilliam’s problem right now is that he’d rather be doing Gilliam stuff (his new movie is being co-written by playwright Tom Stoppard) than Python stuff. And Cleese is grumping about the dreariness of “committee writing.” Hearing them, you’d think Python was going belly-up. Fat chance. The ensemble is already the longest-running satirical group in the English-speaking world. Its concert film, Live at the Hollywood Bowl, has been well received even though it’s largely repackaged goods. And its next movie is frighteningly ambitious in scope.

“I think we’re looking basically for an audience of fish,” said Terry Jones, who is directing The Meaning of Life. “Because, honestly, there is a huge market out there. When you consider the vast shoals of herring, for example. If you could tap that market, it could rescue the whole cinema industry.”

By now it should be clear that enough evidence exists to put the Python gang away for a long, long time. Yet silliness is not, legally speaking, illegal. In time this lapse will doubtless be remedied. Until then, be vigilant. The Pythons may strike anywhere, anywhen, anywhom, at any whim.

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