The Pythons: Autobiography, by Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Bob McCabe

The Pythons. Autobiography

On the Independent Film Channel a while back, I watched the multi-part six hour retrospective on the history of Monty Python in full, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It brought back a lot of pleasant memories, and it included a fair amount of information that I didn’t already know. Perhaps surprisingly, it didn’t feel at all like it had to be padded out to be so long. On the contrary, it felt like much of it was rushed, like it could have been considerably longer and still easily held my interest.

The Pythons: Autobiography struck me very much the same way. I was interested just about the whole time from start to finish, partly at the pleasant reminders of things I already knew, but more so at all the little tidbits I didn’t know.

The book consists wholly of excerpts from interview transcripts. The five surviving Pythons were interviewed at length, and for Graham Chapman, they used transcripts of earlier interviews and writings, augmented by contemporary interviews with his partner, his brother and his brother’s wife. (Not a whole lot though. Certainly none of the latter three figures get anything more than a small fraction of the space that any of the five surviving Pythons do.) Then evidently editor McCabe arranged the excerpts into book form, with how much input from the Pythons I’m not sure.

Quick point I wanted to make about the design of the book, by the way. It’s very heavily loaded with pictures, and while they’re interesting and everything and I like that they’re there, I have two complaints. One, the vast majority of them are uncaptioned, so it becomes a game of trying to pick out which of the Pythons is in this particular picture of a bunch of high school chums, or that picture of a cast photo from some college comedy revue. I’d prefer they identify what the heck we’re looking at.

Two, often a faded photo is used as background, with the text printed directly over it. All that does is take away from both. It largely blocks the photo so I can’t really make out what it is, and it makes the text much more of a chore to read.

There’s actually a lot of overlap between the book and the multi-part TV special. I’m 99% sure a fair amount of the wording is identical, so my inference is that the interviews excerpted in the special and the interviews excerpted in the book are in fact the same. So some of the material is in one medium, some is in the other, and some is in both.

I’m already hazy on whether some of the points I recall came from the special or the book or both, and no doubt that’ll become more the case as more time passes.

You get a good sense here of the Pythons as individuals—their backgrounds, personalities, foibles, what made them easy or difficult to work with, etc.

If there’s someone who is the “main” Python, I’d maybe vote for Terry Jones. It’s close, though, because they really are such a team that it’s hard to say one is more important than the others.

Terry J and Michael Palin were one informal writing partnership, Graham and John Cleese were a second, Eric Idle wrote some on his own and some with one or more other Pythons, and Terry Gilliam was mostly on his own doing animations and such. It sounds like of those, the Terry J and Michael team wrote the most total material that ended up in Python.

Terry J also directed or co-directed (with Terry G) most of their films.

All of the Pythons periodically had things pulling them away from the group, causing them to miss parts of projects, causing them to veto projects, etc., whether it be career choices, pressure from spouse and family, lifestyle issues (Graham’s alcoholism and debauchery being the obvious example), artistic differences, or just being sick of it. That was probably least true of Terry J and second least true of Michael.

The two that seemed to have the strongest personalities in terms of trying to lead the group were Terry J and John, though even there when John lost a power struggle there was the sense that he’d temporarily or permanently distance himself from Python, whereas Terry J always seemed like he’d remain in the thick of Python regardless.

So all told, in mostly subtle ways I get the impression that Terry J was the heart of Python maybe more than any of the others.

Yet he’s not one of the more memorable ones as an individual. He doesn’t stand out as being as flamboyant or idiosyncratic or having as striking good and bad qualities. Which maybe makes sense. I associate him more with Python than with his individual qualities.

Michael comes across as maybe the most agreeable, most unassertive of the six—just basically a nice guy. If I had to guess whom I would get along with best, I’m thinking maybe him. Though the differences are slight; it’s not like any of them fit nicely into some pigeonhole. Certainly there were times he lost his temper, times he stood up for himself, etc.

John is probably the one most people assume would be the leader, the “main” Python. Certainly he’s the most recognizable, the one of the six that people would consistently pick out on the street as a celebrity (which he was ambivalent at best about).

He’s the one that there was always that sense that if there had been no Python, he would have had the most successful show business career as an individual. He was slightly the oldest, was slightly farthest along in his career when they got together, was expected to have the most successful post-Python career. (Has he? None of them came remotely close to achieving as individuals what they did as a team, but for me John’s Fawlty Towers remains the best ever solo effort by any of the Pythons. No doubt some of the movies Terry Gilliam directed post-Python would get some votes, and many would say he has had the most significant career as an individual of the six, but I’m not wild about any of his movies.)

The others agree that John could have demanded and received a bigger cut, could have maybe gotten top billing, since he was the most prominent of the six before and after Python, and they have a lot of respect for the fact that he never did. He accepted that they were a team of equals, and that everything would be split equally.

Other than Graham, who was a very troubled individual in many ways, I suppose I’d say John sounds like he was the least happy overall with being in Python. He fought with Terry J off and on throughout Python as they dueled over the direction of the group. He was sort of stuck with Graham as an unofficial partner, and that was a constant source of tension and conflict since Graham flat out didn’t pull his weight.

It’s an overstatement to say he was out of step with the others, but he was just a little bit more wary of the humor being too juvenile or attacking too many sacred cows. There were issues about which he could be equally or more iconoclastic than any of them—he thinks the send up of organized religion represented by Life of Brian is the most brilliant thing they ever did—but he also was about the only one who occasionally would have the sense that “We might be going a bit too far here.” On at least one occasion he apparently allied himself with the BBC censors to get a sketch dropped from the TV show on grounds of bad taste.

He was the first to get bored with Python and develop an impatient attitude of “OK I’ve done this now. What’s next?” He had to be coaxed and cajoled into doing the third season of the TV show and some of the movies and other projects, and in fact could not be talked into doing the fourth, partial, season of the TV show, which proceeded without him.

Certainly Python wasn’t a miserable experience for him, but there was routinely that sense that he had one foot out the door, that he was sick of the bullshit and ready to get on with his life.

Eric strikes me as having been most shaped by his childhood. They all had their issues, their traumas in childhood, but Eric the most. He came from a bad family situation, and then spent the bulk of his childhood in an abusive boarding school environment. I remember from seeing the interviews in the multi-part special that he has almost a flippant bitterness about his past. It’s like a lot of his personality, his being funny, his drive for material success and status, all stems directly or indirectly from being profoundly hurt as a child and developing certain defenses and coping mechanisms.

He’s someone I mostly like and feel sympathetic toward in the abstract, but am not convinced I would be compatible with in real life. It sounds like he can get pissy at times, like after what he went through no one’s ever going to get away with bullying him. (Then again, they all sound like they can be difficult at times. Certainly Terry G sounds like he has a temperamental streak.)

He has probably enjoyed being a celebrity the most of the six. He arguably was most willing to “sell out,” doing TV commercials and such.

Graham is without a doubt the saddest case. Not that he didn’t have a very good life in a lot of ways, and experience a lot of happiness, but he had the most negativity in his life of the six, and injected the most negativity into the group.

He was a major, major alcoholic. If you did one of those questionnaires on him where “If you answered yes to at least five of these ten, then you’re an alcoholic,” and it’s all about damaging relationships and damaging one’s work life, and blacking out, and so on, he’d be a ten out of ten.

The others describe how over time they came to understand that he wasn’t just a guy who liked to drink and occasionally overdid it; he was consuming hard-to-believe quantities of liquor every day.

It made him irresponsible and unreliable. It made him at times surly and combative. John had to deal with it the most, but they all were severely inconvenienced by it. They’d routinely lose a whole afternoon of shooting for the TV show or a movie because by lunchtime he’d already drunk himself into a stupor. They’d be doing a stage show and never know if he’d show up, or if he’d be in any condition to go on if he did. The writing team of John and Graham more and more became just John.

Fairly early in Python he came out to them as gay. And it sounds like he was almost as hooked on excess in that area of his life as with his drinking.

One of the others remarks that it was like he had the attitude that he’d had to go through so much emotional pain hiding being gay, and then he’d had to deal with so much shit from society for being gay when he was out, that he could let loose and screw up a heck of a lot before things were even close to equaled out, that life owed him that much for what it had put him through.

Sometimes they’d put up with him, sometimes they’d confront him, but he wouldn’t change and it sounds like he wouldn’t show any remorse. It was like that was the way he was going to live his life and they would just have to deal with it.

When he finally got clean, which wasn’t until well after the TV show, when they were putting together Life of Brian, it evidently was because he knew he would be dead soon if he didn’t, rather than out of consideration for how his behavior was harming others.

And then he was dead of cancer within a few short years anyway. I’d assumed it was AIDS-related, but it sounds like it was more likely smoking-related. He’d smoked a pipe pretty much his whole life.

Maybe some of it is just a matter of not wanting to speak ill of the dead, but the impression I get from the others is that while dealing with him was very annoying on the surface, it didn’t generate any lasting ill will. Maybe they too accept at some level that whatever he did that was less than ideal, the amount he suffered in life was disproportionate punishment for it.

They don’t minimize what a pain in the ass he was, but clearly their memories of him, their attitudes toward him, are overwhelmingly favorable.

Given all the trouble he caused, and how often he failed to fulfill his responsibilities, would Python have been better without him, either as a five man team or with someone else as the sixth member from the start?

They say absolutely not. I would probably lean toward a no, but I’m less sure. If Marty Feldman or one of their other contemporaries had been hired to do the initial TV show instead of Graham, maybe it would have been just as magical, albeit in a slightly different form.

But their take is that even though he was useless a lot of the time, when he did contribute it was often brilliant, as good as anyone in the group. Maybe he’d only do 10% of the work when he and John wrote, but then when the whole group got together to go over all their ideas, Graham would occasionally respond to something with a terrific insight that immediately made it much better material.

As a performer—again when he wasn’t too drunk to perform at all—he had a way of making certain characters work just right. He wasn’t as attention-grabbing as, say, John, but they feel he was as funny a performer as anyone in the group.

Probably where he would have been hardest to replace would have been in their two greatest movies, the non-sketch movies Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Life of Brian. He played the central character in both, the closest thing to a straight man in the cast, who had to hold the films together in deadpan fashion with all the lunacy going on around him, and he nailed it both times.

Maybe one of the others could have pulled it off as well, but it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Graham at the center of those films.

But of all the Pythons, he seems the least connected to the others. Except maybe Terry G, but he’s such a special case, being from a different country, being by far the last member to join, and most importantly generally having a different role doing the animation rather than writing and performing in the sketches.

But Graham never fully connected with them. Terry G says of the five other Pythons, Graham is clearly the one he got to know least well. My impression is for all the others—John, Terry J, Michael and Eric—they’d say the same thing. Or maybe they’d put Graham ahead of only Terry G for the aforementioned reasons. That’s no doubt most surprising in the case of John since they worked together so much, but John says they mostly had a kind of formal, British male, stiff upper lip sort of friendship, where they didn’t talk about emotions or get into deep discussions of their lives and such.

Graham was trained as a physician. It’s not like performing was all he had, or doing comedy was the dream he’d been pursuing his whole life. It would be an overstatement to say it was a lark to him, but that would be closer to true for him than for any of the others.

He was about getting drunk and having a good time, and more often than not it was not with the other Pythons. So he wasn’t trying to get the group to party more; he was off chasing boys and doing things on his own. He was present the least often for their work sessions, and said the least when he was there.

He died heavily in debt by the way, convinced that even if the other Pythons hadn’t stolen from him, then they were all stolen from by crooked agents or others. The others say every year or two he’d hire separate accountants to go over all the books and find the wrongdoing and get him his money, the new accountants would be shown everything and brought up to speed by the other Pythons and their lawyers and accountants and such, and they’d report back to Graham that he hadn’t been shorted anything. That would satisfy him for a while, then he would repeat the process.

I’m curious about Terry G because no matter how much the others praise his animation and talk about how indispensable he turned out to be for Python, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him as a full member, and I wonder if they and he really do at a deep level. He seems more like half or three quarters of a Python to me. Especially as far as the TV show goes. In the movies he performed more, was a co-director on one, had a little more input into the material beyond the animations. So maybe he was a half Python the first few years, and an eighty percent Python after that.

When he did take on a role of any authority, as co-director, it sounds like his control freak side came out and he was somewhat difficult to deal with. There’s just a touch of arrogance about him. Whether it has to do with always feeling like he has to assert himself so that he’ll be perceived as on an equal level with the others rather than just an auxiliary member I don’t know. But at times he rubs me the wrong way just a little.

John may have been the first to feel constrained by the group and want to move on to accomplish things as an individual, but Terry G was the second, and the most consistent in feeling that way. Once he’d directed his first movie on his own—Jabberwocky—his individual career pretty clearly took precedence over his role as a Python.

I have to say also, there are a lot of samples of his early comics in the book—his pre-Python stuff for college publications and such—and it just doesn’t connect with me. I rarely get it or think it’s funny. I got into his Python animation a fair amount, though really even that I wouldn’t rank up there with most of the live action material, but that earlier stuff doesn’t do anything for me.

There are plenty of other things in the book that struck me, only a tiny fraction of which I can mention here.

I appreciated that the surviving Pythons are quite frank in talking about each other, and in acknowledging the bickering and hostility that has existed here and there in their relationships. I would rather it were the case that they all always got along great and loved being this great comedy phenomenon, but they’re human and it’s very hard to keep that size team of creative people together and compatible. There are egos, there are competing artistic visions, there’s the material success that suddenly opens up a lot more options as individuals, etc.

It’s not at the opposite extreme certainly, where they were constantly at each other’s throats and ended up hating each other. It’s more like the Beatles, say. They considered themselves friends, they cherished what they had, but they also definitely fought, and criticized each other, and disappointed each other, and took turns threatening to leave the group.

Speaking of the Beatles, there are multiple mentions of the Beatles being big Python fans and what a huge thrill that was for the Pythons when they found out. Beyond being a fan, George Harrison of course bankrolled Life of Brian (having to mortgage his house to do so), and became good friends with them, Eric most of all.

In fact Eric mentions an interesting little tidbit that Harrison and he somehow felt very familiar with each other from the start, and given that Eric had played with some boys from Liverpool a couple times in the ’50s, they speculated that they may well have met each other in childhood and never even knew each other’s name.

The five British Pythons had considerable experience doing comedy stage shows, cabaret, etc. before ever getting into writing and performing in TV shows. And they did more of that after becoming Python than I realized.

They mostly treat that part of their history as being on a par with the rest, but I never thought their stuff worked as well in that format. There’s something about playing to a live audience, and having to speak louder to project, and maybe altering other things about the performing style in subtle ways that just seems off to me. It can still be funny, but for instance, I don’t think of Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl as being remotely as hilarious as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, or the TV show.

There’s also the matter that once they became famous, everyone wanted to see the familiar bits in these shows. So most of the laughter is the enjoyment of recognition. They compare it to people coming to a concert wanting a band to play all their favorite hits.

I can share that appeal of the familiar a little bit, but mostly I don’t think of comedy that way. I can listen to a song I really like—and want to hear it performed live—a lot more times than I can hear the same joke or see the same sketch. I agree with Lenny Bruce who said he repeats very little material from show to show because it’s boring for him and should be boring for the audience.

Michael makes another interesting point about the (arguably detrimental) consequences of their celebrityhood on their comedy. In 1989 they were doing one of their mini-reunion things—a TV special—and Steve Martin was brought in to be in one of the sketches with them.

Now on paper that sounds great—two of the funniest people/groups of my lifetime together. But as Michael says, that’s precisely what people would respond to is their celebrityhood. That’s why people would sit up and take notice, would applaud, would assume it’s going to be comedy magic. But really there’s no reason to think they’d have any chemistry or that whatever material they prepared for the occasion would even be any good. People would just react to the names. And, he said, that made the experience really empty for them. As highly as they thought of Martin, it just didn’t feel right to join together in this particular way.

Mostly I enjoyed this book, enjoyed being able to revisit how important Python had been to me. But I also sensed just a little bit of melancholy in my experience of the book, and the multi-part IFC special earlier.

A friend a few years older than me made the point one time that as he ages, it’s depressing that the important people who influenced his life are seemingly all dead or very old. The authors and the musicians that provided so much of the treasured material for his life are either dead or just aren’t producing anything anymore. It’s a reminder of your own aging and mortality.

So this nostalgia was fun for me, but I also couldn’t help thinking how old they are, how long ago this all was, how Graham’s dead just like George Harrison and John Lennon are dead, and how I’m just really, really old now.

Not to mention I’m already too apt to live in the past. And spending a bunch of time reminiscing about Python just keeps my mind back there all the more.

But that being said, I’ll close by noting simply that I remain a big Python fan, and that The Pythons: Autobiography is very much a worthwhile book I’m glad I read.

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