Oh, to approach this introduction objectively. To pretend that I'm not just another guy who has nearly passed out laughing at Michael Palin saying the word shrubbery.
"I had this huge helmet on," Palin recalls, "and I remember complaining that no one could see my face. I could barely see the camera. I had to stand on a ladder, which was quite unsteady, and do comedy. I thought, 'It's like doing comedy while being chased by the bulls at Pamplona! How do you do it?' And yet, to many people, it's one of the things they remember about Holy Grail. You just have to say 'Ni!' to people and they break up."
The Pythons: Autobiography is a lavish, first-person account of the mind-bending hilarity that is Monty Python: Graham, John, Eric, Terry, Terry, and Michael; their sketches, their shows, and their movies. A coffee table book, a museum of all things Python. Page after page of oral history alongside hundreds of candid photographs, film stills, cartoons, playbills, album covers, and other memorabilia.
Sir Galahad, the singing lumberjack, Pontius Pilate... It's not simply how many memorable roles Michael Palin, the actor, immortalized as part of the troupe, but how many Palin, the writer, conceived and scripted. So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that he's been busier than ever since the end of the troupe's time together. As the host of five extraordinarily popular travel series (a sixth, Himalayas, is due later this year) Palin has roamed from Pole to Pole, explored the Sahara, and circled the globe in 80 Days. When the Python alumnus the nicest one, they always said published Hemingway's Chair, his "engaging and accomplished first novel," the Washington Post was moved to ask, "Is there anything that Michael Palin can't do?"
Dave: Did you have a nice New Year's?
Michael Palin: Yes, I did actually. New Year's Eve was a party, and since then it's been quiet. I've been working away because I've got a book to write for this new travel series. It's a bit of working and a bit of celebrating at the same time.
Dave: I spent the holiday saddled with one of the more taxing research projects I've had in a while, having to sit through any number of Monty Python videos, one after the other.
Palin: Well, think of us having to get the book together! Old files full of bits and pieces, scratching and scribblings of early Python... It became quite a task.
Dave: One thing that surprised me in reading was how little time you had to film the shows.
Palin: There was considerable pressure because we didn't have a big budget. We were expected to get thirteen shows written and performed within a year, or less than that sometimes.
We had a very brief turn-around. Once we'd written the shows, we'd go out and film them. That had to be done quickly because we had to move on. Then we came back to London and we had two or three days of rehearsal before we were into recording. We didn't use any idiot boards or auto-cues; we learned all the material. So it was tight, but we were young. We were so happy to be doing the shows at all, really. We were so pleased just to be given the break to do them.
Dave: But the limited studio time didn't leave you time for improvising, for example. You had to be ready when the camera started.
Palin: The improvising came when we were writing. What I remember as the most exciting moments were when the various writing groups within the six of us would come together and read new material to each other. That's the first time you'd hear any of it. Like "Dead Parrot": the first time I ever heard "Dead Parrot" was when John read it out at a meeting. The first time I heard "Always Look on the Bright Side" was when Eric got his guitar out and played it at a little group meeting. The first time anyone heard "Lumberjack Song" was when we tried to sing it to the group around the table. Those were great moments.
That's when we made our first decisions about the strength of the material. We relied very much on a gut feeling. Some of them, like the three I just mentioned, were put on the A list, the gold, top pile: those are fine; they don't need to be changed. Other material had good sections and some bits that didn't work, but they excited or lit up someone else at the table to take it on and move with it.
It was electrifying, when ideas came out. Why don't you do this? Why don't you call him that? On a good day, the air was crackling with ideas. I think I said in the book that if you went out to make a cup of coffee you could miss six wonderfully funny gags. No one had any coffee on a good day; we just got on with it.
There was a feeling of pressure, but it was so fresh compared to what we'd been doing before and what the alternative was at that time, which was to write for other British comedians, very good though they were: Marty Feldman and The Two Ronnies and David Frost, people like that. But writing for somebody else, what we were therefore doing was in a sense preventing our own self-expression from coming to the surface. With the six of us round the table, you felt everything could come out. Anything you ever thought was funny could be tried, oblivious of bad taste or whatever. Throw it all in there, let's see how it works.
Dave: Watching the shows now, the transitions between sketches strike me as one of the most peculiar and compelling aspects. When people think of Python, they probably think of the individual sketches first, but in fact there was always a larger scope. Each show was structured very deliberately. Then ABC wanted to edit the shows for American audiences, and there was obviously a lot of resistance to that.
Palin: Structure was very important, which is why we were so upset when ABC cut so much out. They were all integrated, all the ideas, with lots of little running gags. It didn't make sense if one was taken out. We thought very carefully of the shape of the twenty-nine minutes we had to fill; we'd insert little references to things that were coming later and so on.
You really had to show the program as a whole if you were going to get the full benefit. It wasn't just that we threw a lot of ideas in that were completely disparate and had no connection. We made little connections to hold the disparate material together. Very often the connecting material was some of the stuff we were most pleased about. That's why we were reluctant to let anybody re-edit our shows.
Dave: There weren't existing templates in comedy or television that you could draw from, but similar experiments were cropping up in other forms of entertainment. The Beatles played around with pastiche and surrealism and abrupt transitions but at its core their music always had that pop sensibility. Were you drawing inspiration from those types of sources?
Palin: Well, certainly there was no template. There was no previous pattern we could use, but we didn't mind that.
Partly, it was accidental. Five of the six of us had been to two English universities, both of which had a tradition of doing reviews and cabaret where you could stand up on stage and perform your own material. But then Terry Gilliam came into the equation, from America, from New York, having worked with top cartoonists and that sort of thing; and the fact that Terry not only liked what we were doing but enhanced it by what he was doing....We didn't look around and say, "We've got to have a cartoonist to do this." He just came in and it really worked.
John Cleese was a big star in 1966 and 1967, before Python, and I honestly didn't think that he would come and do a purely experimental show where he was getting paid £100 a week. He could have gone off and made movies; he was given plenty of opportunities to do that. So the fact that John liked this and was intrigued by doing something completely off the wall...
We were encouraged by what was happening in Britain in the sixties. The Beatles, you rightly say, were doing this in their music, doing things that were popular but unusual. Everyone was applauding the fact that it was something new. Fashion designers were producing a look that was different. The Stones were out there producing their brand of rock and roll. There was a real feeling that you were almost obliged to try something new now; it was time. Without meaning to deliberately, we all took some sort of comfort from each other's experiments and were determined not to compromise.
I suppose our childhood was a time of compromise, of behaving, of learning the old things in the old way about the British Empire and the church and the army and the schools. Suddenly all that didn't apply anymore. The straight jacket of respectability had been loosened. We were losing the Empire. We'd made a complete cock-up of Suez in 1956 and we were giving most of the countries in Africa and around the world their freedom in 1960. That's not irrelevant to Python. It was in the early sixties with people like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Beyond the Fringe and all that that a more daring and risk-taking form of comedy emerged. I think it was because everything was changing at that time.
Dave: Why does Monty Python appeal to younger generations? Comedy doesn't generally enjoy such a long shelf life.
Palin: I think it's up to those who watch the shows to give the answer, but I've gleaned one or two clues from people I talk to. Python is something quite difficult to typify. You can't say, "It's about this." It's about lots of things. It's about splinters of information; it's about slapstick; it's about cartoon; it's about bits of British culture; it's about things that are completely abstract; it's different styles, different sketches in each show. It's hard to pin down, and I think people like that lack of discipline and the fact that you can open up this little box of Python and in there you'll find something in every half-hour to make you laugh. It comes from all sorts of directions, and I think that's what gives it its life. Some things won't work for you, but there's something that makes you laugh.
Also, I think it's because it's done in an absurd and surreal way. It's the subversiveness and the mischief and the breaking of rules that our audience like. It's not heavily satirical; it's not all geared to attacking people or politicians or news, generally. I think that Python, essentially, deep down, is quite good-natured. It's good fun, so I think it's good for group watching.
Dave: You say "good-natured"...
Palin: Well, that's my view. I don't think all the other Pythons would agree. They'd probably say, "Michael, come on!"
Dave: You're suggesting that the others would disagree with you publicly?
Palin: Well, it has been done.
Dave: The philosophers playing soccer or "The Summarize Proust Competition"... Python can be silly and highbrow at once. All of Life of Brian really...
Palin: I think Life of Brian works I'm very proud of that; I think we all are. There's a lot in that movie that is in a sense quite sweet, really: Brian, himself, and his mother; they're just people trapped in this little world. But underneath all that, there's a very strong point: By what authority are these people telling you to do this or that? That was a very basic worry and concern that we all had then.
Dave: It's so strange to read that the preview of Holy Grail flopped. I know it was a different cut of the movie, but it's so popular now that it's hard to imagine people not falling over laughing.
Palin: With comedy, very often you don't need much to get it wrong. You get the timing slightly wrong, or in the case of a film you get the edit slightly wrong; you use the wrong kind of cut; you just miss the joke by a whisker... I think maybe that was happening when we were doing the previews of Holy Grail. We learned from those previews and changed things.
Despite that, there are things in some of the movies and some of the shows that I just don't think worked terribly well. And yet, I look back now, and even things like the three-headed knight, which I never really liked that much... I liked the idea of it, but for some reason, probably because we were working very fast at the time we only had half a day to shoot it, and it was cold and wet up in Scotland it hadn't really worked. And yet I look at it now, and I think it's fine. It's a nice idea, quite silly, and on to the next.
I don't see things in quite such black and white terms as we did then. And remember, we were just starting. We didn't have a big following. Python wasn't popular around the world. We were very critical. Now it turns out that for whatever reason quite a lot of what we did then is seen as funny by people. We could probably find and produce sketches that we never even put on the screen and people would say, "Hey, that's a funny idea!" But we were quite tough with ourselves at that time. And we were very close to the material. I think if you're very close to the material you sometimes only see what's wrong with it; you don't see the general picture.
I think I say in the book that I used to find watching the shows quite agonizing because some of them just weren't up to standard. There were things that just weren't good. I'd think, Oh, damn, we've missed it. Comedy works on absolute perfection of timing, getting all the elements right. We all knew that, so to get it wrong was either lazy or it was just some kind of failure.
I think that colored a lot of our thinking about Python at the time, this fear of failing to be funny. We wanted every minute of the shows to be funny. Sometimes it just didn't work. And yet now people are very indulgent with it. The things people come up with as being their favorite things, I think, That? God!
The Knights Who Say "Ni!" for instance. Again, that was done on a very cold day. I had this huge helmet on, and I remember complaining that no one could see my face. I could barely see the camera. I had to stand on a ladder, which was quite unsteady, and do comedy. I thought, It's like doing comedy while being chased by the bulls at Pamplona! How do you do it? And yet, to many people, it's one of the things they remember about Holy Grail. You just have to say "Ni!" to people and they break up.
Dave: You say in the book that the fish-slapping dance is one of the things you're most proud of in your entire performing career. Why?
Palin: Well, I did an almost suicidally good fall, but the reason I did it was not because I was masochistic. It's just that we were filming this dance on the side of a canal lock, and when we were rehearsing it, the water was within about two or three feet of the top of the lock. Quite nice, you know, no problem. When we actually came to shoot it, the lock had been emptied. And for some strange reason, rather than say, "Can we wait until the lock is filled up again, please?" I just went ahead with it.
I look at that fall... I keep my helmet on, and I go vertically straight down into the water. It's like I'm a piece of Gilliam animation, a cutout, going into that water. That's what I mean, being very proud of it. I wouldn't do it now.
Palin: A few years before I'd written a novel, I'd started work on a television screenplay, which was set in a small town and started with someone finding Hemingway's chair in an antique shop. That didn't work out, but I went back to it for the subject of a novel and it seemed to be quite a good story. I knew nothing much of Hemingway, apart from I'd read him when I was at school.
I explored it a bit more, and it was while I was reading background for Hemingway's Chair because two of the characters had to be utterly obsessed with Hemingway and know everything about him, so I had to do a lot of reading in order to be on top of this obsession I read tons and tons of Hemingway. I discovered that while I found some of Hemingway books difficult to read, his life and certainly his traveling life intrigued me, the fact that he spent so little time in the United States and so much time abroad and yet he's seen as the great American writer. Hemingway appealed to me as a traveler. That's how a few years later we began work on the Hemingway Adventure.
Dave: In the introduction to Around the World in 80 Days you explain that three people turned down the job of host before it was offered to you. Does that seem rather incredible now, looking back on how long you've been doing these travel shows?
Palin: It's just quite interesting, really. It's all about timing. The first guy who was offered it didn't want to do it because he was a very serious journalist, a bit older than me, and he didn't want the discomfort, understandably so. Another one wouldn't have been right at all. And the second one who could have done it rather well was more of a literary journalist and just didn't want to go off and do the traveling. So I can understand why all of them turned it down.
I had no illusions about it. I thought, I'll have a go at this because I wanted to travel. It wasn't that I wanted to be a television presenter particularly or a star of travel documentary. I just thought, No one will ever ask me to go around the world again and pay for me to do it.
I'd just finished filming A Fish Called Wanda, which was the last of about ten movies I'd made during the eighties, starting I think with the Python Hollywood Bowl and The Meaning of Life and The Missionary, and all that. In a sense, I didn't want to stand around in any studios being told to look to the left and look to the right. I wanted to get out and about a bit. I wanted to be...a lumberjack. No. I readily accepted it.
Then when we were just heading out, I began to think, What are we doing here? We have no script. It depends entirely on this time constraint: eighty days. There are going to be moments when I'm clearly uninspired, fed up, dejected, or jaded, and the camera is going to be filming me! This is before we had reality television, all those things where people go off and are filmed being miserable; there was no precedent for that. I suddenly panicked and thought, What are we going to do? This is going to be absolutely disastrous! It wasn't until the end of 1989 when we'd come back, put it all together, written the book, and the whole thing went out that I realized it had been quite successful. So I can understand people not taking it on.
Dave: The next show you're filming is about the Himalayas. I found a bit on your web site where you're rather enigmatic about something that happened on location, something about "rumors of my kidnapping in Nepal." Can you say anything about that?
Palin: I'm saving it to make a story about it in the book! No, what happened was that we were filming west of Katmandu in a very remote village about two hours walk from any road. We were filming the recruiting for the Ghurka regiment. I don't know if you know the Ghurkas. They're a Nepalese hill tribe. Good fighters. The British have kind of cultivated them over the years as tough fighters to go in times of trouble to places. They're a very good, disciplined fighting force. Every year a number of Ghurkas are selected to join the battalion, and they go off to England for training. With the British Army guy and several Ghurka officers, we attended one of these recruiting days. There were about a hundred fifty guys doing exercises, push ups, and all that sort of thing to show how fit they were. They're really keen.
To cut a long story short, at the end of the day local Maoist guerrillas, of which there are many in Nepal, came up to speak to the people who were doing the filming. Although they left us alone, they asked the British Army representative and the two Ghurka officers to go with them and "meet their hierarchy," as they put it. They were going to send them back after two or three hours, and they didn't come back. We were in this little village, and the next morning they still hadn't come back. That's when we were encouraged to go.
The recruiting business ended and we left. Once we got out, we reported what had happened. For a couple days, it was quite tense. But then all the people they had abducted were released. We weren't harmed at all, though, and I didn't want to get into the position while we were out there of It's Michael Palin's story. It wasn't. We were ignored by them. I didn't want to do anything at the time that prejudiced his chances of being released, but he's okay, and it will appear in the film.
Dave: After all this traveling, is there a part of the world you're anxious to get back to, anywhere in particular you really fell for?
Palin: No, there isn't really. I suppose I'd have to be corny and say home is where my heart is, the old thing, but it is, really. I think that's just to do with familiarity. There are wonderful places in the world, and I've seen just the most beautiful scenery and been amongst people who are as friendly and welcoming and hospitable and generally good to be with as any I could wish for, but in the end you come back for all its imperfections to home, to London, to busy cities, because that's where I've been brought up not in London, but in a city in the north of England. I'm an English city boy and I can't really get away from that.
I'm not one of those people who could go to a small French town, having lived in Manchester all their lives, and suddenly live there and take on that life. I've learned that. I love traveling, but I love coming home. So I suppose in the end I'd have to say the British Isles are where I'm happiest.
Dave: I've heard you compare the idea of travel to acting, in terms of taking on different roles but inevitably coming out of them and returning to your own life.
Palin: It is like that. I'm very curious. I'm fascinated by all aspects of life, different countries and peoples, and I'm incredibly fortunate to live at a time when I can see all these different parts of the world. I find it continually invigorating wherever I go. It might be just a slum village somewhere, but there's something I get out of that. I've been there. I've seen it. It means something to me now. I've always wanted to enjoy the personal experience of travel, rather than just somebody else describing it. I get an enormous kick out of it, and I think it's really quite important for the general balance of my life and my sanity.
It is a bit like doing Python in an odd way because you're going into an unpredictable world. It's like hearing sketches for the first time. You wonder, What is it going to be like? Somewhere I've been recently, the Northwest Frontier, you wonder, What are the people going to be like? Sometimes it's okay and other times it's just brilliant. You think, I can't believe I'm walking down this street in a place where I should be terrified of terrorism and I'm actually finding people who are being incredibly kind and generous to me. It appeals to my need to be continually diverted and distracted.
Dave: I'm sure people are always asking you about doing more work with Python. You mention in the book some interest in doing a film. Can all the people get together? Will it ever happen?
Palin: I wouldn't give you very good odds on it at the moment, no, but we never write it out. We all talk to each other. We all still get on. In a way, I suppose, we all share something that very few other people have. And I have no doubt that the humor could easily be pulled together again.
It's two things, really. One is you'd have to accept that we're not Python as it was. I'm a great believer in the fact that all six of Python were very important to the mix. Take one away and it's like taking one table leg away; you may have a perfectly good table but it's just slightly unsteady. That's a bit of a problem. [Editor's note: Graham Chapman died of cancer on October 4, 1989.] The other thing is that I'm not sure really whether you could get people away from the things they're all doing now to work for whatever time it would take. Certainly a film would take eighteen months or a couple years. I don't know whether people would commit that time. Then I think about myself: I've got another year to do this travel. Maybe Python is something I did and enjoyed doing and I'm very grateful for, but it's behind me now.
All these things come into the equation, but Python was put together by a series of lucky accidents. Lucky accidents may happen again, that's all I'd say.
Dave: If this last question isn't too painful... The Pythons notes that you are scheduled to die in 2034 while filming a documentary in the Kalahari Desert. I was wondering if you could talk at all about that?
Palin: Talk about my death?
Dave: If the news isn't still too fresh.
Palin: Well, I think it's very generous that they give me until 2034. That's a very long time.
Dave: Eric Idle got more.
Palin: Did he? Oh. Oh, well. I haven't read carefully enough.
I think that gives me ninety-one years, and if I'm able to be in the Kalahari when I'm ninety-one, that's fine. I would actually be very, very happy to fall off a camel or die of, say, a...lightly-thrown spear in my travels rather than in some home with other comedians, all of us nodding off with a rug over our knees. Die in the saddle, absolutely.
I showed Vitz my copy of The Pythons the day I got it. Flipping through the pages, he asked, "Are you going to interview them?" The idea hadn't occurred to me. It's not as if the Pythons were coming to Portland. Then again, our in-store events schedule slows to a trickle during the holidays. Why not try to set something up by phone? So let this be my official admission that Vitz done good, offering that suggestion. Michael Palin spoke from his home in London on January 2, 2004.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State