As much as he loathed to say the word “Cambridge,” Michael Palin made two appearances in Harvard Square on Friday night. The Monty Python troupe member who is also a talented writer, actor, and host of travel documentaries is on tour to promote his new book Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years.
First, Palin appeared at a book talk hosted by Harvard Bookstore at First Parish church. Peter Kadzis, executive editor of The Phoenix began with a far too lengthy preamble, but then did ask some good questions of Palin. After about 30-40 minutes of chat, questions were open to the audience. The whole event took a little over an hour in crowded, well-sealed, un-air conditioned church on an inexplicably hot September day. Michael Palin’s shirt was stained with sweat and he’ll make sure his agent knows never to schedule him for Massachusetts in the late summer again. My sympathy was tempered by my own discomfort, and as soon as the talk ended I dashed out salmon-like against the lines of people forming for a book signing.
Here are the highlights of the book talk from my notes:
- Divisions in the Pythons – it’s well documented that there were opposing teams of writers in Monty Python. John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and to a lesser extent Eric Idle liked to write more conventional sketches performed in a studio. Terry Jones and Michael Palin (and Terry Gilliam) were more experimental, liked to go to open air settings and work on film. Palin believes this is because Cleese and Chapman had opportunities to work on writing for movies, while Jones and Palin had nothing else to do, thus invested all their creative experimentation into Monty Python. He believes the differences were good and added to their creative edge. When it was frustrating, Palin attributes it to the fact that Cleese, Chapman, and Idle all went to Cambridge.
- Creating the show – writing of the show was done in the teams, and then they’d sit around a table and read what they wrote. The best part was making one another laugh and it was less of concern if anyone else would like it. The actual show was filmed in 90 minutes in front of an audience, which is a considerably short period time to create 30 minutes of material when there are retakes and costume changes. Kadzis says this sounds very similar to Saturday Night Live. Palin talked about his first appearance on SNL in 1978 and how he tried to work around the monologue, something for which there’s no equivalent in UK television. He read the story from the diaries and it’s pretty hilarious but I won’t spoil it here. Later Palin spoke about SNL producer Lorne Michaels as a puppet master, someone both sharp and clever, and one who does not make alliances with particular actors or writers. The hardest part of Saturday Night Live is making the cuts, and sometimes recasting parts in the 90 minutes between the end of the dress rehearsal and the live show.
- Diary writing – Palin writes each morning for about thirty minutes about th previous day. It’s different from comedy writing in that it’s not a performance, although he quoted Virginia Woolf saying that a diary is the way you want to present yourself to the world whether you intend to publish or not. Palin claimed that no one ever would have talked to him if they knew he was keeping a diary back in 1969. Kadzis nervously asked Palin if he would write about the book talk, and Palin affirmed that he would.
- Monty Python‘s fame in America vs. Britain- It’s much more fun to be famous here because American’s value Monty Python highly. On the other hand fame is a terrible nuisance, a reward for good work the leads you into bad work.
Some of the audience questions were pretty good too, especially the one man who asked “Did John leaving the show surprise you or did it come out of the blue?” Yes, I know it’s not nice to make fun of people who are nervous of speaking in front of hundreds of people.
- On starting a diary – Came about in 1969 after quiting smoking as a way to exercise the new will power. Doesn’t write every day, especially on the exciting days when there is no time to write. Usually only write on the boring days (I can totally relate to this).
- What are your favorite Monty Python sketches? – “The Cheese Shop” and “The Fish Slapping Dance.” Palin says that “The Fish Slapping Dance” is a test of whether or not someone has a sense of humor. If they watch it and don’t laugh, they don’t have a sense of humor. “Cheese Shop” is a good choice as it also my favorite sketch and one I performed in a high school talent show.
- Cheese Shop
- Fish Slapping Dance
- Favorite Python character that he portrayed – a centurion in The Life of Brian, working in checking in people for crucifixion and seems so happy when Eric Idle says he can have freedom.
- What inspired “The Lumberjack Song” – Was writing a sketch with Terry Jones about a homicidal barber that was going nowhere, and decided to give it 20 minutes before giving up and going to the pub. Then had the idea what if this character never wanted to be a barber anyway but wanted to be something else, like a lumberjack. With this flash on inspiration, they wrote the rest of the sketch in 20 minutes, and then went to the pub.
- I’m a lumber jack and I’m okay…
The next stop was Brattle Theatre where Michael Palin introduced a special screening of And Now For Something Completely Different (1971). The crowd here was younger and there was a lot of hooting and hollering. Many people brought stuffed parrots as part of a promotion.
Palin’s comments here were brief. And Now For Something Completely Different was made as a compilation of some of the best scenes from the first two series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They actually re-shot them, shooting them on location instead of on a soundstage. Palin feels that some of the sketches were actually improved in the film version.
The hope for the film was to break into the American market, but it was not much of a success. Palin told the story at both locations that Monty Python’s Flying Circus did not catch on until shown on public television in 1974. The first station to carry the program was in Dallas “before spreading northward to the less cultured places.”
It’s been a while since I’ve watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus and even longer since I’ve seen And Now For Something Completely Different. I was familiar with all the sketches, but some I’d not thought about for quite some time such as “a man with a tape recorder up his nose,” “Hell’s Grannies,” and “The Restaurant Sketch” (the dirty fork). It was all fun and good with an enthusiastic crowd laughing and clapping along to “The Liberty Bell March” (yes I’m geeky enough to know the actual title of the Monty Python theme song).
I felt that much of the movie lacked the panache of the original performances as if the Pythons weren’t ready at that time for the move from tv to film. Many times it seemed that being able to cut from one camera to another or using odd camera angles stood in for real comic expression by the actors. It also seems that this move emphasizes the ribald, sexual nature of Monty Python humor, perhaps not coincidental since Playboy was involved in producing the movie. But these are all quibbles. Monty Python is almost always funny if not hillarious.
To conclude, here’s one of my favorite lesser-known Michael Palin sketches that was neither discussed in the book talk nor featured in the film:
It occurs to me that the whole reversal of expectations is typical of Python humor. I also like that some of them are doing silly American accents. Finally, as a bicycle commuter, I could use a superhero like this.