When the five surviving members of Monty Python are photographed nowadays, there’s always a witty allusion to the dead one: an upturned urn or a disembodied pipe. So it’s no surprise that when an old recording of Graham Chapman reading his 1986 memoir A Liar’s Autobiography was discovered, a project came together nearly as quickly as it takes to ask “What’s all this, then? Are they going to make a 2Pac hologram of Police Constable Pan Am?” Chapman’s recording became the basis for A Liar’s Autobiography, a surreal new animated movie (in select theaters and on EPIX on November 2), to which the surviving Pythons (except for Eric Idle) contributed their voices. We talked to original Python Terry Jones about Chapman’s drinking, his mum’s influence, and Terry Gilliam’s bossiness.
You’ve played a medieval historian on TV. What do you think the misconceptions about Graham Chapman and Monty Python will be 1,500 years from now?
This movie [and the original memoir] intentionally twists the facts. So what directions do you think your story will drift in over 1,500 years?
Fifteen hundred years is a long time! My God. Will human beings even survive? Well, obviously the first misconception was that Graham was straight. But, then, maybe he was straight? David, his partner, said he was quite picky. And I suppose Monty Python would be seen as a realistic documentary program.
Like a medieval tapestry interpreted as fact.
Yes, Monty Python as the Bayeux Tapestry.
Graham smoked a pipe, the classic Freudian cliché, but he did seem more buttoned up than the rest of you. Was he more reserved?
I think he was in search of himself. He was quiet during script meetings. He didn’t say very much. But I think he was looking for himself. He found himself as a pipe-smoker. That gave him confidence. Just before we did the show, he announced that he was gay, so he found himself there. And then he found himself as an alcoholic. Then he became a non-drinker. I think he was looking for himself. Maybe he was making it all up.
His parents are portrayed in the film — you perform his mother’s voice — as kind of iconically working class.
He was very proud of his background. But it was Mike [Palin] and I voicing the parents. So it was our humor.
With Python, you kind of perfected the British working-class feminine screech.
[Laughing.] I’m just thinking about our voices.
Was the way you portrayed British women based on your mom or other ladies in your life?
Well, I did look like my mum, but my mum was a sort of lady and wasn’t at all strident. But yes, it’s a product of a long, deep research. [Clears throat.]
When you guys were starting out, John Cleese’s mother was still sending him job adverts. She was still doing it in season two!
She wanted him to get a steady job.
So success wasn’t assured, even though half of you had emerged from Cambridge and the other half from Oxford. Did a degree like that carry less weight back then?
Well, obviously an Oxford degree put you in good stead. But we wanted to do other things. We didn’t want a job. Mike does a talk called Fifty Years Without a Proper Job. We just wanted to see if we could write, and we’ve had great luck.
A couple months ago, I interviewed Terry Gilliam, and he said there was a point when Python started feeling like a job a little bit. He said when you were shooting the show, you would all make fun of the director, Ian McNaughton, but on Grail, you and Terry were in charge of bossing the other Pythons around. Terry said it was quite a transition.
I tended not to boss them around. They didn’t like that. There were complaints about Terry. We were up in Scotland, standing in the mud and filth and wet up to our elbows, and he was treating us like bits of paper. “We’re not animations, Terry!” Terry was so intent on getting what he wanted.
Terry also talked about tension between the Oxford and the Cambridge camps in the group.
There wasn’t friction, but it just happened when everything was split in an opinion, it was always the Cambridge side and the Oxford side. We adopted Terry Gilliam into the Oxford set. It was just sense of humor, I think it was.
On this film, were any of you in the booth together at any point?
Michael and I were in the booth together. I don’t know when Terry or John came in. Shortly after us, I imagine.
I’ve never seen so many animated penises in one film!
[Laughs.] I didn’t notice them! Oh right, I remember one at the end.
I hope it’s not my fixation. There’s another line where Graham says Monty Python was “black and homosexual.” So is “Monty Python” a dick joke?
No, not at all! It came about because we were trying to find names for the show. And eventually we decided on Bunn Wackett Stubble and Boot, and the BBC came back and said, “No, no, no, no, no. You’ve got to have a serious name and it has to have ‘Circus’ in the title because that was the working title.” We had to decide on it that afternoon because it was printing the next day. So John said, “What about some slithery thing like a python?” And Eric said, “What about Monty?” Kind of a failed showbusiness thing. And someone said, “What about Monty Python?” And we said, “Great!” I went home and told my father and he said, “Oh, it will never work.”
Graham was drinking so much by season three — two quarts of gin a day — that John Cleese found it unbearable to be around him.
He didn’t add anything to the writing at that point.
But Cleese was the one who left the show. So the rest of you chose the guy drinking two quarts of gin over John Cleese?
No, I think Graham had given up drinking by then. No, no, maybe he hadn’t, actually! No, that’s right, we chose the drunkard rather than the sober one. [Laughs.]