It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?
Monty Python’s work has inspired countless comedians and writers around the world, but their work could never be accused of being simple to describe. And so it’s appropriate that a tribute to and documentary about Graham Chapman, the only deceased member of the group, should come in a somewhat convoluted but thoroughly original form.
A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is based on the somewhat fictionalized memoir by the late Python. The film is narrated by Chapman himself, taken from the audio book of the memoir, which he recorded in 1986, a few years before his death. The action of the story is then animated, with additional voiceovers by most of the other Pythons and a “gratuitous cameo” by Cameron Diaz as Sigmund Freud.
Accompanying the film is a documentary, Graham Chapman: Anatomy of a Liar, which is itself subtitled The Story Behind the Story Behind Graham Chapman. The doc goes behind the scenes of the making of the feature, as well as showing the dedication of a memorial to Chapman at his favorite London pub, and interviews with family and Pythons about Chapman’s life and death.
Taken on it’s own, A Liar’s Autobiography is an enjoyable, slightly scattered film. Each section of Chapman’s life is animated by a different studio, telling stories from his childhood through his years of Hollywood stardom. Knowing the basics of Monty Python is required to really follow the plot of the film, and it doesn’t spend much time explaining just why Python was so brilliant and influential.
Anatomy of a Liar, therefore, is a perfect complement, grounding Chapman’s story in real life interviews and footage (real footage of Chapman and the Pythons is used sparingly in A Liar’s Autobiography). It also provides alternate perspectives on some of the stories from the feature, such as Chapman’s coming out and his struggles with alcoholism, that are as interesting to hear from those who were around him as from Chapman himself.
Most significantly, the documentary deals with the death of Chapman at the age of 48, something that is alluded to at the end of the feature film, but could not, for obvious reason, be explored further within the constraints of the style. The discussion in Anatomy of a Liar provides a sense of closure to Chapman’s story that feels necessary after watching the feature.
It’s safe to say, then, that neither film can be separated from the other. A Liar’s Autobiography feels fun but a bit shallow without the depth of the documentary, while Anatomy of a Liar will make little sense without the context of the feature. In this way, it’s the perfect Python tribute. Isolate any one area too much, and it will be nothing short of baffling. But seen as a whole, it’s a little bit genius.
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? Yes. Chapman did lead a fascinating life, and there is probably no more influential group of comedians to the modern day comedy scene than Monty Python.
What does it have to say about comedy? The comedy itself is not discussed all the much, though the film does cast light on the tradition of comedy emerging from the “Oxbridge” universities, an huge influence in British comedy that is not well known in the States.
Is it funny? In its own Pythonesque way, yes. There are fewer jokes and more flights of absurdist fancy, including an abundance of childishly bawdy imagery scattered throughout the animated film.
Can I stream it on Netflix? No. Both films are available in the US on EpixHD.com.
Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She doesn’t lie, because she is terrible at it.