The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.
Depending on how you count these things, the last official Monty Python production, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, turned 30 a few weeks ago. In those years that followed, there have been a few collaborations in the form of documentaries, a musical, and retrospectives, but with the death of Graham Chapman in October of 1989, as well as the occasional public spats between remaining members, the odds of any new material from the troupe seems pretty slim.
Today we look back at one of the earlier gatherings of Python members, post-hiatus, which occurred on February 13, 1989 at the New York City Paley Center (then known as the Museum of Broadcasting). On this date, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones convened to answer some questions about their work from some very passionate fans (“very passionate” is a nice way of saying “kind of irritating”). The three discuss what it’s like working together, some of their theories on comedy, and generally try to avoid giving a straight answer to anyone.
What’s interesting about watching a panel discussion from 1989 is the fact that there was no Internet, or DVDs, so many of the questions are from fans who just want to know basic information about things like British TV shows that never made it over here, or where the Pythons met, and other pieces of information that are just clicks away to us now. However, despite that factor there are still some interesting insights that came out of this discussion into the world of Python.
One of the first questions asked of the three was about them reuniting. They reveal that there had just been a meeting in London with everyone present, with the exception of Eric Idle, who was busy working on the American sitcom Nearly Departed, (which would eventually air for a month on NBC before being cancelled). According to Jones, there wasn’t anything too tantalizing discussed, “just sort of business stuff. We hadn’t met together for four years, felt it was about time… and then we realized why we hadn’t met in so long.”
While Jones’ little reference to the group no longer getting along with one another was brief and light-hearted, there were a few flashes of negativity throughout the event. For example, all three of them discuss the difficulties of working in this group, even early on when preparing material for the Flying Circus television show. Gilliam felt at the time that his material was not as valued by the rest of the troupe, particularly John Cleese, but that gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted in his animations. Idle expresses frustration at being the only person in the troupe who didn’t write with a partner, which meant at readthroughs he didn’t have anyone who was guaranteed to laugh at his material like the Palin/Jones and Chapman/Cleese groupings had. Another oddly tense moment happens when an audience member asks what the different working methods of the Pythons were. Gilliam describes Cleese as being methodical to the point of tedium and having “a body that he can’t control as well as his writing” which I don’t know that I totally understand, but certainly felt like a dig, before going on to describe Idle’s work method as “copying all of Mike and Terry’s ideas but doing them better.” In response, Eric did a take to the crowd, making a “where did that come from?” face.
But despite those few moments, it’s clear that the three Pythons present all have great respect for each other and their work. They all reflect fondly on their early pre-Python material, and Eric reveals, seemingly for the first time, that he was responsible for bringing Terry Jones and Michael Palin onto their first collaboration, the children’s show Do Not Adjust Your Set. When the full group of six finally came together on Flying Circus, it was clear to them all that they were working on something interesting. Jones and Idle agree that it was the writing stage that they enjoyed the most because this was the time in which there were the most laughs, and collaboration. Once it came time to film the show you were either working on a film piece, standing “in drag in the middle of the Yorkshire moors,” or you were filming the studio material to an audience that thought they were there to actually see a circus of some time.
As this was a collection of British celebrities in America, it’s understandable that the question of the differences between these two sensibilities would come up. Interestingly, the Pythons don’t see that much of a difference between the two countries’ senses of humor besides that fact that, according to Eric, “American humor pays more.” Gilliam proposes that the British are more receptive to self-deprecating humor. A British boring accountant might watch a sketch about how boring it is to be an accountant and love it because the character is “just like me.” Whereas, according to Gilliam, an American boring accountant would watch the sketch and enjoy it because the character is “just like Jim!” From this, Jones wonders if perhaps it’s for this reason that Python has made it so big in the US: they’re poking fun at English and we can enjoy it from our side of the pond.
While this was a particularly chaotic and at times frustrating seminar to watch, both for a kind of disorganization standpoint and the propensity this audience had for trying to have a conversation with the guests from their seats, it’s still great to see these three guys interact. Monty Python is one of the most important, if not the most important, comedy products of recent history and even though we aren’t getting any great revelations in this seminar, we still get to watch them be funny. And since we aren’t getting any new Python any time soon, it’ll have to do.