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.)
The dark world of the comedian is an angle that gets played up a lot. Sometimes it’s incredibly valid. Abuse, poverty, and isolation are familiar veins of experience that are mined by comedians for humor later in life. Other times the “pain” is slight and exaggerated. “I wasn’t very popular in school,” or “my parents got divorced.” I’m in no way belittling the tumult these moments can cause in a person’s life, but such experiences do not by necessity a comedian make. The late Graham Chapman, one of the members of Monty Python, would probably tell you that he’s had his troubles like anyone else but probably would be very British and not make all that big a deal out of it. However, on Mach 18, 1981, he visited the Dick Cavett Show, then airing on PBS, and what starts as a light and humorous interview, soon turns into a fascinating conversation on dealing with alcoholism, death, and what it was like to tell your parents you were gay in 1980s England.
On this evening Graham was looking quite well, sporting his trademark pipe, wearing a very colorful jacket he purchased in Australia, and politely sipping the tea the show provided him with. Cavett and guest ease into the conversation, as Graham seems to slowly gather his footing, initially providing very short, at times single word responses to Cavett’s questions. The interview begins with the superficial, with Cavett asking what American shows have made it to England, what it’s like writing Python episodes as a group, and of course, the unused names for Monty Python’s Flying Circus such as “Owl Stretching Time” and “The Toad Elevating Moment.”
What really gets the ball rolling is when Graham is asked about his acceptance speech for an award from the Sun newspaper. The Pythons were to be given an award at the same time that they were filming one of their two episodes for German television and Graham, wishing to return home, offered to collect the award on their behalf if he could return to London. So he goes to the hotel, very drunk, walks into the wrong room and drinks another drink there before finding the correct one, sits through a very long ceremony, drinking more, and then is called up to accept. Having grown bored with all of the pomp and fake humility of the evening, he stepped up to the dais and said, “I wouldn’t want to do anything at all that would detract from the dignity of the occasion,” before proceeding to scream at the top of his lungs, fall to the ground, and crawl back to his seat. He happily reported to Dick that he was on the front page of the Sun the next day and that the group hasn’t been given an award since.
Unfortunately, the light-hearted moments such as this acceptance speech that were brought on by alcohol, did not outweigh the problems that came as a result of drinking. At his peak, Graham claims to have been drinking two and a half quarts of gin every day. There was no particular incident that inspired Graham to change, rather it was watching the struggles of his friend, drinking partner, and drummer for The Who, Keith Moon struggle with sobriety before falling back into binge drinking, which would eventually kill him. Graham, who was an accredited doctor in England, decided to stop drinking cold turkey. For his first three sleepless nights of sobriety he holed himself up in his house, laid in bed, and didn’t get up save for trips to the bathroom. He would have sensations of things crawling all over him and he would start shaking. When he finally felt somewhat better he invited a pair of friends over to celebrate with a drink (tonic water for him) and ended up suffering from an epileptic fit that night. This moment was a wake-up call for Chapman when he truly realized just what kind of damage he had been doing to his body over the years.
Cavett introduces Graham’s second “struggle,” though Chapman later corrects him and insists that struggle is not an accurate word, was with homosexuality. Graham describes the process of coming out to his parents and their two very different reactions to the news. He states that his mother “took it badly. She was afraid mainly because she didn’t want to tell my father. She said it would kill him. She insisted on that point got really very angry, stamping her little feet.” He decided to give in and not tell his father that day as he had intended, but planned to do so later on. A few weeks later he called his parents to say he wouldn’t be able to visit as planned that afternoon when his father told him that his mother hadn’t been sleeping well and was clearly bothered by something. Finally he pinned her down and she had told him about Graham. Over the phone, his father said to him: “Don’t worry about it. She just doesn’t understand about these things.”
The great thing about being a comedian is the fact that with enough time and enough talent, you can take a moment of pain and turn it into your next bit of material. Graham Chapman’s particular brand of humor didn’t necessarily allow him to funnel his personal strife into his work (his next produced work was a pirate adventure comedy called Yellowbeard that he wrote with Peter Cook and was referred to by John Cleese as “one of the six worst films made in the history of the world.”), it’s clear that he was still able to turn these struggles into positives as he speaks on these topics with humor, charm, and grace in his interview with Cavett. During his time, he also attempted to help those around him as well. Thinking of those living in the more provincial parts of England who might be struggling with their own sexuality, feeling as though they were the only ones like them, Graham helped fund a newspaper called “Gay News” with the intention of showing other homosexuals that they weren’t alone. Graham Chapman sadly died far too soon, but thankfully he left behind a legacy of good deeds and inspiring comedy to be shared with this and future generations.