Summary: Monty Python, the genius comedy troupe from Britain, single-handedly revolutionized sketch comedy and paved the way for everything from Saturday Night Live to Austin Powers. Now, in their official oral history, founding members John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin take readers behind the scenes in this no-holds-barred look at their lives and unforgettable comic works like “The Spanish Inquisition,” “Dead Parrot,” Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (inspiration for the hit Broadway musical Spamalot), and many, many more, with never-before-seen photos and rare interviews from friends and collaborators.
Monty Python Speaks!, by David Morgan 7.5
In 1998, on the eve of Monty Python’s 30th anniversary, a series of old, new and improved nostalgia was collected, (re)packaged, and marketed to the masses. Um… in celebration, naturellement. One of those shameless tie-ins, um… I mean, homages… to the legendary troupe is ‘Monty Python Speaks!’.
Assembled from various new interviews that the author conducted with the surviving Pythons (as well as their many collaborators), and recycled material from other sources, ‘Monty Python Speaks!’ puts their voices to the page to create an overview of their career from pre-Python to post-Python.
It’s essentially a thorough assemblage of Q&As and it’s all collected in a flowy sequence, with many sub-sections punctuated by Monty Python quotes. Thankfully, the book provides a list of its many participants along with small biographies to ensure that less-fanatical readers know who’s who.
For the die-hards, there probably isn’t much here that hasn’t been explored before or since – especially in the extensive six-part documentary series, ‘Almost the Truth’ , which was released for the 40th anniversary. Still, it gives a glimpse at the strong-willed personalities that fuelled Monty Python.
Graham Chapman: Deceased in 1989, Chapman is portrayed as the random element of the group – not just because of his drinking, which affected his productivity greatly, but because he would be the catalyst for some of the more brilliant material; he wouldn’t always write the bulk, but his input would transform it. He was also one of the more perceptive critics of their work.
John Cleese: The Minister of Silly Walks comes off as the most analytical and moodiest of the lot. Perhaps even the most uptight. And the most easily bored: beyond the written material almost everything else is superfluous. I liked his concession that, even though he wanted the part of Brian (to explore acting more) he knew he wasn’t the right person after seeing Graham do it.
Terry Gilliam: He’s the most loquacious yet ineloquent rebel, the one who’s always fighting the system – who is unhappy about it, but more productive for it. He’s also the outsider, the one who worked on his own the most, invariably due to the nature of his work, which was animation. The others describe him as so technically detail-oriented that all else falls to the wayside.
Eric Idle: He’s the business-savvy one of the bunch, the one who had a mind for commercialising Python. If not for him, we wouldn’t have the books, the albums, and so forth. Of course, we would also not have the musicals. Interestingly, even though he was also self-confident, and more individualistic, he would ruthlessly cut out his material when he felt that it didn’t work.
Terry Jones: He’s the passionate one, the one who would defend his views ad nauseum. Contrary to Gilliam, he was less interested in detail and was more about the vibe, making for an unusual pair on ‘Grail‘. He was very much involved in the editing of the episodes to ensure that the beats were spot on. So it was only natural that he would eventually want to direct as well.
Michael Palin: He’s the congenial one, the one that everyone likes. But this is apparently because he is loath to disagree with the others. Initially. He also has a more positive perspective than most, forgetting some of the least enjoyable experiences they’ve had together. Still, he does have a good memory for detail and provides terrific insight on Python’s history.
For all the interesting anecdotes and historical tidbits, the most eye-opening part for me was when editor Julian Doyle, gave his perspective on ‘Meaning of Life’, saying that the ending should have been right after “Mr. Creosote”, with Eric’s waiter taking place during the credit sequence.
His argument is sound: it would have kept the audience halfway in the door, only to be told off at the end. It’s so true: it would be a much stronger ending to the movie proper, plus it would play a prank on the audience at the end. Genius. Too bad Jones didn’t listen to his suggestion at the time.
I also enjoyed reading the final chapter, which talks about their 1998 reunion (which was broadcast on HBO as ‘Live at Aspen’ and subsequently on DVD) and the impressions this made on the various group members. Clearly, they still enjoyed each other’s company; their dynamic was apparently excellent.
However, the book also documents some reservations about working together again – notably from Gilliam and Palin. It is felt that, without Chapman, it’s simply not the same group and/or dynamic. There is concern about diluting their magic, of even selling out, by reuniting and rehashing their material.
…something that, weirdly enough, they would do 15 years later for their ‘Monty Python Live (mostly)’ series of shows.
Ultimately, ‘Monty Python Speaks’ is a relatively thorough and sober account of the legendary comedy troupe’s career. Even better, it’s in their own words, as they view themselves and each other. For that reason alone, it’s an enjoyable read even for those who know the stories already too well.
But it’s not an essential read by any stretch of the imagination – especially since there is now plenty of video interview material to watch instead. If one is to hear the Pythons reminisce and muse about their oeuvre, one might as well see them in 2-D and in stereo. Not on a silent, monochromatic page.