Summary: This book celebrates the group’s career with exclusive interviews, rare photographs, and an episode guide detailing the original TV shows still being aired daily across the country. Photos throughout.
The First 200 Years of Monty Python, by Kim “Howard ” Johnson 7.5
Kim “Howard” Johnson is a long-time American Monty Python fan. One of the first, he not only published a fanzine back in the ’70s, he met them at the Chicago premiere of ‘Holy Grail‘, joined them for the making of ‘Life of Brian‘ (publishing a memoir of his time in Tunisia years later) and eventually became a friend.
‘The First 200 Years of Monty Python’ is a historical compendium of Monty Python, first released in 1989 in conjunction with the troupe’s 20th anniversary. Although it mostly focuses on the television series, it also covers their origins, their writing and performing styles, and their post-‘Flying Circus’ years.
At the tail end, there is also a section that features short profiles of each of the individual Pythons, complete with exclusive interview material. In fact, the whole book is filled with a wealth of interview material that was conducted by Johnson with not only the troupe but also close associates and colleagues.
One of my favourite bits is an extended interview with Terry Gilliam, who at the time had finished ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ and was actually considering doing ‘The Watchmen’ next. That would have been cool! Ever thorough, he even interviews Hazel Pethig, the troupe’s costume designer, at great length.
For the fans, each episode is also described in detail and annotated with script-to-screen changes, trivia and behind-the-scenes anecdotal material (including a translation of Show 2’s deadliest joke). Interestingly, he spends some time discussing the then long-lost German episodes, which had been seen by very few in 1989.
There is also quite a lot of rare archival material from the Pythons’ own collections, including pictures and promotional material. Of particular note is the original fumetti short that Gilliam and Cleese worked on for ‘Help!’ magazine; it is included in full for the first time since it was original published back in 1965.
I had heard about many times before, and it was nice to read it. The story isn’t especially compelling or funny, but what is amazing about it is just how expressive Cleese could be; although slightly exaggerated, he was able to dish out all manners of emotions and facial expressions. That alone is worth the price.
There’s also a wealth of trivia and quotes (both in their own respective chapters) and Johnson lists at the end all of the Pythons’ published works as a group, individually, pre- and post-Python, including television, film, print and audio recording. And then adds other related material to fully complete the compendium.
What’s interesting (to me, anyway), is how Johnson methodically breaks down the live shows, sketches and films instead of critiquing them; this made me think of my own approach for music DVDs. His style would develop over the years, but here you can see that he hadn’t quite figured out how to handle such material.
Here he approaches it much like an archivist would.
Johnson’s approach is also interesting in that he repeats some of the info in various sections: thus, you could read each section separately and anything pertinent will be there; you don’t have to read previous sections to be in the loop. This may prove tedious for some, but it’s mighty handy as reference material.
And that’s what ‘The First 200 Years of Monty Python’ is: reference material. It’s a bit dry, but it’s covers its bases relatively well, just as you would expect from Johnson, whose account of the filming of ‘Life of Brian’ was equally thorough but lacking embellishments. Anyone looking for a 1989 perspective on Python could do worse.
Post scriptum: the book was revised for the 28th anniversary of the troupe, adding a further 150+ pages to the already considerable 269-paged tome. We will attempt to break down the not-insignificant differences between the two editions for you in an upcoming post.