Which may be his biggest problem.
Gilliam's movies tend to be so packed with wild, relentless visual schema that watching them can be roughly akin to devouring an entire wedding cake laced with hallucinogens in one sitting. He may be the only director who could have made Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and be scrupulously true to the source material - unfortunately, that also means that the result was nigh-unwatchable. And, by Gilliam's terms, that's one of his successes. In chasing his vision, he's been dogged by one of the most dispiriting runs of bad luck this side of Orson Welles, falling prey to studio interference (Brazil, The Brothers Grimm), box-office disaster (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), his lead actor dying in mid-production (The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), and the ultimate combination of misfortune and thematic irony (his as-yet-uncompleted take on Don Quixote). Yet, to his credit, he presses on, undeterred, willing to pursue his creative muse (which I imagine looks like something out of a collaboration between Hieronymous Bosch and Basil Wolverton) down whatever bizarre rabbit holes he can dig for himself. Take Tideland, for example, which - well, let's come clean here; like almost everyone else on the planet, I haven't been able to bring myself to watch Tideland. I even borrowed the DVD from a friend this past week to bolster my research, and the damn thing remains, glowering and grinning evilly, beside my TV, hissing out a dare I haven't the intestinal fortitude to take. (I'd try and cheat a little and get my friend's opinion, but he hasn't been able to watch it either.) I mean, hell, I can scarcely think of getting past this...
Oddly, the easiest Gilliam films to love are his strictly work-for-hire pieces, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, which yoke his visual brilliance to coherent stories and moments of restraint. (That I can use the word "restraint" in describing pictures featuring Robin Williams on full-on manic mode and Brad Pitt as a googly-eyed mental patient should clue you in to the kind of sensibility we're dealing with here.) Not to imply that there isn't loads to appreciate in his other films, especially from back in the days when he still felt the need to trade on his Python associations to get his pictures made: there are few better extra-Pythonic roles than John Cleese's cameo as Robin Hood in Time Bandits and Michael Palin's shockingly terrifying villainous turn in Brazil.
(Weren't there supposed to be Beatles references in this introduction? They're starting to get rather thin on the ground at this point...)
Still and all, as difficult as Gilliam's solo work can frequently be, he deserves no small amount of admiration - through sheer talent and bluster, he alone has managed to secure himself a lasting identity apart from Monty Python.
Whereas, by contrast, we must once again look in pity and sympathy to poor Graham Chapman, who never quite eluded the Python's death grip. (Shit, now my mixed metaphors have gone reptilian. If only Monty Boa Constrictor scanned a little better...) Of course, he never got the chance - who's to say what he might have accomplished had throat cancer not claimed him at age forty-eight? - but even an accomplished mountaineer like himself couldn't manage the steep uphill climb his intra- and post-Python career presented. The mid-to-late-seventies found him struggling on two major fronts: his apparent inability to write except in collaboration and a horrific bout with alcoholism that hobbled his ability to write, period. (One of the reasons Cleese opted out of the fourth Python series was his weariness at being saddled with a writing partner who by afternoon had a hard time remembering what he'd come up with in the morning.) Many intriguing ideas died on the vine during this period (he was in the running to co-write and direct the Sex Pistols' motion picture before his unreliability pushed it into the arms of Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert, who wound up not getting it made either - more's the pity, judging by Ebert's intriguing screenplay, but that, like a good 80% of what I've posted thus far, is beside the point); scripts for projects completed but never produced, including a one-hour special for Ringo Starr (HEY, THERE'S ONE!); and what few projects did make it to various screens seemed cursed by association(s). With Bernard McKenna (a frequent collaborator who co-wrote a number of episodes of the various Doctor in the House-derived series with Graham), he came up with The Odd Job, where he was to star alongside longtime (drinking) companion Keith Moon, a potentially winning combination dashed by Moon's unavailability come shooting time, being dead and all. (Moon's role was assumed in the finished product by David Jason, a Do Not Adjust Your Set cast member who later went onto UK fame as Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses... I present the following clip, not because it's relevant, but to irritate any British comedy fans who may be reading this, as it may be the most overplayed "great British comedy" clip in the history of television:)
Chapman also happened upon another co-writer during this period, a fellow Cambridge grad named Douglas Adams. Adams' nascent talents (and willingness to put up with Chapman's excesses) earned him a place in comedy history as the only outsider (other than Neil Innes and Connie Booth, neither of whom can really be considered "outsiders") to write material for Python, albeit very little: Chapman/Adams wrote an amusingly bloody doctor sketch for Python's final episode and this morbidly funny bit from The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (0:32-2:40 in the following clip):
(Incidentally, I would strongly advise against looking up the definition of "winnet" if I were you. Some doors are not meant to be opened.)
Adams' partnership with Chapman dissolved in acrimony after a fairly short time, but not before they (and McKenna) wrote the pilot for their own post-Python sketch show. Out of the Trees aired only once, on January 10, 1976 on BBC-2, with little promotion and slotted against Match of the Day on BBC-1. Viewership was predictably pitiful and the Beeb wiped the tape shortly thereafter. (This is the onerous practice I've alluded to in my previous posts, and I may as well vent part of my spleen about it right here. Videotape was not cheap in the sixties and seventies, and British broadcasters were nothing if not parsimonious, not to mention short-sighted. Comedy [and drama and chat and music] shows fell under the banner of Light Entertainment in those days, and, as the name implied, the programs tarred with that epithet were considered ephemeral and disposable, and therefore surely had no archival value whatsoever. So, in order to defray expenses, the BBC [as well as other British broadcasters, to varying degrees] simply erased these Light Entertainment trifles so the tapes could be reused. Would you like to see the early seasons of Doctor Who? Or That Was the Week That Was? Or the full runs of Not Only...But Also, Spike Milligan's Q5, The Frost Report, At Last the 1948 Show, Do Not Adjust Your Set, or indeed almost any of the televisual fruits of the great British comedy explosion of the sixties and early seventies? Sorry, can't be done. The tapes were erased so that generations to come will be able to luxuriate in valuable historical events like the 1968 Horse of the Year Show. [In the case of those shows that were broadcast live, many of them were never taped to begin with.] All that remains of many of these shows are those segments produced on film [and not too many of those, either], audio recordings, and scripts. [Ironically, it was the Lord Chamberlain's Office, Britain's official censorship board for theater and television through 1968, who kept archives of the latter: inadvertently, it was the keepers of the blue pencil who wound up showing more respect to the greats of British comedy than the people who gave them work.] This practice went on at some level all the way through 1978; do the math and you may realize with horror that the very program that I'm sure to get around to writing about sometime in the next decade barely escaped the same fate. Several times, in fact. But we'll get to that later. There'll be more than ample opportunities to prove that British broadcasters of yore were, by and large, a load of old winnet.)
Anyway, because of this, Out of the Trees was considered lost for over three decades: only a few filmed segments and the shooting scripts for the pilot and two further unproduced episodes were known to exist, which gave it a reputation as a "lost masterpiece," a key missing piece in the storied careers of two British comedy legends (and Bernard McKenna), even something of a Holy... um... drinking vessel of some sort, can't think of the name. But! Lo and behold, the efforts of the owner of an early VCR have recently borne fruit! Finally, the full pilot of Out of the Trees is here to be seen in its entirety! And...er...well...I'm not about to say that OotT was better off "lost," but its reputation is likely to lose a bit of luster now that you can see why the BBC never bothered to let it go to series...
By the turn of the eighties, Chapman had conquered the scourge of alcoholism, embraced a much healthier lifestyle, and capped his personal triumph with a renewed partnership with John Cleese and a fantastic central performance in the title role of Life of Brian. But, outside of Python, opportunities were increasingly hard to come by. After LoB, Chapman's next big job was as part of the ensemble on NBC's short-lived The Big Show, the latest (and, to date, last) attempt to update The Ed Sullivan Show for a new generation of viewers, meaning that you could occasionally make out the figure of one of the pillars of modern comedy bobbing up in a sea of contortionists, lame singers and acrobats. But that's nothing compared to the humiliation visited upon him on November 5, 1979, where he shared a grid with Valerie Bertinelli, George Gobel and Bill Saluga on... wait for it... The Hollywood Squares. (My guess is Paul Lynde wasn't available and they had to fill their "witty homosexual" quota or else lose their funding.)
But Chapman, bless him, carried on regardless, and poured his energies into realizing a long-simmering pet project - the piratical comedy Yellowbeard. Again conceived with Keith Moon in mind for the title role (and regrettably even more dead than before by the time shooting commenced), Chapman took over the part and surrounded himself with a truly dazzling array of talent - Cleese, Idle, Peter Cook, Spike Milligan, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, James Mason, Nigel Planer (Neil from The Young Ones), David Bowie, and not only Cheech but also Chong. Chapman co-wrote the screenplay with Cook, one of the pre-eminent geniuses of British (and, by extension, any) comedy, and the ubiquitous Mr. McKenna. It should by rights have been a triumph. But alas...
Sadly, despite the talent on display, Yellowbeard goes only to show that certain strains of Pythonic humor, which had seemed so fresh and new not so long before, had begun to curdle into predictability. (Not to mention the uncomfortable preponderance of rape jokes, which makes Out of the Trees equally unpleasant to watch, but I'll be nice and assume Bernard McKenna came up with them.) Sadder still, Marty Feldman suffered a massive heart attack at the movie's Mexico City location and died because his heart had the bad form to give out during rush hour and the ambulance was stuck in traffic. A morbidly apt way to die, given the poor timing that runs throughout the movie.
After that, Chapman essentially disappeared for several years: he was nowhere to be seen until 1987, when he oddly (but somehow characteristically) took a supporting role in a CBS TV-movie, Still Crazy Like a Fox. And then, suddenly, he was back, with a quite unprecedented burst of creativity: hosting a cable-TV series, The Dangerous Film Club; co-writing a promising science-fiction/comedy pilot, Jake's Journey; embarking on a well-received lecture tour; and turning up everywhere from The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross to the cover of Spy magazine.
Then he got throat cancer (thanks in no small part to his ubiquitous pipe) and died, one day before the twentieth-anniversary of the first broadcast of Monty Python's Flying Circus. So, there we go, the elusive Beatle comparison recaptured: diminishing solo returns followed by several years' exile followed by a return to the public eye followed by an untimely death. Graham Chapman turns out to be the Pythons' John Lennon after all. I wonder if his cancer cells were fans of Catcher in the Rye.
Okay, let's try and wrap this up before we get any older, eh?
4) They know how to market themselves. What does the Python legacy entail? They were really only an ongoing concern for a total of fourteen years (from the debut of MPFC in 1969 to the release of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life in 1983). In those fourteen years they produced forty-five half-hours for British television, two forty-five minute programs for German TV, five feature films, ten record albums and five books. The first album and the first film consisted almost entirely of remakes of sketches from the early episodes of the series; two of the albums and one of the films were recordings of live performances (which, again, consisted largely of well-known sketches from the TV show), three of the albums and three of the books were promotional vehicles for the middle three films, three of the albums and two of the books were tie-ins to the series and contained varying amounts of material adapted from TV, and one of the albums was a "best of" consisting solely of material from the albums that came before it. Oddly, the only non-TV or film artifact from that period that contained no material that hadn't first appeared in Flying Circus or any of the movies was 1980's Contractual Obligation Album, produced, as the title suggests, mainly to get out of their recording contracts with Charisma Records (in the UK) and Arista (Stateside). (Even then, it wasn't entirely new - the only two tracks to feature John Cleese, "String" and "Bookshop," were sketches that predated Python, from The Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show respectively. This would indicate that Cleese was barely involved in the record and only begrudgingly took part in it, expending as little effort as possible to participate, which certainly squares with his attitude towards the troupe at other points in its history. However, more Cleese material from the sessions later turned up on bootlegs, implying that we have something else to blame COA producer Eric Idle for: obviously, he considered weak pieces like "Do What John" and "Muddy Knees" preferable.) Whew! That's a lot of not-especially-enthralling information there. Let's cleanse the palate with one of that album's highlights, which proved how finely-honed their sword of outrageousness was by 1980 - all it took was seventeen seconds to provoke a lawsuit and get this piece scrubbed from many pressings of COA:
So, yes, there was a lot of recycling going on with the Monty Python line of ancillary product. But that's not to say that these were mere mercenary toss-offs designed to exploit their gullible fan base. On the contrary; record albums and tie-in books were fairly common ways of extending the popularity of hit radio and television shows during this era - in the days before home recording and mass-marketed video (never mind file-sharing, torrents and YouTube), they were the only permanent keepsakes available to fans of these shows. Almost invariably, the books were simply reprints of scripts festooned with on-set photos and the records were taken directly from the audio tracks of the programs, and that was perfectly acceptable. Python could have followed in lockstep with that tradition and none of their fans would have registered a complaint. But, to their credit, they wanted no part of it. Their first, BBC-sanctioned album was actually a half-step away from conventionality - almost all of the material came from the first thirteen shows, but instead of taking the audio straight from its soundtrack, they were remounted and performed, radio-style, in front of a live audience - but the results were highly dissatisfying. The sound quality was weak, the audience seemingly half-interested, and the resulting product somehow worse than if it were produced the old-fashioned way. From then on, the Pythons assumed control of their spin-offs. The albums (mostly overseen by Jones and Palin) and the books (edited by Idle) were always meticulously produced and designed, with as much new material as old, and shot through with the same playful tweaking of the conventions of their respective media as their TV show. From the covers themselves -
And I own pretty much all of it.
5) It took a while, but they've finally managed to estrange themselves from each other over money. By all accounts (ho ho), business problems never seemed to be an issue with the Pythons the way they were with the Beatles. There's no Apple Boutique, no Magic Alex, no Lee Eastman, no Allen Klein in the Python mythology. Whatever forces led to the Pythons' dissolution had much to do with their growing apart creatively and little to do with finance (unless you count a touch of greed - Cleese was informed after Life of Brian that if they kept their momentum and went straight to work on another movie, they'd "never have to work again." This led them to jump into what eventually became The Meaning of Life without a clear idea of what it should be. The ensuing false starts and general frustration exposed creative fissures within the troupe, and indeed, they never did work again, at least in tandem). But no major fiduciary disputes have ever come to light; the team have had a rare degree of control over their own output, and profits appear to have been split equally between all participants.
Then along came Spamalot.
It was probably inevitable that the Broadway musical version of Holy Grail would wind up mired in confusion and bad feelings over credit and recompense. Eric Idle is unquestionably the motor behind the show - it was his concept (and don't bother saying that that concept was essentially a ripoff of what Mel Brooks did with The Producers - according to Idle, that was his idea, too), he developed the adaptation and wrote the new songs for it, thus he deserves the lion's share of the credit (or blame, depending on your point of view). The other surviving Pythons all signed off on it, it's brought their comedy (or some version thereof) to a new audience, and reinforced the brand. But once it became successful - massively so, in fact - some of them have been heard to grumble that perhaps they deserved a somewhat bigger cut of the proceeds - after all, a fair bit of their original material carried over into the show. (And let's not even talk about the indignities heaped upon poor Neil Innes.)
The grumbling finally became a high-pitched shriek this past December, after Idle "surgically removed" the voice of John Cleese from the role of God in the touring version of Spamalot, so as not to have to pay the allegedly high price he charges for voiceovers. This stung Cleese pretty badly, especially since most of his income these days is going to alimony payments. And I wouldn't even have bothered mentioning any of that here were it not for the angry Tweets Cleese posted with which he and Idle's mini-war of words reached its bilious crest:
So you can see how it fits this comparative notion I've been chasing down for three really long blog posts now, only... I can't for the life of me parse the damn thing. How is Eric Idle Yoko, exactly? Did he become a Japanese avant-gardist when I wasn't paying attention? Has he taken to performing "Nudge Nudge" from inside a bag? Is there a book of erotic lithographs of him and John du Prez floating around somewhere? Really, John, I've spent weeks constructing this massive analogy, and you have to come along and mess the whole thing up. Thanks a bundle, pal. Go play with your lemurs or something.
6) Slim Whitman sold more records in England than they did. Strewth.
And with a sigh of relief, the prelude is done. Now, on to the meat of the matter and let's see how much gristle we can pull out of it. Next time, I review the first (or second) episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus and hope to justify all this preambular blather. We shall see. Meet you back here soon, the former voice of John Cleese willing...