Zeppo = Zero? A Totally Unexamined Life

PRODUCER: Can you get some more variety into your part?Zeppo Marx, 1933

ZEPPO: How many different ways are there to say “yes”?

(Allegedly overheard during Animal Crackers Broadway rehearsals, 1928.)

“Zeppo Marx is a peerlessly cheesy improvement on the traditional straight man.” – James Agee, legendary film critic.

“Oddly enough, it proved to be Zeppo who was the most difficult to track down in terms of his post-team life. Perhaps if I had more time and money…though I expect that would have a pretty minority appeal.” –  Simon Louvish, Marx Brothers biographer.

One thing that comes from a reading list like mine that consists mostly of biographies is you get a glimpse of the difference between a well-known person’s public image and what he is like out of the spotlight. A seemingly simple, straightforward persona can hide immense depths of complexity (and vice versa).

It seems clear that no one is ever likely to write a biography of Zeppo Marx, the fourth Marx Brother and one who proved entirely superfluous and inessential to the act. So much so that he dropped out halfway through their film career and barely anyone noticed. Zeppo, with his entirely normal appearance and lack of any sort of comedic character, has always been described as the “straight man,” but the Marx Brothers never really needed a straight man, at least as that term is normally understood. Their aggressive form of comedy took on authority, pretension, and stuffiness — external targets, which did not require a traditional straight man within the team feeding them set-up lines. The Marx Brothers were three Great Comedians — Groucho, with his cigar, painted-on mustache, and endless flow of wisecracks, insults and non-sequiturs, Harpo, the gifted silent clown who communicated through exaggerated facial expressions and horn-honking, and Chico, the piano-playing sharpie with the inexplicable Italian accent — and one leftover.

The leftover has become a footnote in film history, and perhaps nothing more than a mostly-forgotten cultural punchline. “Zeppo” has become a euphemism for “unneeded.” So, who was Herbert “Zeppo” Marx, outside of his limited screen persona? This is a question that kept occurring to me as I’ve read through various Marx books and bios over the years, and Zeppo-the-real-person would pop up now and again and tug at my curiosity.

Zeppo does have his defenders, at least as a performing presence. It was an unwritten (but seemingly ironclad) rule that a musical comedy of stage or screen in the 1920s and 30s, no matter how off-the-wall or zany, had to have a romantic subplot featuring an attractive young couple. These parts are pretty bland and thankless, especially to the eyes of modern audiences, and Groucho, Harpo, and Chico were far too colorful and grotesque to play such a part. You would think that the role would fall naturally to young, relatively handsome Zeppo. In fact he has even been credited with undermining the entire nature of romantic lead, just by virtue of being a Marx Brother.

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The Four Marx Brothers, c. 1931

“Zeppo’s parts were always intended to be a parody of the juvenile role often found in sappy musicals of the 1920s-30s era. Sometimes, he would just have a few lines, and he would otherwise be reduced to standing in the background with a big smile on his face..and always stiff and wooden. In other films, Zeppo would have a more significant role as the romantic lead, but he would still always be stiff, wooden, and, yes, with a big smile on his face. Either way, he could never be considered a real straight man. He was a sappy distortion of the real thing, and sort of the gateway through which we connected with the other Brothers.” – Danel Griffin, film theorist, University of Alaska Southeast.

Joe Adamson goes on to say that Zeppo’s participation in the letter-dictating routine in Animal Crackers displays his obvious importance to the act. And Allen W. Ellis wrote a massive scholarly paper called “Yes, Sir: The Legacy of Zeppo Marx,” (for which I refuse to pay $35 to the Wiley Online Library for “24-hour access” to the PDF, enlightening as I’m sure it must be).

It’s nice to see poor Zeppo get this belated critical respect, but it is not backed up by what we see on the screen.  By their own admission, the brothers and their writers didn’t put all that much (or any, really) thought into Zeppo’s role. The letter-dictating routine is one scene in one movie. His presence in any other comedy routine in all the other movies is non-existent. Out of the five movies he did with his brothers, in only two (1931’s Monkey Business and 1932’s Horse Feathers) did he play anything close to a romantic lead…and acquitted himself fairly well. No worse than any other person playing that type of part at that time, and certainly nothing to indicate it was even the slyest of parodies. In his other three films, he played Groucho’s secretary/assistant, with a handful of unimportant lines. Not only did those films not appear to be parodying wooden, stiffly-smiling romantic leads, they went out and got other young actors to play actual wooden, stiffly smiling romantic leads. It didn’t even seem to occur to them to fit Zeppo into that role each time, where maybe he could poke fun at its conventions from within and be a real team member.

No, he didn’t have much to do because, historically, the fourth Marx Brother never had much to do, and no one was interested in changing the long-established procedures. Continue reading

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“Deck Officer! Deck Officer!”: An Autobiographical Journey Through Star Wars Toys, Part 2

“Sir, your tauntaun will freeze before you get to the end of this blog post…”

“Then I’ll see you in hell!”

 Yes, I was a slight latecomer to the Star Wars universe. I was a child of The Empire Strikes Back, but I was keenly aware Empire was a sequel. I knew I had missed the boat on the original (which I referred to simply as “Old Star Wars”) and ached to see it. The gap was filled somewhat by my Star Wars storybook, which told the story of the first film through lots of lavish photographs and fairly advanced and detailed text for a young reader. (The book-and-cassette read-along version helped, too, as I dutifully turned the page when I heard the chimes.) The storybook also contained some material that was cut from the final film, including the famous lost Luke-Biggs dialogue scene.

This was my only reference point for the original Star Wars

This was my only reference point for the original Star Wars

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I distinctly remember the Empire illustrated storybook had its publication delayed for some reason, and my mom had to special order it from the mysterious “Random House,” which I pictured as a literal house full of storybooks. That Empire storybook and the excellent Marvel comics adaptation helped keep the plot and visuals fresh in my mind once Empire left theaters. The things we had to resort to in those dark days before home video…

The Marvel comics adaptation served as my "home version" of Empire

The Marvel comics adaptation served as my “home version” of Empire

The collecting fire was fueled by the TV commercials, which were in constant rotation during after-school and Saturday morning shows. They usually featured a pair of bowl-haired kids in 70s turtlenecks playing on a perfectly landscaped “backyard” set, making up atrocious dialogue (I still say “look both ways, dewback!” to myself as I approach intersections to this day), and failing to pull off C-3PO’s British accent.

“Playing Star Wars” was a common activity — but you could go down one of two paths, which we called “Real Life” or “Action Figures.” “Real Life” meant pretending to be the characters and acting things out. Actually, we were not the real characters, but rather the real characters’ kids. This was at my insistence. I could pretend to be in a galaxy far, far away, but I could not pretend to be any age other than my own. I was a peculiar child. (Or was I prophetic? This was years ahead of the “babyfication” fad that swept pop culture later in the decade.) Characters were assigned to my neighborhood crew based on age, gender and hair color. I was dark-haired so I got to be Han, Jr., Isaac had kind of dirty blonde hair, so he was Luke, Jr., Susie was a girl, so she was Lil’ Leia, and Mikey was three-and-a-half, so he played whatever he was damn well told, usually something demeaning. Continue reading

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Full-Course Kenner: An Autobiographical Journey Through Star Wars Toys, Part 1

KENLOGThere’s no big Star Wars-related milestone that inspired me to write a little bit (or not-so-little bit) about the line of Star Wars Kenner toys that were such a massive part of my childhood. The original three movies are 37, 34, and 31 years old, we won’t see a new film under the deal with Disney until at least the end of 2015, so things are pretty quiet in the Star Wars universe.

What set me off down this path was actually a podcast — The Star Wars Minute, hosted by Alex Robinson and Pete the Retailer. The concept behind star wars minutethe podcast is these two Star Wars geeks around my age (closing in on 40) dedicate each episode to a single minute of the original Star Wars movie. (I still have trouble calling it A New Hope or Episode IV.) A typical episode runs between 12 and 15 minutes, and it’s better than it sounds. They go into behind-the-scenes trivia (most of which I know, and I tend to yell corrections at my iPod when they flub something) and banter with their weekly guest, in addition to analyzing the minutiae of the film sixty seconds at a time. I may be biased, but I don’t see this working with any other film series. There’s a certain richness to the Original Trilogy that latter-day CGI-fests can’t match (terrific as some of those films are.)

Star Wars Minute has moved on from Star Wars, and are a ways into The Empire Strikes Back (they have promised to hang it up without doing the dreaded prequels), and here’s my beef: they have remarked numerous times that they have received complaints about digressing too much into discussion of the Star Wars toys. It surprises no one that these complaints come from Generation II of the Star Wars fan base.

Generation I are the people who fell in love with the Star Wars movies during their original theatrical run (1977-83), and aside from yelling occasional corrections at their iPods, are content to bask in nostalgia and not rock the boat too much. Generation III is everyone from toddlers through high-schoolers who were born or began to watch the films after the “Special Edition” re-releases in 1997 and are totally uncritical and accept the series as a whole, prequels and all. New Generation III’ers are being made each day (welcome!).

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Generation II are the nitpicking assholes. The millennials. The Gen-Y’ers. The eldest of them maybe got taken to Return of the Jedi as an infant and breastfed through it. They usually have older siblings or younger parents who were Generation I and got them into it…and then they really ran with it. They played all the video games, gobbled up the “Expanded Universe” novels and comics, and re-watched the movies endlessly on video. They are the ones who began to fetishize Boba Fett beyond all reason. They’re mostly in their mid-twenties to early thirties these days, and they’re the type who actually e-mail complaints to podcasts. Which is fine, but when they say the toy discussions should stop, that’s where I have to step in and invoke a little Gen I seniority.

Generation II have never existed in a world without home video. To Gen I, the toys were the only way we could keep the movies alive in our heads. We squeezed in as many viewings as we could at the theater, and once it finished its run, we hoped it would show up on TV now and then.

In the meantime, we had the toys. The wonderful, wonderful toys produced by Kenner from early 1978 through 1985, which fired the imagination like nothing else could. Continue reading

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Books of the Holy Bee, 2013 — Part 2

Five Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

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For such an historic event, I can’t seem to find any books about Hurricane Katrina that detail the events in a straightforward way. Some get all science-y, describing the meteorological features of the storm itself, the engineering of the levees, and other things way over the head of a dumb bunny like myself. Many (many) more get all sociopolitical-y, describing in long-winded detail the economic gulf between class and race in New Orleans, and the government’s response (or lack thereof) in the aftermath of the disaster. Very few give a general narrative, or overview of exactly what happened to the city over those few days in August 2005. The human moments and survival, or non-survival, stories that make for the most gripping reading are sprinkled through these books, but never take center stage.

Five Days At Memorial has all the elements I’m looking for, but focused in on a single location. It’s the story of Hurricane Katrina told through its impact on one building and its occupants — Memorial Medical Center in downtown New Orleans. Within hours of the storm’s landfall, the building had no power, no plumbing, and no ground access to anywhere due to the massive floods that turned streets into rivers.

We are a wired society, folks, no two ways about it. Lose electrical power for a few hours, and everyone goes into Little House on the Prairie mode, lighting candles and playing board games and having a fine old time. Lose it for more than a day, and it’s Road Warrior — society shits it collective pants in a shuddering seizure, grinding to a halt as people loot, rape and riot. Power loss is particularly catastrophic in a hospital. Respirators, monitors, climate control, and almost every piece of life-preserving equipment all plug into an outlet. Which is why hospitals always have back-up generators. Now why a city that’s below sea level and has suffered catastrophic floods in the past would choose to place a major hospital’s emergency generators in the basement is something of a head-scratcher. Generators under several feet of water do not operate at peak efficiency. In fact, they do not operate at all.

So Memorial became a hot, humid prison awash in human sewage, and forced the hardy souls who were stuck there to wait for days in hope of rescue. Helicopters and boats were limited in number and capacity, needed by thousands all over the city, and poorly coordinated to begin with. Not only did Memorial have to contend with harrowing physical circumstances, some of their none-too-spry patients left them with ethical dilemmas as well. Who gets priority rescue — those in the worst shape and closest to death, or those with a better chance for a longer life? What do you do with hospice patients who would be gone in a matter of days, hurricane or not, and now have no respirators or pain-killers to ease their way out? Do you force them to linger painfully, or put them out of their misery? If the latter, at what point in the ordeal is it acceptable, and which ones? Who decides? And who actually does the deed?

The Memorial staff had to answer all of these questions, act upon their decisions under extreme duress, and live with the consequences. Fink does a great job at telling their stories without editorializing or moralizing, and makes me grateful for my fully-functional, above-sea-level electrical grid.

(Whatever happened to “fink” as an insult, anyway? You don’t hear it much anymore.) Continue reading

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Books of the Holy Bee, 2013 — Part 1

Since I’ve retired from compiling a best-of-the-year music list, I only have one area of cultural ephemera left to quantify, and that’s books. And I’m doing a pretty lousy job at that, to be honest. I was so embarrassed by the garbage I read in 2012 (both of Michael Caine’s autobiographies? Really?), I didn’t bother to post a list.

2013 was a little better. I finally warmed up to the concept of the Kindle, after eyeing it suspiciously from across the room for several months. I’m no Luddite technophobe, but not turning paper pages felt like I was somehow betraying the bibliophile oath. The feeling died as I realized my shoulder bag did not have to make me list to the side like a tugboat taking on seawater due to the weight of several books anymore if I just used the Kindle. (My vaguely tugboat-ish shape is another issue entirely). Speeding that feeling to its grave was the acquisition of an iPad this past fall, which makes Kindle reading feel a little more book-like due to its larger size. Now I’m riding the narcotic rush of clicking one button on Amazon and having a new book materialize instantly. It doesn’t even feel like I’m spending money…

My cripplingly expensive clicking has at least resulted in a Books of the Year list that consists entirely of books published this year, without being padded out by books that came out earlier (often years earlier) and only recently stumbled upon.

Let’s begin…

Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburncash

What struck me most forcefully about the new Cash biography is that it exposed the terrific Walk The Line film as almost complete fiction. Of course, it is naive to believe that biopics are a straight re-telling of facts, but Cash’s story related on film has only a nodding acquaintance with the reality as detailed by Hilburn. The circumstances surrounding Cash’s discovery by Sam Phillips, his meeting June Carter, their courtship, and his much-ballyhooed 1968 “clean-up” were not only fictionalized, but just a biscuit away from pure fantasy.

Almost no great artist can stand the biographer’s scrutiny with their halo intact. People who create at high levels tend to be addiction-prone, incredibly selfish, lacking impulse-control skills, and make life difficult if not downright hellish for those around them. The Cash myth is that he went through his pill-popping “wild years,” then cleaned up and became the avuncular St. Johnny, pals with Billy Graham, and ingester of nothing stronger than black coffee. The reality is that he remained incorrigible and unpredictable, and his continued substance abuse led to the health problems that plagued his final decade and hastened his demise at the not-too-old age of 71.

Johnny Cash: The Life is no hatchet job or expose. It is a scholarly examination of a very complex individual. The negative aspects of a personality are magnified when there is no self-awareness (in other words, assholes who don’t know they’re assholes are the worst kind). Cash was painfully aware of his shortcomings, and I feel that his positive inclinations won out by the end of his story, as we hope they do for all of us. This victory was made possible, in his view, by his religion and treating his life as a spiritual journey. As cloying and hokey as that sounds (I cringed writing it), there’s no other way to put it, and there’s no separating the man from his faith. To his eternal credit, he practiced religion the way it should be practiced — without judging others (he knew better than that), with a sense of humor, humility, and a fierce intelligence. Most importantly, he subjected his faith to constant, rigorous questioning and probing. (He even wrote a work of religious scholarship — a biography of the apostle Paul titled Man In White.)

Oh, and he did some pretty good songs, too. Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 6: Eric Idle

1305-ericidle.gl_0058-WEB-679x1024Although  ERIC IDLE was actually the second-youngest Python (Palin has the distinction of being the youngest by only a few weeks), of all the Pythons he’s the one who projected an aura of youthful rebellion. Cleese, only four years older by the calendar but light-years away in demeanor, might as well have been his father. He had rock-idol hair past his shoulders during the Python years, and even though it was mostly kept pinned under the wigs of his characters onscreen, the viewer sensed a certain anti-authority wickedness in his eyes.

Idle had none of the fuzzy, free-spirited anarchism of Jones & Gilliam, nor the warmth of Palin. You got the sense you didn’t want to piss him off. His writing and performances were more sharp-edged, and he quickly garnered the title “The Sixth Nicest Python.” With the Cleese/Chapman and Jones/Palin writing partnerships established early within the group (and Gilliam off doing his animations), Idle wrote solo. He didn’t mind, he said, but it did make it twice as hard to get his stuff in the show because he didn’t have a partner acting as a sympathetic laugh-track during group read-throughs. idle younger  

As the group branched into other media, Idle began building a niche as the “musical” Python — he was a decent guitarist and had a knack for catchy, witty lyrics. Many of the more memorable Python songs came from him, including Life of Brian’s mighty “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life,” which has practically replaced “God Save the Queen” as the British national anthem. (Idle’s collaborator on some of the melodies was composer and arranger John DuPrez, who scored Brian and The Meaning of Life, and provided the music for Idle’s Spamalot, see below.)

Idle, like Cleese, has raised some eyebrows (my own included) for seeming to be non-discriminating with many of the projects he’s chosen over the last 25 years or so, leading to accusations of money-grubbing. Idle himself has sometimes played on this, naming his two concert tours the “Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python Tour” and the “Greedy Bastard Tour.”

However, on his highly interesting website (well, highly interesting to me — it’s mostly his “reading diary”), he points out that the majority of his recent projects have been taken on with no expectation of profit, and if you really break down his choices, a lot of his more dubious stuff was something that may have seemed genuinely interesting at the time, or was done as a favor to a friend. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, shall we?

cash dvdBEST PROJECT: The Rutles — All You Need Is Cash

TV movie, first broadcast on NBC, March 22, 1978.

Rutland Weekend Television was part of the first wave of Python solo projects, coming to BBC screens in 1975, around the same time as Cleese’s Fawlty Towers and the pilot episode of Palin’s Ripping Yarns. Written by and starring Idle, and co-starring Neil Innes (another performer steeped in music and comedy — he was the leader of the quirky British cult act Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band), it was a sketch show based around the premise of being “Britain’s smallest television network” (a premise familiar to fans of Canada’s SCTV which began a year or so later). Under-staffed and low budget, the show came and went in two abbreviated seasons and hasn’t been seen much since. Idle himself owns the rights to the show, and has indicated he has no intention of re-issuing them in any form. So what is Rutland Weekend Television’s lasting legacy? The greatest Beatles parody/homage of all time, The Rutles.

The Rutles started life as a brief sketch on RWT, featuring Idle and Innes performing an original, note-perfect recreation of the circa-1964 Lennon-McCartney songwriting style called “I Must Be In Love.” It might have gone no further, but when Idle was the guest host of Saturday Night Live in the fall of 1976, he shared some clips from RWT. The Rutles caught the attention of SNL producer (and Beatles super-fan) Lorne Michaels.

There was always a mutual admiration between Python and SNL, despite their different approaches to sketch comedy. The Python shows were meticulously written over a period of months, rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed, then filmed and edited tightly, weeks ahead of airtime. An average SNL episode was written on the fly in a night or two, rehearsed once (twice if there was time), and thrown at the public, ready or not, live every Saturday night. The story goes that Chevy Chase met Lorne Michaels while both were in line to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The younger SNL camp  idolized the Pythons, and the Pythons respected the fearlessness of SNL (they said it reminded them of their early days doing nerve-wracking live revue at their universities). Idle and Michael Palin guest-hosted several times each in the show’s first five seasons. 22RUTLES1_SPAN-articleLarge Lorne Michaels believed there was a lot of potential in The Rutles, and produced a TV movie built around them — All You Need Is Cash. Presented as a fake documentary, Cash fleshed out the Rutles “story” from inception to break-up. From the grainy black-and-white of postwar Britain, through the colorful Pop Art and psychedelic eras, and finally the dawn of the cold, gray ’70s, Cash captured the feel of a “rockumentary” perfectly. (Just as RWT foreshadowed the more well-known SCTV, Cash beat This Is Spinal Tap to the punch by several years.) Each era got a few Innes songs that sounded so much like Beatles songs they circulated as Beatles “outtakes” on a few bootlegs. Creating style pastiches of early Beatles stuff is relatively straightforward — songs like “Hold My Hand,” “Ouch!” and “Number One” faithfully matched the energy and innocence of the early days. The band’s later, weirder era was probably more of a challenge, but the challenge was met. “Penny Lane” is recast as “Doubleback Alley,” “All You Need Is Love” is echoed by “Love Life,” and the psychedelic epic “I Am The Walrus” meets its doppelganger in “Piggy In The Middle.” And there are several others, each of them charming and matching the sound and feel of a different Beatles song…without ever becoming an outright Weird Al-style parody or stealing any of the original melodies (Innes had to go to court to prove it.) Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 5: Michael Palin

2011-02-11-MichaelPalinserious3Out of all the comedy legends the up-and-coming John Cleese rubbed shoulders with in the late 1960s, there was none he found funnier than the far less well-known MICHAEL PALIN. In fact, Cleese’s desire to work with Palin was the core of what became Monty Python.

The youngest Python has remained eternally-youthful looking. He played most of the meek and mild characters on the Flying Cirucs – the shopkeepers, the accountants, the milkmen. Ones that were particularly hilarious when playing against Cleese’s towering monstrosities and other more grotesque characters, though he could also do a bit of grotesque himself (see Ken Shabby). He excelled at smarmy game-show hosts and sunny young optimists, like Reg Pither, the cheerful bicyclist of the only Python episode that told a single story all the way through, season three’s “Cycling Tour.” His overall aura of amiability has earned him, out of all six Pythons, the title of “The Nice One.”

And therein lies a problem. How am I going to rip one of the “nicest men in Britain” a new one over his crappy projects? I’m not, of course. Like his Python writing partner Terry Jones, Palin is not responsible for anything that can be considered truly wretched. He has maintained a high standard, so even his “Worst Project” below will merely receive a gentle “it wasn’t for me.”

He’s done a lot of stuff for British TV (documentaries on railroads and art history, and the teleplay for an autobiographical TV movie called East of Ipswich) that has received glowing reviews across the pond, but didn’t get much play stateside. In fact, one of his early projects with Jones, a six-episode mini-series called The Complete and Utter History of Britain (London Weekend Television, 1969), is almost entirely lost, as it was common practice among British TV networks to erase shows already broadcast in order to re-use the videotape. Very thrifty, but tons of classic stuff exists only in the memories of those who saw them the first time. Re-runs did not exist. By a stroke of cosmic luck, this policy ended at the BBC just a few weeks before Monty Python’s Flying Circus went into production. I shudder to imagine what almost happened.

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None of the Pythons came to Flying Circus in mid-1969 as a TV rookie. Even at the tender age of 26, Palin had already hosted a pop music show (Now!, only broadcast in Wales — his first post-college gig), written for the esteemed Daily Show of his era (The Frost Report) and several other comedy/variety shows, co-created, co-wrote, and starred in a cutting-edge children’s show (Do Not Adjust Your Set) that adults loved as well (especially Cleese and Chapman), and was given free reign with kindred spirit and Chaucer expert T. Jones to write The Complete and Utter History…

The Complete and Utter History of Britain put Palin’s Oxford history degree and already-solid TV resume to good use by wondering what it would look like if television were around to cover all of British history. (Just reading about it in one of my Python books as a high-schooler inspired me to create a similar video project for history class — what if CNN covered World War One? The result shamelessly ripped off Python but also, I’m proud to say, had some original bits of anarchic comedy and also lots of factual info about WWI. Like The Complete and Utter History…its current status is “mostly lost.”) The Complete and Utter History… was a watershed moment for Jones and Palin, who chafed in small supporting parts and were dismayed to see their writing botched by actors and a director who just didn’t “get it.” Maintaining creative control by writing and performing became one of the underlying philosophies of Monty Python. The less-than-stellar result also led directly to the formation of the Python team. When the credits of last episode rolled, John Cleese, who had an open offer from the BBC to do a series, called up Palin and said bluntly, “I just saw Complete and Utter History. Since you obviously won’t be doing any more of those…let’s do something together.” The rest is history… Continue reading

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