The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 1: Graham Chapman

My website stats have proven conclusively that the most popular segment of this little blog has been “The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles.” In the true spirit of sequels, I will now take the same basic premise and turn it into something that will likely prove somewhat less popular. Why not take on the solo careers of “The Beatles of Comedy”?

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Many collectives of funny folk have been referred to as “The Beatles of Comedy” — from the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players of Saturday Night Live to the cast of Seinfeld. But the group that has truly earned the title is the one that earned it from the Beatles themselves — Monty Python. They were shooting their very first episodes for the BBC in August of 1969, just as the last notes of Abbey Road were being committed to tape and the hassled, harried Apple board meetings were growing particularly hostile. George Harrison has said many times that he believes the impish Spirit of Genius vacated the dying rock band at this moment, and infused itself into the comedy troupe just being born.

As a group, Monty Python produced 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, four feature films, and several original books and comedy albums. They hung up their Gumby boots in 1983, but well before that, the six members had begun concurrent solo careers which continue to this day (well, except for one — see below.) Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin have produced some very creative and funny works of art — and some dreck.

Here’s the format for our little examinations: Only projects that the individual Pythons had a direct hand in creating will be considered. This means writing or co-writing, directing, producing, or any combination thereof. If we expanded our project to include instances where they simply took an acting job for a paycheck, the “worst” portion would be impossible to sort through, especially concerning John Cleese and Eric Idle. (Every non-superstar actor has to take roles to pay the bills from time to time, but it pains me to say that Idle and Cleese have been particularly non-discriminating and mercenary in this regard, popping up in some of the most notorious turkeys of the last twenty years.)

And unlike the solo Beatles, we are not limiting ourselves to one medium. The solo Pythons have written and/or directed feature films, created TV series, written children’s books, self-help books, novels, and scholarly history books, and produced Broadway musicals, to name just a few endeavors.

There will be Best Project and Worst Project, followed by Should Probably Avoid, and to end on a positive note, a Worth Checking Out. This format will be adhered to strictly, except for the times when it’s not.

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GRAHAM CHAPMAN is known to casual fans these days for 1) being gay, and 2) being dead. (“Stone fucking dead,” as Cleese once described him at a Python retrospective.) Number 1 has nothing to do with number 2. It was plain old throat cancer that got him in 1989, but when a homosexual died in the ‘80s, it was assumed it was due to AIDS. Certainly not so in Graham’s case. He was killed by his damn pipe, which he began smoking as an undergrad at Cambridge. (“I found a pipe extremely useful, because when someone said something I didn’t understand, I could puff on it and appear very deep and thoughtful.”)

When he was alive, he was known for 1) being gay (he was out of the closet at a time when few public figures were), and 2) being a raging alcoholic. Number 2 might have had something to do with the difficulties of Number 1 in that day and age, but more likely it stemmed from being a fundamentally shy person needing a little “liquid courage” to get through his stage performances as a young amateur revue performer, and it quickly hardened into an addiction that spiraled out of control. He rationalized it all by saying he was a doctor and could monitor his habits. (Yes, he really was a doctor — he received his medical license just before deciding on a career in show business.)

Being sketch comedy, no one on the Flying Circus TV show limited themselves to what types of parts they played, but they all seemed to gravitate to certain roles. Chapman specialized in paternal or authority figures such as The Colonel, or — best of all — completely unhinged lunatics.

Two of the four Python films had an actual narrative thread, requiring a strong central performance to anchor them, and Chapman nailed them both. His King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail utilized his ability to be regal and commanding, and his Brian in Life of Brian had a focus and nuance not seen in his previous Python work — he had quit drinking a couple of years before Brian went into production, and it showed. Dr. Chapman had finally stepped in.

As a writer, the other Pythons admit he was not a workhorse. They stop short of saying “lazy,” and Cleese, who was his usual writing partner, diplomatically says his contributions were of “quality, not quantity.” For example, he was the one who came up with randomly screeching “BURMA!” in the midst of the “Penguin On The Telly” sketch, and that is worth its weight in gold. (“Why did you say ‘Burma’?” “I panicked.”) Cleese also stated that Chapman was a good sounding board and judge of what would work in performance. When they were writing the famous “Cheese Shop” sketch, Cleese would stop every few cheeses and ask, “Gra, is this really funny?” and Chapman would calmly puff and say “Yes, get on with it.”

How did he fare with a solo career? Fitfully. A lot of projects went unrealized or unreleased, and the ones that made it out for public consumption either reached a very limited audience or ended up being not what he’d intended to produce.

Except for his autobiography, which was exactly how he wanted it.

BEST PROJECT: A Liar’s Autobiography, Vol. VIA_Liar's_Autobiography_(Graham_Chapman_book)

Published by Methuen Books, 1980.

“[Graham] gave an interview…in which he told a story that was so fantastic, something about the fact that I’d hidden his pipe and he chased me across the studio floor and rugby-tackled me and sat on my head!…I read it and thought ‘He’s crazy!’ He had no capacity a lot of the time of really knowing what had happened and what hadn’t.” — John Cleese.

So if everyone knows this about you, why bother even trying to distinguish what had happened and what hadn’t? Chapman’s extremely entertaining memoirs can be divided into three writing styles:

1) Verifiable, fact-based reminiscences. His tale of quitting drinking and going through the physical withdrawal process is quite harrowing.

2) Anecdotes told the way he remembers them, but not the way anyone else involved remembers them. (One of the best sequences in the book is about his coming-out party in the late ‘60s, where he told all of his friends about his sexual orientation. He portrayed Eric Idle in this scenario as an innocent naif who had to have homosexuality explained to him. Idle has been publicly stewing over this mischaracterization ever since. Not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the book, Eric.)

3) Outright fantasy.

All three styles are shuffled together, often within the same paragraph. If you want a straightforward first-I-worked-here-then-I-worked-there showbiz memoir, by all means, pick up a copy of Regis Philben’s book. If you want to be amused and confounded, go with Chapman’s book, which is true to the absurd “stream of consciousness” spirit that drives the best Monty Python material.

yellowbeard-movie-poster-1983-1020208911WORST PROJECT: Yellowbeard 

Released by Orion Pictures, 1983.

Keith Moon, the human tornado that was the drummer for the Who, had always wanted to star in a pirate movie. His favorite film was Treasure Island and he drove acquaintances batty with his constant impressions of Robert Netwton, the classic Long John Silver. His drinking buddy, Graham Chapman, was blearily amenable, and began batting around ideas with frequent collaborator, veteran British TV writer Bernard McKenna. Not a bad idea, really…a broad, bawdy comedy, but with the epic sweep of an old MGM sea-dog swashbuckler. Unfortunately, no one in the hedonistic late ‘70s had the discipline to really pull it all together.

By the time the film went before the cameras in late 1982, Moon was four years dead, Chapman was clean and sober, studio executives and budget issues had left their grimy pawprints all over the project, and the script had been through at least four major drafts…and was still a mess. (“The worst script I’ve ever seen,” Cleese remarked. Didn’t stop him from joining the cast, and I’m sure he’s seen — and accepted — worse since.) Not even a version written with British comedy legend and Python idol Peter Cook could salvage this semi-random concoction of low- and lower-brow rape and excrement jokes hanging on the thinnest framework of a piratical treasure hunt adventure.

The final product combines players from Monty Python (Chapman, Cleese, Idle) and the Mel Brooks films (Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn) with some distinguished British actors (James Mason, Michael Hordern, Susannah York) and throws in — for no earthly reason other than some Hollywood suit made funding dependent on it — Cheech & Chong in an appearance that defines “tacked on.” When all was said and done, Chapman professed his disappointment in the results, saying it was not what he originally envisioned. (Adding insult to injury, Marty Feldman died of a massive heart attack just before production wrapped in Mexico City. The elevation of the region proved a deadly combination with Feldman’s lifelong chain-smoking. John Candy died under the exact same circumstances during the filming of the even-worse Wagons East! twelve years later.)

Who’s to blame for this fiasco?

1) The Studio? They’re the easiest target. The budget was criminally low for something that was supposed to be an epic, but Chapman, as producer, went ahead anyway. Shoehorning the somehow still-popular at the time Cheech & Chong into the film was really the studio’s biggest crime. Additionally, Chapman complained about being shut out of the editing process. But the film still wouldn’t have been a masterpiece if the tiresome stoner duo had been excluded, nor would some editing tweaks have salvaged it. Oh, and New Wave musician Adam Ant was supposed to be the romantic lead. He dropped out due to the endless production delays, to replaced by Sting…who was nixed by the studio for being “too British.” (This was right before The Police’s Synchronicity went ballistic. Good call, Orion. No wonder you went bankrupt.) They ended up with the bland Martin Hewitt, to no one’s satisfaction, least of all Hewitt’s, who was frankly stunned at being cast instead of Sting.

2) The Director? Getting warmer. Mel Damski was a made-for-TV director through and through, framing everything as if it were going to be viewed on a 16-inch screen with rabbit ears. Actual sailing ships on loan from MGM, and beautiful Mexican locations, were rendered as flat and stale as a Mad TV sketch. Not to mention the clumsy staging and awkward timing (maybe there’s something to Chapman’s editing complaints after all).

3) The Script? Ding ding ding! Winner, or rather, loser. It starts and ends here. An early draft was published, along with Chapman’s self-penned novelization, in 2005 as Yellowbeard: High Jinks on the High Seas (catchy, no?), and nothing in it was all too different from what ended up on the screen. The jokes are mostly lazy and sophomoric, there’s no real structure, the characters are broad and one-note, and the wheels come off entirely in the third act. All of these criticisms are hallmarks of sketch comedy writing, and Chapman, McKenna, and Cook reveal too much of their roots as sketch comedy writers. There are just enough funny lines and ideas for a ten-minute sketch, but it’s inflated to feature length. Just goes to show a movie idea born out of a bottle of gin and the enthusiasm of a crazy-ass rock drummer should not always be shepherded to the screen.

Yellowbeard’s latest DVD release has a big ol’ picture of Cheech & Chong on the cover. I guess that’s the kindest way to remember it.7069214

The film does have its defenders, as over a hundred(!) 5-star Amazon reviews prove. This group is mostly made up of those those who think Benny Hill is the pinnacle of British comedy, or those who caught it as teenage insomniacs when it played endlessly on Showtime at 2:00 am through the ‘80s. If you decide to give it a shot, you can at least enjoy the amusing performance of Peter Cook (who gave this blog its name) as an addled British nobleman, and you get to hear renowned thespian James Mason say “tits.” So there’s that.

SHOULD PROBABLY AVOID: The “books” of Graham’s previously unpublished material put out posthumously by Jim Yoakum, yet another writing partner. (Chapman collected collaborators like Beanie Babies, including a young pre-Hitchhiker’s Guide Douglas Adams.) The three slim volumes, Graham Crackers: Fuzzy Memories, Silly Bits, and Outright Lies (1997), Ojril: The Completely Incomplete Graham Chapman (2000), and Calcium Made Interesting: Sketches, Letters, Essays, and Gondolas (2007) were a well-intentioned tribute to Chapman’s genius, but they make tedious reading. There has to be a better tribute than rifling his files and patching together his rejects, old interviews, and some lecture notes.

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WORTH CHECKING OUT: Actually, there is a better tribute out there. In 2012, an animated film version of A Liar’s Autobiography was released. Each of the chapters was done in a different style by a different animation studio. It was narrated from beyond the grave by Graham himself (thanks to recordings made for an audiobook version), and all of the other Pythons provide the voices. Well, all but one. Idle, still insisting he knew what “homosexual” meant in 1967, huffily sat this one out. (You can stream it from Netflix or Amazon.)

oddjobChapman’s non-Yellowbeard film as producer-star, the dark comedy The Odd Job, was also co-written with Bernard McKenna, and went almost entirely unseen in the U.S. on its very limited release in 1978. Chapman stars as a sad sack whose wife is leaving him. He contemplates suicide, but is too afraid to do the job himself. So he hires an odd job man (British sitcom star David Jason in a role intended for…Keith Moon) to bump him off when he’s least expecting it. The plan hits a snag when he reconciles with his wife, but can’t call off the odd job man. Low-key, urbane, and gentle where Yellowbeard was loud, stupid and grotesque, The Odd Job deserves a wider audience. (It won’t get it anytime soon. Not streaming and no DVD. Just VHS, with a big ol’ picture of David Jason on the cover, and Graham nowhere to be seen.)

Some of Chapman’s best work in the last few years of his life was on the lecture circuit. His anecdotes about working in comedy, his struggle with addiction, and the escapades of his personal life were received eagerly by college students and comedy fans. There were also Keith Moon stories. Lots of them. Audio recordings have surfaced, and were put out as the albums Spot The Loony (2001) and Looks Like Another Brown Trouser Job (2006). Some sub-VHS quality video of the Trouser Job material was put out as a DVD, apparently available only through Netflix.

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ALSO: Chapman, McKenna and Adams attempted their own sketch comedy show, Out Of The Trees. It never got past a single airing of its pilot episode on the BBC in 1976, but you can see it on YouTube. Interesting to see what might have been.


ANNOYING LAST-MINUTE ADMISSION: 
The text above was written based on my last viewing of Yellowbeard, at least 15 years ago when I was still a film-snob aesthete. I have since watched it again. My original criticisms, technically, still stand. I still think it’s his “worst” project. But I laughed, dammit, I laughed. I also still think the five-star Amazon reviewers are on crack, and Cheech & Chong are actually worse than I remember, but the first two-thirds are pretty watchable.

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