High Times Greats: Monty Python’s Michael Palin

Wacky words from one of England’s craziest—and most creative—hip humorists.
High Times Greats: Monty Python's Michael Palin
Michael Palin by John Cavanagh

Was Monty Python’s Flying Circus really written on drugs? What was it like working with Robert De Niro in the film Brazil? How did he like having a pig named Betty as one of his co-stars in A Private Function? Michael Palin, the busiest Python, answered those questions and many more in Joel Weinberg’s exclusive High Times interview, originally published in July, 1985 and republished here in celebration of Palin’s birthday May 5.

Wearing expensively casual threads— white buck shoes, gray slacks and a gray shirt with a canary-yellow musical-motif tie—Palin is friendly and accessible. Obviously well-educated (Oxford), Palin’s subtle intelligence catalyzes his ever-present sense of humor to make him positively charming. Constantly cracking jokes and spouting off-the-wall observations, Palin’s sensibility exudes the essence of Monty Python’s crackpot, surreal wackiness.

In addition to talking about his solo career, Palin is surprisingly eager to elaborate at length upon the origin, development, and ongoing success of Monty Python. He is genuinely grateful for the strong support and enthusiasm of American Python fans, particularly in the early 70s when no one believed that this veddy British comedy would successfully cross the Atlantic: “I also think it’s slightly arrogant to say that people won’t understand something. That’s what we all said about Python in America from 1970 to 1974. People saying, ‘Oh, you’ll never get Python to the States. They won’t understand it…. And I don’t think people in America do understand every single thing about Python, but the spirit of it, the feel of it, they understand very well.”

Monty Python’s Flying Circus didn’t spring fully-grown onto English TV screens in May, 1969 from out of nowhere. There was a long gestation period, and many comic influences, which finally brought the six Pythons together on their own TV show.

The first, and in many ways, the most important influence on Python humor were the college comedy revues which came to national and then international attention in the early 1960s. Peter Cook’s Beyond The Fringe revue, which went from being a hit at the Edinburgh Festival to becoming a West End and a Broadway success, paved the way for bright, young actor/comedians to be noticed while still at university. Beyond the Fringe included a diminutive joker named Dudley Moore.

All six Python members, in Palin’s words, ”six middle-class lads all brought up respectably outside of London,” participated in these college revues. Palin began his career-long collaboration with Terry Jones at Oxford, while the four other Pythons first started performing at Cambridge.

Although Palin also acknowledges the work of Spike Milligan and The Goon Show as inspirational to the madcap Python style, it was their university revue which first brought the Pythons together in 1965. By coincidence, most of the group were working on The Frost Report, with David Frost, who carefully scouted the Edinburgh Festival for potential comic talent, and came up with five of the six future Pythons. John Cleese was a cast member on Frost’s show in addition to writing material with Graham Chapman. Palin and Terry Jones wrote the show’s short films. And Eric Idle composed comedy bits. Terry Gilliam and his outrageous stream-of-consciousness animation became a later addition when Jones, Idle, and Palin worked with him on another TV show called Do Not Adjust Your Set.

For three or four years, the prospective Pythons labored on their own, but developed a strong mutual admiration for each other’s work. In 1969, after exhausting the possibilities of working separately, the idea was raised to work as a collective of six. “We had a good contact at the BBC,” Palin recalls. Despite the fact that none of us had any idea, really, what we wanted the show to be, the BBC said, ‘Well, go ahead and experiment. Show us what you can do.'”

Given a free hand, and purposely intent upon smashing the conventions of the typical TV comedy format, the Pythons set about to break new ground. They were determined to take full advantage of the socially conscious humor that became permissible in the ’60s, pioneered by shows like David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was. “But even the sketches,” says Palin, “we didn’t want to necessarily have beginnings, middles and ends. Punch lines were anathema to us, because we’d write lots of good material and just because you couldn’t get a nice, quick, funny punch line, the whole of the rest of the sketch was jettisoned. I used to think, ‘This is daft. If we don’t get a punch line, let’s cut away to a man on a camel, or something like that.'”

Stirred onto this unorthodox satirical brew were Terry Gilliam’s wild, often psychedelic animations, which connected and commented upon the live action sequences, and which were just as amusing in their own right. The result of this concoction was Monty Python’s Flying Circus as we know it today. Tentatively to be called “It’s” or “Owl Stretching Time,” the Pythons conceded to the BBC’s request for a “Flying Circus” by coming up with the moniker funniest to them to put in front of that title. Like everything else in the show, its name was an anti-title, and a defiance of anything traditional. According to Palin, “Generally, comedy should be spontaneous. It’s very difficult to analyze, and it’s also very destructive to analyze it.”

Although carefully scripted, Monty Python certainly looked spontaneous, probably too spontaneous for most conservative tastes. Capitalizing on the relaxation of TV protocol, the Pythons used their wit to poke fun at some very serious subjects, hoping to shed comic light on a few of the world’s injustices. The Python crew consistently made barbed attacks against the Church, the military, and the police as well as the lesser figures of everyday English life.

“Our targets tend to be authority figures in the Establishment,” Palin explains. “I think that rather than attack people who think up economic policies, or even people who spend money on bombs and weapons, all of which we might find very worthy of criticism, there’s something about assumed moral authority which really gets up our noses. People who tell us what we should and shouldn’t think, and interpret human events and behavior in the light of the Word passed down to them.

“One of those things which I’m most indignant about has to be the Catholic attitude to contraception. Whenever we sit down and talk about the poverty in the world, we always seem to agree that there’s too many people at the moment on this planet. And to encourage people to have a lot of children, to frighten them about sex, is really dangerous and positively cruel.”

One subject the Pythons were curiously silent about was drugs. But according to Palin, people assumed drugs were their primary muse: “A lot of people in America thought Monty Python must have been written under the influence of drugs. They couldn’t believe how we wrote this sort of stuff, which I think is quite significant. It says something about them and their behavior. I wrote Python stone-cold sober. It’s nice that you can release yourself in your mind to write this kind of material.”

Palin insists that the English tolerate eccentric behavior much better than Americans, so they have less of a need to release themselves through artificial stimulation than we do. Blaming one’s uninhibited actions on a drug was never an excuse used by the naturally zany Pythons.

When Monty Python’s Flying Circus went off the air in 1974, the next logical step for the Pythons was movies. Their 1971 compilation film of sketches from the TV show, And Now For Something Completely Different, was a mere appetizer compared to the great box office success of Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Holy Grail, and the historical period parodies that followed—Jabberwocky, Life of Brian, and Time Bandits— were a way of recycling the Python TV formula. Set in a different time and place, the Pythons could continue to send up the foibles of humanity.

“We could do just the same sort of old Python sketches but they would be set in this historical context that made us look different. The behavior which we were satirizing, and the characters we were creating, were very much similar to the ones we’d been doing on the TV series. Putting them in a historical context not only gave us a fresh approach but also said something about history itself, the continuity of history. I certainly believe that people haven’t changed much at all. Their circumstances have changed, but they’re still very similar throughout history.”

All the Python films, including Live at the Hollywood Bowl and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, were well-received and remained true to the original Python spirit. Yet there seems to be some doubt as to their next project. Palin believes that it’s hard to find a subject to follow The Meaning of Life. When asked what the future plans of the collective Python team are, Palin candidly replies, “I don’t know. We don’t collect very often these days. We tend to be a middle-aged gentlemen’s lunch club now. When we meet together, we laugh a lot, but it’s a long way from that to actually committing to another project.”

With all the Pythons embarked on more or less individual careers now, Palin has kept himself busy with his own endeavors—screenwriting and taking on more conventional film roles. Although Palin cowrote the screenplay for Time Bandits with Terry Gilliam, he really hit his stride when he wrote, coproduced, and starred in The Missionary in 1982. Produced by George Harrison’s Hand Made Films, The Missionary is an elegant, underplayed farce which is a far cry from the madness of the Python pictures. Palin proved here that he could sustain a well-acted performance in a narrative film and spar with one of England’s greatest living actresses, Maggie Smith. Palin’s dramatic acting background, something he pursued while at Oxford, finally paid off.

Palin is reunited with Maggie Smith in his current film, A Private Function. Palin says of his costar, “Maggie’s unerringly accurate. She’s got perfect comedy timing—it’s like perfect pitch.” And perfect timing is what all the actors in A Private Function need to get themselves out of the way of a pig with diarrhea who is not housebroken. This gross-out comedy about the intrigues of pork rationing in post-Second World War England resembles the Python movies in its vivid and unblushing scatological revelry.

Palin, who participated in A Private Function only as an actor, enjoyed working with Betty the Pig less than the human cast members. This may have something to do with their car scene, when Palin, as mild-mannered chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers, hognaps Betty. Betty nearly crushed Palin’s private parts when she got frightened and bolted across his lap out through a too-small window.

Since Palin has graduated into leading-man roles, and knowing that he was always referred to as the “cute” member of the Pythons, I asked if he considered himself a sex symbol. “Sex symbol, I don’t know, it’s like considering yourself as an armchair. It really is. No, it’s awful. I don’t like myself from that point of view at all. I see myself in the morning and think, ‘Jesus Christ, how would anybody go to bed with that?'”

Palin’s character in the Terry Gilliam film, Brazil, may well ask himself the same question after a hard day’s work. Palin plays Jack Lint, whose job involves “interrogation of the most physical kind. The fact is, he’s beating the shit out of people.”

Palin stars in Brazil alongside Jonathan Pryce, the movie’s hero, and Robert De Niro, in a rare comic role. Palin says Brazil is impossible to describe, but he did supply a helpful plot synopsis: “Brazil follows the fortunes of this clerk (Jonathan Pryce) in one of the big ministries, sometime in the near future. He’s got a dead-end job in an inefficient, crummy world.”

“But he does have these dreams of rescuing this beautiful girl. Suddenly he finds out that the girl exists in reality. She may or may not be a member of a terrorist group. He sets off to find her.”

“The film follows his adventures through the dark corridors of the ministry, trying to make some sense out of this senseless world. And it ends up with chases and a rather black ending.”

Gilliam originally wanted to call the movie 1984 1/2, and reportedly Brazil is a chillingly funny evocation of a future dominated by a vast state bureaucracy. Brazil sounds like 1984 with laughs, containing scenes such as 500 workers positioned in front of TV monitors who change the channel to watch old movies like Casablanca as soon as their supervisor leaves the room.

Palin describes the look of Brazil as “quite extraordinary” and “amazing,” full of Gilliam’s visual imagination. The production design appears to be a bizarre combination of Blade Runner, Barry Lyndon, and Godard’s Weekend. Brazil is set in a world of faded grandeur, with pipes hanging through the walls of beautiful, classic rooms. There are constant explosions, and the highways are cut off from the surrounding countryside by a solid wall of billboards. Every bit of available space is choked by an incalculable number of pipes and conduits which render this future world hellishly claustrophobic. Palin says the dream sequences are as striking as the sets, and that, all in all, Brazil “is a really mind-blowing film.”

Palin’s character in Brazil, a torturer for the ministry, is a departure of sorts for him. The role of Jack Lint contains few laughs, and is more serious than Palin’s previous characters. Palin plays Jack as a regular guy, someone who’s got his life together, who works hard, and who provides well for his family. Jack embodies all the virtues of a successful man of the world. Palin chose to play Jack not as a sadist, but rather as an easygoing careerist. Only at the end of the film does Jack’s facade crumble to reveal the pathetic creature that he is. According to Palin, his coldly ironic performance has the same effect as that of the movie as a whole—”it’s like a nice big ride on a roller coaster.”

Michael Palin’s future reads like a gypsy’s crystal ball full of imminent possibilities. Palin has many irons in the fire, the hottest of which is a screenplay he has written called East of Ipswich. This script is for a series entitled “First Love,” produced by David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire; The Killing Fields). It is likely that East of Ipswich will be made later this year.

Then, Palin confesses, “I’ve got half a novel which I keep meaning to finish.”

Palin also has a few upcoming magazine travel assignments, including a trip on the old Orient Express train route to Istanbul for two weeks. This sort allows Palin to combine his two favorite activities of writing and traveling, while getting paid for it as well.

Palin is quite content to let events take their course, to follow his interests in whatever direction the wind blows. One thing is certain, however. A man with as much natural inquisitiveness and as many talents as Michael Palin will be highly conspicuous for a long time to come.

“I’m interested in everything. I think about everything as it comes up. What I’ve learnt over the years is how I enjoy working. Not exactly what I want to do, but it’s who you work with. I like to work with a few people that I know well, a small crew, and work hard over a short period.

“I’m not interested in swimming pools and the stardom thing, the attitude where, ‘What the hell, I’ll do this crap for the money.’ I don’t want to do that. Fortunately I don’t need to because I’ve got enough money. I only want to do things which I feel I’ll thoroughly enjoy.”

Featured photo of Michael Palin by John Cavanagh.

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