Michael Palin looks back on 'Monty Python', ahead to 'Brazil' and all things in-between
KERA-TV in Dallas was the first PBS station in the United States to broadcast Monty Python’s Flying Circus back in October 1974. The subsequent March 1975 KERA/Dallas in-studio appearance was the Pythons’ first stop in the U.S. after the Los Angeles premiere of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Recently, Tellyspotting had the great good fortune to sit down with Michael Palin at the BBC Syndication Showcase meeting in New Orleans. Michael was in town to talk about his newest project that would be coming to PBS in 2014, Brazil with Michael Palin. In a nutshell, one of the nicest, most accommodating individuals on the planet, so grab a coffee and enjoy…
Python and KERA/Dallas…
Tellyspotting: I want to take you back to October 1974 when Monty Python’s Flying Circus first premiered in the U.S. on KERA-TV in Dallas. When you initially heard the news that it was ‘Dallas’ and KERA-TV where Python would first air, what were your thoughts?
Michael Palin: My first thought was that this was just right. This is perfect Monty Python. It wasn’t picked up by the ‘fashionable’ markets of Boston, New York or San Francisco. It was picked up in Dallas. In a strange way, someone once pointed out that all the Python team were out-of-towners. We didn’t come together in London. We came from places like Sheffield and Weston-Super-Mare and places like that so it just seemed ‘right’ that the premiere was in Dallas. Dallas, of all places at that period in history, was still recovering from when the President was shot. I remember thinking, this is wonderful. And, the fact that it had been so successful that PBS stations around the country then picked up on this. It was exciting to think that Dallas started it all, especially since as a city at that time, it was pretty conservative.
TS: How important was it to be on PBS:
MP: For us, it was absolutely vital because that meant it was uncut. We had been told after 1969 that it would never air in the U.S. No TV company would touch it. It’s too rude, it’s too difficult, too naughty. And yet, lots of Americans that came to London loved it. The movie ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’ was made to pick up an American audience through movies rather than television. That didn’t work either. We hadn’t almost given up. So, with that October premiere in Dallas, the news was truly unexpected…very exciting and a true celebration for us, but quite unexpected.
TS: That video of when yourself, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Graham Chapman were in the KERA studios in 1975. My first thought was ‘Who are these kids?’ Four extremely talented individuals that were very innocent and just having fun. Did you have any idea as to the explosion that was getting ready to take place for Python?
MP: We had absolutely no idea. In fact, when we came on those early tours, I remember it just like it was in Dallas with a lot of kids sitting around on the studio floor. We’d walk through them and sit down and didn’t quite really know how to behave. Were we expected to be silly, should we be serious or what? Nowadays, we talk quite seriously about Python but in those days we were just bewildered by what was going on. I do remember going on one quite famous chat show and they didn’t even realize that ‘Monty Python’ was more than one person so they didn’t have enough room for us in studio. Terry Jones sat on one of the guests’ lap, which happened to be David Soul from Starsky and Hutch.
TS: We’re coming up on 40 years of Python in the U.S. How do you feel seeing a whole new generation of Python fans out there discovering this silliness?
MP: To our great surprise, it did last. At the time, there wasn’t a great history of shows lasting. They didn’t often keep programs, they just got rid of them. Lots of good material was just ditched because there was no storage space. Things like the DVD or YouTube didn’t exist so we really didn’t expect it to last. To find after all these years that the interest in Python continued, especially in America, more so than in the UK, that people were not going to let it go was exciting. You have fathers telling sons or daughters who are now telling the next generation of 9-10 year olds making that two generations after Python. I don’t analyze it but I think all the different types of comedy in Python with its’ physical jokes, historical jokes, present-day jokes and verbal jokes leaves people in the end with a joyful feeling.
Diaries: 1969-1979, The Python Years and a recent return to comedy
TS: The diaries that you kept, in particular the 1969-1979 diaries, are an incredible collection of the time. Was there a point that you took a step back and felt that these should be published?
MP: I kept the diaries since just before Python began. After 30+ years, someone told me that these should be published. Honestly, I thought ‘I don’t know’. Would it be ‘giving away family secrets’ but I thought I’d give it a go and maybe edit a bit. Probably 75-80% was taken out, all the family holidays and personal stuff didn’t need to be in there but there was still a narrative of my working life which was important. I don’t regret it. Ultimately, I wanted to share these things while I was alive rather than having everything be printed after you’re gone. I think I’d like to hear what other peoples memories are, what they recall. I think that’s been one of the great satisfactions of doing the diaries. The number of people that have come up and said that they’ve been moved by a particular bit. It’s always something different. A lot of comedy writers have loved the diaries as it details the dynamics of a comedy group working together.
TS: You recently returned to comedy in The Wiper’s Times. What drew you to this particular project?
MP: Well, the writer of the show edits ‘Private Eye’, which is a bit like Python. It’s like Python in that it’s intended to be satirical. I think it’s one of the best magazines in the country. It remains funny but also very perceptive and revealing about what’s going on in the news. I’m a great fan of ‘Private Eye’. I’m also very interested in the First World War. Really, it was the fact that the script was about humor in war which is an area that is not touched on at all and one that is very important area. When dreadful things are going on with incomprehensible suffering, people will use humor just to cope. The problem is, war has a tendency to become sanitized with good people doing good things when, in reality, it’s a terrible mess with people doing terrible things to each other which they regret. Comedy is very important, especially, in this area so I was very happy to be asked to a part of it.
Around the World with Michael Palin
TS: It’s been roughly 25 years since your first travel series, Around the World in 80 Days. Where did your interest come in travel?
MP: I think it’s always been there. I was born and brought up in Sheffield, which is a very industrial city just on the edge of the Pennines mountains (separating North West England from Yorkshire and North East England). I just loved the sense of adventure minutes away, getting away from the house on a bicycle. I read books and magazines such as ‘National Geographic’ and traveled vicariously. With Python, we did a lot of traveling in the States but didn’t really see America. Only airports, the inside of TV studios, radio stations and the like. So, when the BBC asked me after A Fish Called Wanda if I’d like to go around the world in 80 days, I said ‘yes, of course’. Others had turned it down, which I didn’t realize at the time. The BBC had told me I was the only person that could possibly do this.
TS: One of the successes of your travel series is the concept that you become the ‘everyman’ with a natural curiosity in each series and not merely ‘the host’.
MP: That’s how I see it. When we did Around the World in 80 Days, I really didn’t know what to expect. Was I supposed to be an actor, am I supposed to be ‘me’, there’s no script, I wasn’t particularly skilled at doing long pieces summing up what I had just seen. It didn’t really matter. What people liked was this everyman thing which gave the impression of a bit of each of them being there, making the same mistakes. I think the largest portion of people that watch don’t want to travel. They want to see other countries but they want to be reminded why traveling is just a hellish business. There’s Michael Palin eating strange food, getting ill, getting sand blown in his face. We don’t want to go there but we want to see someone else doing it. So it works two ways. One as an everyman figure taking people with them and also someone there testing the dangerous waters of travel reminding people why it’s best to stay home.
TS: With both Sahara and Brazil coming out in the States soon, is there something that audiences on PBS will have to look forward to? Was there one takeaway from each that surprised you?
MP: With ‘Sahara’, it was a revelation. To me, anyway, as to how much was going on in what one might think of as merely 1000’s of miles of barren desert. That was the greatest success of ‘Sahara’. Beautiful music in places you’d least expect it. In many ways, we were able to show things that had never been seen before. ‘Brazil’ is different in a way. Where ‘Sahara’ is about scarcity, ‘Brazil’ is about abundance. Abundance of everything. How do you deal with a country that has so much of everything. What are the problems? It’s sort of looking behind the ‘carnival face’ and seeing how it all works and who lives there. I don’t get the sense that people know Brazil at all.
TS: Looking back on your 40+ years of work whether it be comedy or travel, do you ever stop for a moment and think about being a part of something that has made millions of people laugh or get enjoyment out of your work over the years?
MP: It’s hard to go through life thinking ‘I’ve done this or I’ve done that’ You do, in a way, but I’m always thinking about the future. It’s nice to have done those things but you can’t hang on to that. You can only hang on to what you are currently about to do. It does remind me, in a good way, that my life has been about entertainment. It’s been very satisfying. To think there are people that still find Python funny. Funnier than I ever thought it would be. The ‘Knights who say Ni’ was done on a bleak Scottish mountainside one day and I thought it just didn’t work. It was such a slender idea when we read it, it didn’t work. And, of course, today it’s classic. So that’s quite nice. Something that will remain for people to see. The success of Python was due to our independence. We were never told what we could do or what we couldn’t do. The BBC just let us have 13 half-hours to work out what we wanted to do. We had incredible freedom. The six of us were allowed the freedom to indulge ourselves which I don’t think happens too much in television today.
TS: What makes you laugh today?
MP: Well life generally (laughing), I suppose. My general reaction to things going wrong you laugh rather than agonize over them. Twenty Twelve is very good, indeed. Ricky Gervais’ portrayal of David Brent in The Office was brilliant.
I couldn’t leave without asking Michael about that fateful day in March 1975 in the KERA studios and what he must have thought when he entered the studio and someone handed him a real armadillo – stuffed. You can see in the video how interested the Pythons were in all aspects and angles of this creature that they had probably never seen. I’ve always wondered, to this day, what ever happened to that petrified armadillo. Amazingly, he said he still has it and even had a photo on his iPhone to prove it! How cool is that? So, to whomever gave that armadillo to the Pythons that day in Dallas some 40 years ago, it’s still part of the Palin and Python family and here’s the picture to prove it!