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Monty Python and Terry Gilliam: the art behind the humor.

Monty Python is a British comedy group that originally aired on the BBC (British broadcasting corporation) in 1969 in a sketch show called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The show lasted four seasons and aired  forty-five episodes. This later developed into many other larger productions such as stage shows, films, numerous albums, several books and even a musical. Many of the cast members were even launched into individual stardom as a result. The groups impact on comedy has been compared to the Beatles’ impact on music. They eventually went on to make numerous films and books and even a musical called Spamalot.

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Many accounts of where the name “Monty Python” came from. The name was described by the BBC as being “envisaged by the team as the perfect name for a sleazy entertainment agent”.

The series aired from 1969 to 1974 and was envisioned, written and performed by a cast of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam , Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Each of these Python’s was seen as an integral part of what Monty Python was and held an equal say in what happened with the show.

The Flying Circus was loosely structured as a sketch show that used the stream-of-conciousness approach which was reasonably innovative for the time. This approach is a narrative device used in literature “to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind. Another phrase for it is ‘interior monologue’.  This approach and other aspects of what the pythons attempted pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in comedy at the time.  Because the group was responsible for writing and performing he material, they had complete creative control and could go as far as they wanted with experimentation of material and delivery.  Their approach is so distinctive and was so innovative that the word “Pythonesque”  has entered the English lexicon as a result.

The Pythons knew what they wanted to do with the series from the start. They were fans of the work of Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and more. They were large admirers of Cook’s sketch show “Not Only…But Also”.  They each had their opinions on the show but they all agreed that one of the main problems was that while the body was strong the writers would rarely find the punchline funny enough to end on which would take away from the overall quality of the sketch.

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This led the Pythons to the abandonment of the punchline altogether and not bother to cap their sketches in the traditional manner. Because of their dislike of finishing with punchlines, they experimented with ending the sketches by cutting abruptly to another scene or animation, walking offstage, addressing the camera, or introducing a totally unrelated event or character. A classic example of this approach was the use of Chapman’s “Colonel” character, who walked into several sketches and ordered them to be stopped because things were becoming “far too silly.”

Yet another common way for the Pythons to end a sketch was to drop a cartoon-like sixteen ton weight prop on one of the actors. Or a knight in full armor (played by Terry Gilliam) would wander on-set and hit characters over the head with a rubber chicken, before cutting to the next scene. Yet another way of changing scenes was when John Cleese, usually outfitted in a dinner suit, would come in as a radio commentator and make the formal announcement, “And now for something completely different.” These were usually employed when the actors felt the sketch was losing momentum.

As other shows started to develop the idea of abandoning punch lines into their own material, the Pythons were determined to become more original and become more ground-breaking. Going off of one of the Gilliam’s animations sometimes used to introduce and close the sketches, the Pythons decided that they should delve deeper into the stream-of-conciousness idea and allow many of the sketches to blend into one another. They saw this as a way of doing things differently while still keeping the essence of the show. This is when Gilliam’s artwork became key in the flow of the show. It tied each sketch together in a manner that gave the illusion of a single stream of consciousness.

Flying Circus popularized innovative formal techniques, such as the cold open, in which an episode began without the traditional opening titles or announcements. There were several occasions where the cold open would last until mid show where they would run the opening titles between or mid-scene. One time they even ran the closing credits directly after the opening titles. Cleese was even guilty of parodying the BBC announcer while they showed the BBC logo. This, among other methods were used to confuse or throw off the viewers.

They also employed the traditional idea of cross-dressing instead of using female actors. They donned make-up and dresses and spoke in falsetto, furthering the comedic impact. They only used female actors when the character was supposed to be sexually appealing, although Idle was sometimes used for this as well. In later years, they turned to Carol Cleveland for these roles. Later, in Life of Brian they went one step further and had men play women who were impersonating men. This clouding of gender roles only added to the Pythonesque style.

Usually, Cleese and Chapman worked as one pair isolated from the others, as did Jones and Palin, while Idle wrote alone. After a few days, they would join together with Gilliam, critique their scripts, and exchange ideas. Their approach to writing was democratic. If the majority found an idea humorous, it was included in the show. Just as in the writing, the casting of roles for the sketches was unselfish process, since each member viewed himself primarily as a ‘writer’, rather than an actor desperate for screen time. When the themes for sketches were chosen, Gilliam had free reign to decide how to link them with animations, using a camera, scissors, and airbrush.

While the roles were equally shared between the writers, they definitely took on different roles. Jones and Palin were more visual and fantastical conceptually while Cleese, Graham and Chapman tended to be more verbal and aggressive. Gilliam’s animations, meanwhile, ranged from the whimsical to the savage (the cartoon format allowing him to create some astonishingly violent scenes without fear of censorship).

COMING TO NORTH AMERICA

The  (CBC) added Monty Python’s Flying Circus to its national September 1970 fall lineup. They aired season one and part of season two before dropping the show. Within a week the CBC received hundreds of calls complaining of the cancellation. There was even a small protest at CBC’s Montreal office. The ‘owners’ of the show had decided that British comedy simply would not work in America. Therefore, it was not worth the investment to convert the Python episodes to the American standard.

Sketches from Flying Circus were first introduced to the United States when the film And Now for Something Completely Different was released in 1972. After the release, a small PBS station in Texas started airing Flying Circus and it caught fire.

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THE DECLINE OF THE PYTHONS

After its third season, Cleese decided to leave the Pythons, stating that he felt he had nothing fresh to offer. He stated that much of his recent work was no longer original, only bits and pieces of previous sketches sewn together and presented in a new light. The rest of the group carried on for one more “half” series before calling a halt to the programing 1974. The final season only aired half as many episodes as the previous season. They were offered more but the smaller group came to a common agreement while writing the fourth season that there was only enough material, and more importantly only enough enthusiasm, to shoot the six that were made.

FILMS

The group made several films together. The first of which was released in the US in 1972 called And now For Something Completely Different . It was composed of sketches from the first two seasons of Flying Circus and intended to be a way for the show to break into America. Released in 1975, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was their second film and the first they considered a success. It was their first film to contain new material and for this reason Cleese returned to help. The Life of Brian was released in 1979 and it along with Monty Python has been ranked among the top comedy films of all time. In 1983 The Meaning of Life was the groups next film which was structured much more closely to that of Flying Circus. This film is a group of sketches following the timeline of a man’s life and is considered the Pythons’ darkest work.

TERRY GILLIAM

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Terry Gilliam is the only American born Python. He became a naturalized British citizen in 1968. In 2006, he formally renounced his American citizenship. He started his career as an animator and cartoonist. When his original job flopped, he moved to England and started work on a children’s series called “Do Not Adjust Your Set”, which also featured Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin.

Gilliam was a part of Monty Python’s Flying Circus from its outset, at first credited as an animator (his name was listed separately after the other five in the closing credits), later as a full member. His cartoons linked the show’s sketches together, and defined the group’s visual language in other media. Gilliam’s animations mix his own art, characterized by soft gradients and odd, bulbous shapes, with backgrounds and moving cutouts from antique photographs, mostly from the Victorian Era.

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Besides doing the animations, he also appeared in several sketches, though he rarely had any main roles and did considerably less acting in the sketches. He did however have some notable sketch roles. More frequently, he played parts that no one else wanted to play (generally because they required a lot of make-up or uncomfortable costumes, such as a recurring knight in armor who would end sketches by walking on and hitting one of the other characters over the head with a plucked chicken) and took a number of small roles in the films.

The use of Gilliam’s surreal, collage animations was another innovative intertextual element of the Python style. Many of the images Gilliam used were lifted from famous works of art, and from Victorian illustrations. The giant foot which crushes the show’s title at the end of the opening credits(shown below) is in fact the foot of Cupid, cut from a reproduction of the Renaissance masterpiece Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time by Bronzino. This foot, and Gilliam’s style in general, are visual trademarks of the series.

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While they are viewed as a comedy group, visual art was as much a part of their identity as silly walks and great songs. He took renowned, famous works of art and forced them into unlikely situations for comic effect. Both Gilliam and fellow Python Terry Jones explained that art not only influenced the animations but also the content of many of their acts.

Gilliam’s animations could be described as collages for their use of cut-outs and found material, and for the way that their narratives are merged together seemingly randomly.Figures are grafted onto the bodies of animals; a couch potato has his eyes sucked out by the TV set; and an enormous foot descends from the sky periodically to squash the figures below. Though surreal, their aesthetic was not meant to be violent but was going for odd, surprising and bizarre.

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After the gradual break-up of the group, Gilliam became a screenwriter and director, building upon the experience he had acquired during the making of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Gilliam says he used to think of his films in terms of trilogies, starting with Time Bandits in 1981. The 1980s saw Gilliam’s self-written Trilogy of Imagination about “the ages of man” in Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). All are about the “craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible.” All three movies focus on these struggles and attempts to escape them through imagination; Time Bandits, through the eyes of a child, Brazil, through the eyes of a thirty-something, and Munchausen, through the eyes of an elderly man.

Throughout the 1990s, Gilliam directed his Trilogy of Americana: The Fisher King (1991), 12 Monkeys (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), which were based on scripts by other people, played on North American soil, and while still being surreal, had less fantastical plots than his previous trilogy.

Because Gilliam is fascinated with Baroque, due to the historical age’s pronounced struggle between spirituality and logical rationality, this is often seen in his movies and artwork. He also is given to absurd juxtapositions of beauty and ugliness, or antique and modern. Regarding Gilliam’s theme of the struggle between spirituality and rationality where the individual may become dominated by a harsh, soulless device of a soured society.

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Gilliam’s films, as well as his artwork,have a distinctive look not only in the set up of the scene, but even more so in photography, often recognizable from just a short clip; in order to create a surreal atmosphere of psychological unrest and a world out-of-balance, Gilliam makes frequent use of unusual camera angles. Roger Egbert has said “his world is always halluinatory in its richness of detail.” Most of his movies are shot almost entirely a specific lense in order to achieve a distinctive signature style defined by extreme distortion of perspective and intensely deep focus. This attitude markedly differs from the common definition of photography made to resemble natural human field of view, unlike Gilliam’s signature style defined by extreme perspective distortion due to his usual choice of focal length.

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References:

http://terrygilliamweb.com/

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/celebrity/terry_gilliam/

http://pythonline.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Python

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