Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Reading Log: The Serpent Said

Let it be known that this entry's title is an extremely obscure musical reference. I'd be surprised if anyone in the world would get it without Googling. Trust me, it's geeky - which makes it an excellent fit for this article.

I recently finished reading Monty Python Speaks, by David Morgan. Morgan winds up being more of an interviewer and editor than author per se on this book, because the vast majority of the text is direct transcripts of interviews with the surviving Pythons and various friends and colleagues. (As usual, I have plenty of other books that I read first backed up, but this one's overdue from the library.)

I've read several books on the Python crew before, besides watching all their TV show episodes, movies, and spin-off projects; listening to all the albums, interviews, and DVD commentaries; and, of course, memorizing pretty much the entire text of Just The Words, a complete collection of the TV show scripts. Finding that last book on the shelves of my local bookstore when I was a teenager was a Holy Grail moment (I really didn't mean to include that pun, but had very little choice). A few of my friends and I all bought copies, and held deeply nerdy memorization contests for weeks thereafter. My well-thumbed copy still sits just a few feet behind me, on an eye-level (when sitting in this chair) shelf for quick access,

That being the case, Monty Python Speaks didn't tell me a lot I hadn't already heard. I was expecting more about the other members not much liking Eric Idle; however, I'm actually starting to wonder whether that dislike has been exaggerated for comic effect. Idle himself certainly plays on his image of being vain, greedy, and selfish, so it may all be a joke. However, his well-attested falling out with Neil Innes over credit for and control of the Rutles seems to indicate that there may be some truth behind the barbs.

The only real surprise to me was Graham Chapman's status within the group. I'd long known that Chapman's alcoholism and unprofessionalism caused problems, especially during the making of the movies, but I didn't realize how bad it was. When John Cleese called Chapman a freeloader at his memorial service, I had assumed it was another joke, especially given the irreverent (to put it mildly) content of the rest of the "eulogy".

Upon reading this book, I think Cleese may have been more honest that we realized. It seems that there was an attitude in the group, especially from Cleese, Graham's writing partner, that Graham never quite pulled his weight. They're all quick to point out that he was prone to moments of genius - "Splunge!" is frequently cited as an example - but wasn't particularly disciplined or reliable about writing or performing.

Back to that memorial. In case you're not a complete geek and so don't know it, John Cleese got up at the memorial service for his dear friend Graham Chapman and presented the following eulogy. I've edited the naughty words - and the fact that there were naughty words to be edited should give you fair warning. Presented in its entirety, because it deserves to be:

Graham Chapman, co-author of the 'Parrot Sketch,' is no more.

He has ceased to be, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky, and I guess that we're all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, such capability and kindness, of such intelligence should now be so suddenly spirited away at the age of only forty-eight, before he'd achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he'd had enough fun.

Well, I feel that I should say, "Nonsense. Good riddance to him, the freeloading b*st**d! I hope he fries. "

And the reason I think I should say this is, he would never forgive me if I didn't, if I threw away this opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste. I could hear him whispering in my ear last night as I was writing this:

"Alright, Cleese, you're very proud of being the first person to ever say 'shit' on television. If this service is really for me, just for starters, I want you to be the first person ever at a British memorial service to say 'f**k'!"

You see, the trouble is, I can't. If he were here with me now I would probably have the courage, because he always emboldened me. But the truth is, I lack his balls, his splendid defiance. And so I'll have to content myself instead with saying 'Betty Mardsen...'

But bolder and less inhibited spirits than me follow today. Jones and Idle, Gilliam and Palin. Heaven knows what the next hour will bring in Graham's name. Trousers dropping, blasphemers on pogo sticks, spectacular displays of high-speed farting, synchronised incest. One of the four is planning to stuff a dead ocelot and a 1922 Remington typewriter up his own arse to the sound of the second movement of Elgar's cello concerto. And that's in the first half.

Because you see, Gray would have wanted it this way. Really. Anything for him but mindless good taste. And that's what I'll always remember about him---apart, of course, from his Olympian extravagance. He was the prince of bad taste. He loved to shock. In fact, Gray, more than anyone I knew, embodied and symbolised all that was most offensive and juvenile in Monty Python. And his delight in shocking people led him on to greater and greater feats. I like to think of him as the pioneering beacon that beat the path along which fainter spirits could follow.

Some memories. I remember writing the undertaker speech with him, and him suggesting the punch line, 'All right, we'll eat her, but if you feel bad about it afterwards, we'll dig a grave and you can throw up into it.' I remember discovering in 1969, when we wrote every day at the flat where Connie Booth and I lived, that he'd recently discovered the game of printing four-letter words on neat little squares of paper, and then quietly placing them at strategic points around our flat, forcing Connie and me into frantic last minute paper chases whenever we were expecting important guests.

I remember him at BBC parties crawling around on all fours, rubbing himself affectionately against the legs of gray-suited executives, and delicately nibbling the more appetizing female calves. Mrs. Eric Morecambe remembers that too.

I remember his being invited to speak at the Oxford union, and entering the chamber dressed as a carrot---a full length orange tapering costume with a large, bright green sprig as a hat----and then, when his turn came to speak, refusing to do so. He just stood there, literally speechless, for twenty minutes, smiling beatifically. The only time in world history that a totally silent man has succeeded in inciting a riot.

I remember Graham receiving a Sun newspaper TV award from Reggie Maudling. Who else! And taking the trophy falling to the ground and crawling all the way back to his table, screaming loudly, as loudly as he could. And if you remember Gray, that was very loud indeed.

It is magnificent, isn't it? You see, the thing about shock... is not that it upsets some people, I think; I think that it gives others a momentary joy of liberation, as we realised in that instant that the social rules that constrict our lives so terribly are not actually very important.

Well, Gray can't do that for us anymore. He's gone. He is an ex-Chapman. All we have of him now is our memories. But it will be some time before they fade.

I first read this years ago, and going through it again today I still find it touching. What a wonderful thing to have friends who are willing to be this completely offensive and inappropriate on your behalf because they understand that you would have wanted it that way. I hereby formally request, to any of my real-life friends and family who may read this, that you feel free to make a complete mockery of my funeral when I go. I'll try to help by dying in some way that lends itself to plenty of cheap, obvious jokes.

I recently discovered that Youtube has video of Cleese presenting this eulogy. As promised, some of the other presenters later on were even worse. Do a Youtube search for "Graham Chapman Memorial", or start clicking on the suggested related videos, if you have a very black sense of humour and a few hours to kill.

My dear wife gave me a Monty Python DVD box set for Christmas - Monty Python's Holy Trinity. Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and Meaning of Life, each in two-disc special editions. Even better, of those six discs, my substantial Python DVD collection only contained three of them. I haven't broken the shrink-wrap on the box yet, only because when I do I may descend into a spiral of geek ecstasy from which it will take days to return. There's a four-day weekend coming up at Easter. That seems so completely inappropriate that I may have no choice but to go for it. I have a feeling Graham (and the other Pythons) would be pleased with that.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of some fake animals at the Holy Land Experience. Those sheep look suspiciously like they might live on a farm with a friend named Shaun.

1 comment:

RebelAngel said...

I say Sergeant Pepper costumes as the attire for all when you kick the bucket.

Then we'll need to remove your head and burn your remains to be sure you don't rise as a zombie.