Graham Chapman holds court at the University of Utah in October 1986.

For, Friday, May 10, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: A new book by David Morgan is on the shelves, ‘Monty Python Speaks,’ comprised of a variety of interviews conducted over many years with the six members of the comedy team. It’s funny, as you would expect, but also quite poignant, as when the surviving five discuss Graham Chapman, who died 1989. Which got me thinking about my own encounters with the Pythons over my 20-year tenure as the movie critic for the Deseret News in the ’80s and ’90s. Last week in this space was a story about a 1983 press conference with the group. Below is a ‘Hicks on Flicks’ column, published Oct. 26, 1986 under the headline, ‘On campus and off-the-wall: Chapman at U. for Python week.’

Last week was “Monty Python Week” at the University of Utah.

I don’t know if that meant that students could dress as charwomen (men only, of course) or do the “Slap-Fish Dance” in a fountain or sing “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m OK” when accused of choosing the wrong career.

But it could have.

A goodly number of U. of U. students are certainly up on their Python trivia. (Is there a Monty Python 101 in the curriculum somewhere?)

In fact, as Graham Chapman began to address the student body Thursday, quite a few people held up their shoes in homage to Chapman’s title role in “The Life of Brian,” and then proceeded to toss off questions that made the session sound a bit like “Trivial Pursuit: The Monty Python Edition.”

Chapman is one-sixth of what is arguably the zaniest, silliest, most intelligent comedy troupe ever to put its wacky ideas on film — Monty Python, a British comedy team that includes Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam.

The last project all six worked on together was “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life,” a movie released in 1983, conspicuous by its absence from the roster of movies being shown throughout the week on campus. (“Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” with Chapman as King Arthur, and “Life of Brian,” a spoof of biblical epics, were shown, along with “And Now for Something Completely Different,” a collection of skits from the television series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”)


Graham Chapman, left, as a no-nonsense Army major on 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' (1969-73) and as King Arthur in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' (1975).

Chapman, who made a similar lecture-circuit tour in 1981, is hitting 11 U.S. cities in 12 days, the U. of U. being one of his first stops. He seemed quite relaxed in the auditorium, wearing jeans and a casual red shirt, sitting in a chair and speaking into a microphone. The sound came out of the speakers somewhat garbled, but no one seemed to mind.

To say the Union Ballroom in the Olpin Union Building was packed is to understate, and it reportedly set a record for attendance. There were well over 1,000 people, overflowing the auditorium, with at least half of the audience standing throughout.

Chapman’s program was extremely informal and low-key. He showed a video of “Dangerous Sports,” which included skiing down a snow packed mountain on everything from a four-poster bed to an inflated elephant, and a film collection of skits from the “Flying Circus” TV program, featuring Chapman in lead roles. (Unfortunately, the auditorium could not be darkened enough to give the screen full effect.)

Rather than a lecture, Chapman simply fielded questions from the audience and elaborated on the answers, cracking jokes along the way in the traditional deadpan, devil-may-care Python tradition.

The audience was enthusiastic, cheering when they thought he was coming into the room, cheering again when he actually did come into the room, and offering rousing applause after the formal introduction.

Chapman knew how to respond. He immediately requested the audience make him feel more at home by giving him two minutes of abuse (a la one of the most popular Python TV skits), and that’s precisely what he got — people throwing things at him and screaming “Go back to Britain where you belong!” It was exactly what he wanted and set the tone for the session.


The Monty Python group, clockwise from lower left: Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin and John Cleese.

People asked about specific lines of dialogue in some of the films, which he could not always remember (maybe he should bring a shooting script for the more rabid fans). And he talked about his co-Pythons candidly.

Asked about the last line of one of their more notorious songs in the Python collection, Chapman said, “That particular song was written by Eric Idle. I can’t remember the last line, but you can be sure it was rude.

But there were serious answers as well from the low-key, reserved Chapman, who holds a medical degree and graduated from Cambridge. The inevitable question about whether the Pythons would ever reunite for another film prompted Chapman to say it was difficult for the six of them to agree on a subject, and that John Cleese seems the least enthusiastic about such a project. But, Chapman said, it seems inevitable that they will come together again. “Yes, it will happen I think.”

He explained the genesis of Monty Python, how the six comics met as television writers and managed to have the “Flying Circus” program on the air for two seasons in the late ‘60s before the BBC realized anyone was watching it. It was then that the BBC began to interfere and censors began to intervene. After the third season the six abandoned the program and moved on to films.

For fans of the troupe, and of Chapman, it was a veritable feast. An opportunity to revel in the kind of offbeat humor no one else has ever quite achieved, however close such American versions as “Airplane!” and “Blazing Saddles” may have come. The Python brand has an extra edge, a smartness that lifts it above the rest.

And Chapman’s program, however scattershot and fraught with technical weaknesses, was just what the doctor ordered. Or in this case, delivered.