August 26, 2007
The Python Years
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's: 650 pp., $29.95
In the introduction to this sprawling account of life as a member of the London-based comedy sextet Monty Python, Michael Palin takes pains to portray the book's format as an attribute. The diary entry, he argues, "seals the present moment and preserves it from the tidying process of context, perspective, analysis and balance."
To which the intrepid reader might fairly respond: "Uh-oh."
In the absence of all these tidying processes -- which in common parlance we might call editing -- we are left with some awfully mundane details. Do we really need to read about Michael Palin's gum disease? Or his corns? Or his fondness for kidney pie? Do we really need 608 pages, not counting the index? The answer, unless you are related to Palin, or are yourself Palin, is probably no.
That being said, the author does have some smashing material at his disposal. For more than a decade, Monty Python represented the gold standard of silliness. The troupe produced four seasons of brilliantly subversive sketch comedy for the BBC, four films and a dozen albums, all cult classics. Fans the world over still quote the most famous Python routines verbatim, often with annoying British accents.
For such types, "Diaries" will afford a riveting peek inside. Palin himself (the "cute" Python) seems to have been the most stable of the bunch. This makes him a reliable correspondent but of the sort that generally abstains from dishing dirt on cohorts. Ah, what I wouldn't have given for a bit less equanimity! Instead, Palin plays the role of peacemaker, forever calming down his fellow Pythons -- in the case of a peevish John Cleese, trying to keep him from jumping ship. It's a bit like tracking a junior high school relationship. "I suppose this could be said to be the day on which Python finally died," Palin mopes at one point. We still have 400 pages to go.
Given the creative and economic pressures that beset them, not to mention the liberal alcohol consumption, it's a wonder the Pythons stuck it out as long as they did. That's to say nothing of the endless censorship battles with the BBC. Palin recalls one donnybrook with an executive named Duncan Wood in which his colleague Terry Jones "crusaded violently on behalf of masturbating, launching off at a Kinseyian tangent about [its] benefits. . . . Duncan crossed his legs and pulled hard on his cigarette."
What seems to have kept the Pythons together is not merely a growing sense of their financial power -- though that certainly didn't hurt -- but a kind of addictive adolescent camaraderie: "Terry [Gilliam] and I admit we spend far more time than is healthy talking, analysing, discussing every aspect of the group and the group's dynamic, but, as Terry says, it's becoming like a drug."
This self-consciousness never infected the Python films (thankfully), which were as freewheeling in the making as they appear on the screen. The image that comes to mind is of Palin and Cleese motoring through the Scottish Highlands in full chain mail. Loyal Pythonites will be fascinated to learn that initial screenings of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" were deemed too depressing to succeed as comedy. And that Cleese was furious not to have landed the central role in "Life of Brian." For those who haven't seen the films -- or didn't care for them -- I suspect that such details will come off as inside baseball.
Lay readers will find that the central charm of the Palin diaries resides in his wry descriptions of the rich and famous. He seems to have gone to all the right parties. "The two heroes of 'Star Wars' are also there," he tells us of one. "[Mark] Hamill is chirpy and is dressed like a delivery boy. Harrison Ford looks young and alienated. He would look over his glasses at us if he had any. As it is he moves broodingly around -- like a famous man might do if he knew how famous he is." Disc jockey Alan Freeman gets the same deliciously merciless treatment: "His shirt is a little tightly stretched over a few folds of good living, and he seems a little hot in the face. He talks compulsively and shows me into the flat, furnished lushly with a great deal of ormolu and marble and rather fussily camp objects."
Palin also provides a rollicking account of his first stint hosting "Saturday Night Live," much of it spent with cat poop on his arm, thanks to an ill-fated effort to incorporate felines into his opening monologue. Invited to host again, he bonds with John Belushi. "Belushi, big and panting like a steam engine at a station, sprawls round my dressing room. We talk about groupies. Belushi blows, wheezes, scratches his crutch. . . and confides that 'I'm only [sleeping with] my wife now.' "
He visits both a Playboy Club ("a taste wilderness") and Studio 54 ("horribly depressing") and schmoozes with George Harrison long enough to get the lowdown on the Beatles (Yoko gelded John, Ringo is " 'You know, very simple' "). We also get a wonderful bit about the Rolling Stones, courtesy of Palin's colleague Eric Idle. "He likes Ronnie [Wood]," Palin tells us, "but is more guarded about Jagger (very sharp business mind) and Keith (pleasant, but so doped-up Eric reckons he has only a year to live)." If there's one thing amateur historians can count on getting wrong, it's the date of Keith Richards' death.
This is what Palin meant by "sealing the present moment." It is thrilling to read about history as it happens, rather than in retrospect. One feels the same jolt when Palin discusses the moon landing, or Nixon's resignation. These are matters in which the reader has some stake.
But aside from that and his Python exploits, Palin is writing personal history here: the birth of two of his children, his father's death, side projects, lawsuits, "all the impedimenta of notoriety," as he phrases it. This is where he could well have done some tidying up. Reflection, after all, isn't the enemy of authenticity; it's the way that writers make their experience universal. To put it in filmic terms: It's how a home movie becomes a documentary.
In Palin's case, it would have been fascinating to learn how it felt to evolve from a young artist devoted to mocking the upper crust to a member of that self-same class. Or how it felt for a young father to balance the burgeoning demands of fame against his family duties. One senses, though, that Palin is a bit too cheery for such considerations. He'd rather sop up the gravy than parse the ingredients.
But even with his keen style and his glamorous life, "Diaries" slogs. This book should have been a brisk 300-page memoir -- and it could have been, too, had the author been willing to do the sort of editing and rewriting he and his mates routinely forced themselves to endure on behalf of their comedy.
Steve Almond is the author of the new essay collection "(Not That You Asked)." *