While they’re probably most famous for their television show (unless you worship Monty Python and the Holy Grail more (and unless you worship Life of Brian more)), the group made up of Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam was arguably the most influential and revolutionary comedy group of the 20th century. Fortunately, all of them continue to work in a ton of different entertainment and educational fields, except for Chapman who became incredibly lazy after his death.
They only made 2 narrative features together, but both made a massive impact, creating a kind of cultural shibboleth for people that got it and people that didn’t. They’ve influenced countless other comedians and made a mark by blending absurdity with thoughtfulness and intelligence hiding behind people in duck costumes.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the friends of Gwen Dibbley.
Being Funny is Just Like Any Other Practiced Skill
It may seem easy to look on master comedians like George Carlin or Monty Python or Louis C.K. with a kind of awe that reinforces a vision of them as someone built differently from the rest of us. To see them as if they have an extra bit of DNA that makes them funnier than everyone else. The secret is far more boring and far less science-fiction.
“It’s like any skill,” John Cleese told Charlie Rose in 1997. “Whether we’re talking about baseball or playing a musical instrument. You have to have some talent and then you have to have masses of experience. Figure out what works. There are only three people who are exceptions to this as far as I can see, and that’s people who are great at chess, people who are great at maths and people who are great at music. They just seem to be able to do it. They know how it works. There’s something about those particular subjects that have extraordinary intellectual contact which doesn’t seem to be dependent on experience, but anything else, if you don’t learn all the time from the experience you’re never going to get very good.”
It Something Looks Great on Accident, Film It
How they captured the most impressive shot of Life of Brian:
Take Note of Who You Create Well With
Monty Python might be the most overt example of this. After all, there are many directors, writers, actors, musicians, editors, cinematographers, etc. who continue working together without a collective name, but it’s a piece of advice that can’t be echoed too often or too much.
All 6 founding members appeared in different numbers and capacities in 9 separate shows before forming their iconic Circus. They cut their teeth, continued to work together and coalesced in the professional world after attending university together (Jones and Palin at Oxford; Chapman, Cleese and Idle at Cambridge). At a certain point, they recognized that their output as a partnership was both challenging and fulfilling.
It’s common knowledge that not all of the members particularly like one another, and there are plenty of stories of sibling-style rivalry going on even while they were making their best work, but the key is that they were smart enough to team up as creative collaborators in order to conquer. Becoming a group took an active decision and presence of mind to see who of their peers was doing complementary or similarly-visioned work. That’s well within the realm of possibility for all filmmakers.
Then, you hopefully meet a weird animator and the Avengers-style comedy team is complete.
Remember that next time you’re banging your head against a wall. Is there someone in your creative circle that you work well with? Could you make better films with their input and their skills? Whose talents enhance your own?
If You Tackle Something Controversial, Be Prepared to Speak Intelligently About It
Set the Scene For Laughs
“Last night, I just happened to turn on the television and Anchorman was on. Which I’d never seen before. And it’s very silly, and other than costumes and hair it doesn’t depend on visuals to work. And both Terry Jones and I, our feelings with Holy Grail were, it’s funnier if you’re really going to set the stage. So when a king rides through and you say, ‘How do you know he’s not a king? Because he has shit all over him’ — well, you’ve got to establish shit in such quantities that it becomes funny.
And John as the taunter, there was something very interesting about when he held his hands in the right position, his gauntlets kicked up in a very funny way. And it was just funny looking besides being an extraordinary performance. But anything that seemed to slow down the performance, or that John felt was taking too much time to set up, he hated because he’s quite serious about performance. But I think if you get the makeup, the costumes, the sets, the atmosphere right, the jokes are going to be funnier. And I think that’s the case with Holy Grail. It just feels like you’re there, in this primitive world where it’s rough and it’s ugly and you have many characters trying to maintain dignity and rise above the putridness of the place. That feels funny in itself.” – Terry Gilliam
Take Yourself Seriously, But, You Know, Not Too Seriously
What Have We Learned
The Python model is probably not for everyone, and it’s important to remember that they found an audience on television, translating that foundation to success in film. However, there are more than a few lessons to glean from how they operated and what they’ve said in reflection on their projects. What’s probably most interesting is that the picture of creation they paint isn’t a pretty one. They’re blunt about it being difficult at times and downright straining at others. It might not be the most natural idea to partner with someone that drives you insane, but if the output is excellent, there might just be something there.
It’s also important to remember that comedy is not some sort of mystical thing that can’t be explained or studied. It’s subjective, just like every other genre, not impossible. What makes great comedy work can vary between people and cultures, but there are still basic rhythms and set ups to discover and rules to follow (and bend). Treating it like mist between your fingertips is a great way to never get great at it. Monty Python didn’t simply burst forth from the womb hilarious. It took thousands of hours of practice and hard work to get to where they were, and while their making it look easy can be misleading, a lot of sweat went into getting that good. If you’ve got sweat to offer, you might be able to get that good, too.