INSPIRATION AND MONTY PYTHON
For me, comedy is something very personal and unexplainable. The moment you find a rule for it, it says, “Oh really? You’re not the boss of me!”
I’m often asked the question, “How did you come up with…(fill in the blank)?” A humorous anecdote usually follows about some odd occurrence in my past. Sometimes, I explain to them how my ideas are a mixture of my life experience, the media that I absorb, and divine inspiration. If I really think hard, I can usually trace back the pedigree of my ideas to that one “Aha!” moment which is usually something accidental or something I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to observe.
When I was teaching a class at Loyola Marymoungt University, I had my students talk to someone they normally wouldn’t talk to and journal about it. For those students who actually did the assignment, they got a taste of what it’s like to overcome their fears and open up their world of experiences. It was a step towards opening up their lives to other experiences besides the ones in their own bubble.
As I try to develop new stories and properties, I try to keep my eyes open for inspiration by changing my life experiences, constantly searching for knowledge about things I know, things I don’t know, and especially for things I don’t know I don’t know.
During this time, I often go back to the following quotes below to put me in a mindset. They’re about comedy and they’re from John Cleese and Michael Palin. This is but one source of my inspiration, but it’s a good one:
John Cleese: You can always inject a bit of energy into something by introducing anger, shouting, bad language, or simply shocking. Young comedians know this, and that is why very frequently. they seem to be thrashing around, because if the material isn’t very good you have two alternatives: one is you die, and the other is you thrash around – and on the whole, thrashing around is less humiliating.
David Attenborough, a man I much admire, said to me after the first series of Python, the best advice I ever had: “Use shock sparingly.” If you start using it too much, then it becomes the norm and it’s not shocking anymore, and then you just seem to be thrashing around. The great thing is to use it very, very sparingly, like that wonderful conversation in The Life Of Brian, with all that stuff about, “Tell us Master, tell us!” Brian says, “I’m not the savior!” Somebody says, “Only the savior would deny his own divinity.” So he says, “All right, I am the savior!” They all go, “Ahh, he is the savior!” And he says, “Now f*%# off!” That’s a wonderful use of real shock; we weren’t using bad language before so that really hits you.
I do remember an extraordinary experience: the first time we showed And Now For Something Completely Different, there was hilarious laughter up to fifty minutes, then the audience went quiet for twenty, twenty-five minutes, and then they came up again and finished very well. So we took all that middle material, put it at the beginning, and it all worked beautifully up to about fifty minutes, and then [the] audience got quiet! We discovered that whatever order we put the material in, at about fifty minutes they stopped laughing. And in order to get people to go with you past the fifty minute mark they have to want to know what’s going to happen next. In other words, you have to have characters that they care about and a story they can enjoy and believe in. There’s a huge learning curve.
Michael Palin: A strand which I think is in a lot of Python humor, from all the various sources but perhaps particularly from Terry and myself, is human inadequacy – the fact that things don’t always work out right. The grander magnificent scheme which is set up by mere humans, you know, will go wrong. And in a sense the characters which John and Graham have written, like in the “Dead Parrot” sketch, is just a man giving lots of excuses, and somebody who knows what he wants and not being able to get it. That’s a similar kind of humor: you set something up and then some tiny little thing destroys it completely, because that’s the way human beings are. I mean you can be in a solemn occasion where trumpets play, something like that, [then] somebody farts at the back, and immediately the atmosphere collapses. Because we are all on the edge of the awareness of absurdity. It’s just a nice vein we used to tap.
In Holy Grail that’s constantly happening to Arthur and his troupe; they’d be very kingly and yet something would happen, they’ll talk to some toiling peasant in this very hail-fellow way:
“Old man, tell us the way.”
“I’m thirty-seven, I’m not old.”
“Yes, okay, we don’t want to get into that…”
I think that’s a great strand of humor, which is dragging all those pretensions down to a certain level.