Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Eh-hum # 267

No doubt, I am a Monty Python fan (maybe not as intense as most, but a fan nonetheless). To be more specific, I am a believer of the word according to Michael Palin (see earlier post). So, as a supportive fan, I ordered Palin's Diaries, 1969 to 1979: The Python Years for my reading pleasure.

Though I have finished reading all 650++ pages a month ago, it is only now that I decided to share my thoughts on it my way (obviously, I am no literary critic). So, my thoughts goes as follows and begins now: if you are looking for a funny book, then don't buy this one. Let me elaborate.

The book is not a memoir but rather contains excerpts from Palin's diary, which he started keeping in April 1969. It is organized by year and each passage is headed by when and where it was written. So instead of a long, continuous narrative divided by chapters, the book is essentially a compilation of Palin's diary entries for one decade. Many of the entries extend more than one page, while others are no more than five sentences and are read like simple lists of events and errands.

Would compiled and organized day-to-day journal accounts be considered an interesting read? Well, most definitely, since we are talking about Palin, one of six men who created (wrote and performed in) one of the most enduring comedy series in television. And as I found out after reading New Europe, Palin is an engaging and astute writer.

Palin provides insights into the Python’s group dynamics during the years that catapulted them to international acclaim. He described candidly the individuality (strengths, pet peeves and all) of the other five silly yet brilliant people that make up the group. Monty Python have been a genuine and frank collaboration from the beginning and have remained so even as its members drifted their separate ways. But the stories are not always pleasant; there were the occasional group conflicts and arguments. Aside from Graham Chapman's alcoholism (which he eventually overcame), the biggest source of tension was when John Cleese decided to leave the group after Flying Circus’ third series. It’s very difficult to imagine Python without the prominent Cleese; however, it would be grossly unfair to delegate the group’s success to one person only.

Palin was at times hesitant with Python’s fate after the series, but has been very supportive whenever they reunite for post-Flying Circus projects and resilient in defending the group’s legal rights (e.g. censorship, etc.). But of course, he was keen on making it on his own. One that figures prominently was the production of Ripping Yarns, a comedy series that parodied certain aspects of British culture as well as the pre-WWII schoolboy genre. While Palin co-wrote Ripping Yarns with fellow Python Terry Jones, the show notably features Palin as the lead on and off-camera. Palin relishes this newly found independence, but initially felt apprehensive in expressing this to Jones, his longtime friend and writing partner in Python. We also witness Palin taking the lead role in Terry Gilliam’s film, Jabberwocky and his hosting stints at Saturday Night Live (as encouraged by Eric Idle).

Palin is also generous in sharing stories of his life off-camera. Indeed, interesting and poignant anecdotes on Palin’s parents, wife, and his three children are featured significantly in the book. His busy schedule does not prevent him from being a responsible son, loving husband and affectionate father, which I find truly admirable. His family and non-showbiz friends kept his feet firmly on the ground as Python becomes increasingly popular. We know that fame could either break or make a person, and with all the opportunities coming his way, Palin remains mind-bogglingly level-headed. Honorable mentions are his friendships with other comedians and actors, not to mention the George Harrison.

What I find interesting about Palin is his work ethics. Despite what most people think, comedy is serious business. Palin makes sure that every time he sits down in his working room at his Gospel Oak home in London; he has produced workable materials for his shows or completed a chapter for his novel (which I am not sure if he was able to publish). This is very encouraging for someone like me, who has a tendency to procrastinate. Whenever my mind wanders, I always remind myself that at 28, Palin is already reaping the rewards of his comedic career (he was 26 when Python was formed).

In most of the Python sketches, Palin takes the role of the greasy compere or host, the ineffective applicant to Cleese’ aggressive bureaucrat, the befuddled accountant, and the unaccommodating shop owner. Thanks to this book, the character he portrays on stage and screen is definitely not the kind of person he really is. Palin is often referred to as the “nicest Python”, and for good reason. Whether he realized it or not, his diaries confirm that he really is a nice guy, not to mention intelligent, witty, sharp and straight-thinking (well, except in comedy, where he gets to be hysterical and absurd).

And good news, there will be second volume to be published next year. And I can assure you that I will be ordering my copy once it comes out. I end this post with a video of Palin reading excerpts on shooting Monty Python and the Holy Grail (this and accounts on the Life of Brian were real page turners). Enjoy!

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