Monty Python on The Meaning of Life
This interview was conducted by Randy Lofficier in Los Angeles, on 12 March, 1983, just prior to the American release of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Four Pythons were present: Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones. John Cleese and Michael Palin were present only in the form of two large black-and-white photographs, with a pre-recorded Michael Palin on tape. Conversation started after breakfast...
Graham CHAPMAN: Have we started?
Randy LOFFICIER: I'd like to think of a clever question...
Eric IDLE: Good.
Terry JONES: We'll ask you a few questions, like what are we doing here, why are we here? Have you seen the film, actually?
LOFFICIER: Yes, I was wondering why Terry Jones directed this time instead of Terry Gilliam?
JONES: Terry directs his own films now, so he likes to take a break in between. It's all quite confusing.
IDLE: Good question though.
LOFFICIER: Well, it's a start. Considering the response to The Life of Brian, what do you think the reaction to The Meaning of Life will be?
IDLE: From whom?
LOFFICIER: I was thinking more along the lines of the Catholic Church and other religious organizations.
IDLE: I'd think they wouldn't be thrilled. What do you think?
LOFFICIER: I can picture myself going home next week, and the parish priest threatening to excommunicate me because I gave the film a good review.
JONES: I must say I thought it was a bit of a piece of propaganda for the Church, which I thought they'd be sort of thrilled about. Happy little faces, and so on...
IDLE: For many years, they have been a church without a catch phrase, and now they got one, "Every sperm is sacred".
JONES: I expect it'll become a hymn; in fact. In a few years time, it'll be sung in churches throughout the land.
LOFFICIER: Not this land. I though the production numbers were very good and, after seeing them, I was wishing you had directed Annie.
JONES: As a matter of fact, these numbers were choreographed by the same lady who choreographed Annie, Arlene Phillips.
LOFFICIER: Has the film already opened in England?
JONES: No, they won't allow it to be shown over there. Actually, we're trying to beat Return of the Jedi, and the James Bond films...
CHAPMAN: Are those anti-Catholic too?
JONES: Yes, yes. The James Bond films this year are very anti, well, actually it's anti-Hindu.
LOFFICIER: I'm almost afraid to ask this after having seen the film, but was there anything that you shot and left out because you decided that it was too much for the film?
JONES: A scathing attack on Martin Luther, which we excised out of the film.
IDLE: That's because nobody knew who he was!
JONES: But there was nothing that we omitted on grounds of taste.
LOFFICIER: Do you work on the script all together, or do you each take little bits and do them separately?
CHAPMAN: Both, isn't it? We work separately to begin with, and then all meet up together and chat about it.
JONES: We all go off and write stuff and then get together and talk them through. As a result, sometimes things change. In the restaurant scene, for example, the ending explosion bit came in out of group discussion.
LOFFICIER: Could you describe the genesis of that particular scene, since it's obviously the most grotesque of the entire film.
IDLE: Come on Terry! Speak up!
JONES: It started with me trying to write a sketch in the worst possible taste! It really all came out of the line, "Better get a bucket, I'm going to throw-up!" It just seemed to write itself from there.
IDLE: It makes Pavarotti look anorexic!
LOFFICIER: Why did you go back to the structure of your television series after the two more linearly plotted films?
IDLE: Good question! We couldn't agree on a story, I think. our two previous films were both subjects that you could write about, yet they were written in short scenes and the linear thread was put on them. This material didn't have that sort of effect. It was from all over the place. The structure idea helped to fit them into context in one film, rather than try to tell a story. At one stage, we tried to make this material into a story. We followed the kids through, and all of that. But it didn't really work. So, I think it's more of a pragmatic thing rather than us deciding that we'd do it that way.
JONES: Funnily enough, The Holy Grail started off as a sketch film. We weren't writing a sketch film, it's just that if six people go off and write things you wind up with a lot of disconnected scenes. Then the Arthur thing grew out of that. With Brian we had more of a line on that to begin with, didn't we?
GILLIAM: Yeah, the title!
LOFFICIER: It seems that your view of the universe has gotten a bit blacker than in the past. Is that a conscious thing or is that because the universe is blacker than it was in the past?
IDLE: It's maturity!
GILLIAM: I think we're going to die sooner now, it's getting closer and closer, so we're panicking.
CHAPMAN: I think it's that probably what people need at the moment is cheering up, and we went the other way!
LOFFICIER: Have you ever done any surveys to see exactly who your public is?
IDLE: Yes. It tends to be largely male from the age of 26 to 43. It's slightly more male than female, I think...
JONES: Apart from our mothers...
IDLE: ...who don't like it at all!
JONES: They did do a marketing preview in Yonkers, New York. We had an audience of 75% high-school kids, 15 to 18 year-olds. Out of 400, 18 of them walked out in disgust. I think it got the strongest negative response of any film on which they've actually carried out one of these surveys. Disgraceful film!
GILLIAM: It's just not a good film for a first date!
LOFFICIER: Did you make any changes in the film based on that screening?
JONES: Well, we had two showings in Yonkers, actually. After the first showing, when the eighteen walked out, we cut out as much of the film as possible, so the second showing was even shorter!
LOFFICIER: When you have reactions like that does it make you want to compromise the film by cutting sequences out?
GILLIAM: No, I don't think that has ever been part of it. When we write, we're doing it for the six of us. There's a constant problem with each film that we do, because there's a secondary audience waiting out there for that kind of Monty Python humor. Of course, the Studio always want to cut things out of the film for whatever reason. I think it's a very questionable argument and one not really worth pursuing. But when they've got a lot of money at stake, they want to think that there's a lot of people out there that love us, rather than a few people loving us very very deeply.
JONES: I think it's daft, actually. As soon as you start trying to do marketing research and start tailoring what you do for a market, you start ending up with bland, TV situation comedies that aren't going to mean anything specific to anyone, but something to a lot of people.
LOFFICIER: Do you miss the form of a weekly series?
GILLIAM: A series is an easier way of working because you're always under constant pressure, so you've just got to churn out material. When you've got a film, you've got so many millions of dollars at stake there that it takes a bit longer. Also, because we've got more time, we tend to double-think things sometimes. When you're doing a television show, you really have to churn out a half hour each week and you make amazing leaps that you probably wouldn't have the nerve to make had you been given the time and the money. I think some really exciting moments have been because of that necessity.
LOFFICIER: Has working with a bigger budget affected what you wrote for this film?
JONES: We wrote the film first in fact, before we had a budget. Then, eventually, Universal agreed to do it. The script was really there.
CHAPMAN: Had they read it at that stage?
JONES: No, they were jolly good! It's the truth, actually. They never read the script! They said they'd give us the money for the film, and we said, "You can't read the script", and they said O. K.
GILLIAM: They were very wise, I think.
JONES: It's one of those things where as soon as people start reading the script they say, "You can't do this! You can't have somebody throwing up in a restaurant."
LOFFICIER: Was the fact that the film was divided into seven segments a backward stab at Shakespeare's "The Seven Ages of Man"?
IDLE: A tribute!
LOFFICIER: When your show started in the late sixties, there was a lot of controversy surrounding it. Weren't a lot of people against it?
GILLIAM: Yes, Eric and Graham were against it!
CHAPMAN: And the BBC! They were definitely against it.
Michael PALIN (on tape): The best ideas in the film, the very best sketches, were written by myself and Terry Jones. And the worst material was written by all the others. This is a controversial view and I know that John and Graham don't agree. They think that Terry and I wrote all the best material and the best songs. This is absolutely not true, because Eric wrote one of the very good songs. It's just a pity that John and Graham didn't write anything at all!
LOFFICIER: Weren't you really plagued with censorship at the beginning of the program?
CHAPMAN: Well, not at the beginning. We were fine because the BBC didn't think anyone was watching and they didn't even read the scripts. So that was wonderful, we were allowed to get away with things. But later, when they realized that we were actually picking up an audience, censorship did come in and they read the scripts.
LOFFICIER: Do you think the fact that you were on the air doing "naughty bits" has helped the programs that have come after?
CHAPMAN: I think it does a little, yes indeed.
GILLIAM: I think that all the things that people feared would happen have happened. It gets actually more difficult, and I think we stopped doing the shows in a way because of it. Because we had reached a point where we couldn't surprise and shock people anymore. All we could do then was just get dirtier and more outrageous, and that sort of feeds on itself.
CHAPMAN: But we did reach ludicrous situations where there would be a ruling on the number of times one could say "shit". Having said it once, what's the bother really?
LOFFICIER: Michael Palin mentioned in an earlier interview, that your group seems to have difficulty writing sketches about sex. Is that because you don't have any women in the group or is that just a problem that Michael has?
IDLE: Sex and comedy seem to be antithesis. They're just the opposite. If you have a sense of humor during sex, you just laugh. "This is silly! I'm going to put that there?" So, I think it is hard to make a good serious comedy about sex. It certainly is for us because we don't have any female writers, I think.
JONES: There is one, but we can't tell you which one of us it is!
IDLE: I don't know, actually, who successfully does it. Nobody since Thurber really.
PALIN (on tape): What's it like, answering all these questions? Oh, I enjoy it. I'm very happy to be here indeed. Just looking around the room at all the faces here is like being with ones' friends again. What I'm really pleased about is that I actually made the effort to come, because it was going to be difficult. My wife is running away from home and I had to remain home and look after the other man's family. I'm very glad that I came over really. It's a very nice feeling when all the Python team are together like they are, Terry and Terry, Graham, John's together somewhere, and Eric. I think that's when we're really at our best and it's a marvelous feeling. What? No, no, I'm a vegetarian.
JONES: One of the statistics for the film is that we had 900 gallons of pre-mixed vomit for that scene. It was very nice for the first day's filming, but by the end of the week it was starting to smell a bit like it looked. We also had a machine that could throw it thirty yards at once. All the extras were queuing up to have it thrown at them. It was made mostly of cans of vegetable soup, sweet corn, a bit of tomato, diced carrot.
LOFFICIER: There always seem to be rumors that you won't get together anymore to do films. Down the road is there still another Python film?
CHAPMAN: When we've just only finished a film, I think we always feel that that will be the last. But it seems to happen every four years that we get together for some reason. I don't know quite why. Nothing else to do, maybe.
GILLIAM: Loneliness or something.
LOFFICIER: After all the books, TV shows, records and films, is it still a challenge to write new comedy?
JONES: Every time you do something new, you don't know whether it's going to work or what it's going to be like. Unless you're writing a situation comedy that runs on the same characters over and over again. Every time you sit down with a blank piece of paper it's kind of "Where do you go from here" kind of thing.
IDLE: Also, the more you've done, the harder it is. When you start, it's a completely fresh field. Then, the more you go into it, the more things remind you of something you did eight years ago. So you tend to avoid that, so it does somewhat limit it.
LOFFICIER: Are audiences more difficult to outrage now?
JONES: No, not according to what we've seen in Yonkers. They seem to be easier to outrage than they've ever been.
GILLIAM: I think they're coming around again towards the more conservative. The kids that are now growing up are much more easily shocked than their parents were.
LOFFICIER: What shocked them in Yonkers?
JONES: They started walking out on "Every Sperm Is Sacred". I think it was as Terry said, girls on their first date. They were sixteen year-olds thinking, "Oh, I really shouldn't be sitting here listening to this kind of talk!" The sex lecture also started getting seats going up a bit.
CHAPMAN: I should think that is sort of rough on a first date.
JONES: Yes, when you're just getting around to trying to hold hands and you have somebody talking about putting penises in vaginas...
LOFFICIER: Were you surprised that people were upset with that material?
JONES: I was yes, very surprised.
GILLIAM: I think it was the explicit, bald use of the words.
LOFFICIER: Did you have any trouble getting parents to let their children appear in the "Every Sperm is Sacred" number?
JONES: No. We had trouble trying to keep them away from it! There was only one set of parents, a mother and a father strangely enough, that didn't want their child to do it after they read the words.
LOFFICIER: Come on, you did cheat on "Every Sperm Is Sacred" didn't you?
JONES: Not on the song. Only on the stuff that Mike was saying about "wearing the little rubber thing on the end of my cock". When we actually came to do that, with all the kids there, the guardians of the kids were a bit worried about it, so Michael actually said "a little rubber thing on the end of my sock", and we had to dub it in later.
IDLE: Now there are a lot of young people growing up foot fetishists!
JONES: I think we ought to be sued actually, for misleading children.
LOFFICIER: Was the thing with the leg being chewed off, actually based on an experience that Graham had as a doctor?
CHAPMAN: I do remember one particular moment in my medical training when I found myself in an operating theater holding a dismembered leg. Which was a strange moment to have had in one's life. Wandering around with it wondering where to put it. So I suppose that sort of stuck with me a little.
JONES: Where did you put it?
CHAPMAN: Some nurse eventually took it away to the leg bin.
LOFFICIER: Where did you get the inspiration for that lovely, surrealistic, middle-of-the-film scene?
JONES: It was a composite of things really. Terry Gilliam had the elephant thing left over from Time Bandits actually. He said, "I wish we had somewhere we could use this troll, we never saw it in Time Bandits!" Then, Graham had always wanted to dress like that!
LOFFICIER: Where did you get the idea for the building in The Crimson Permanent Insurance?
IDLE: Terry's always drawing that. It was one of the first things he drew when we first had meetings.
GILLIAM: We had a thing where the cities were sailing around in the background, I think it was to avoid missile attacks. It does seem like a logical extension, when you walk around and see buildings being cleaned with all that tarpaulin billowing, to have it actually function as a sail.
JONES: Originally it was going to be animation, wasn't it Terry?
GILLIAM: No! It was only wishful thinking on other people's parts!
LOFFICIER: Was it done with models or stop-motion...
GILLIAM: A bit of everything, really. There were model buildings. We built a facade of a building. There's the one shot outside where the chain is actually in the ground. That was actually Lloyd's Shipping Building in the City of London. They wouldn't believe that we weren't actually making fun of them in some way. It was an insurance building and it was about shipping. It just was a sheer coincidence that that happened to be the building we chose. The chairman of the board was actually trying to stop it, writing to the police saying it shouldn't be allowed to happen. We had to sneak in there one weekend and hold the chain within inches of the building because we couldn't touch it in any way. The whole thing was done with a great crane, pulling the chain up, while we were in absolute fear of the police arriving at any moment and chasing us out.
LOFFICIER: Was that segment always meant to be a short at the beginning of the film?
GILLIAM: It was supposed to be the relief from the intensive comedy of the rest of the film. We found in our previous films that somewhere around the two-thirds mark, nothing seems to work very well or get laughs. Whether people are tired from laughing or what, we've never known. But we thought we'd do a bit of adventure at that point, just to give them a chance to relax a little. But, unfortunately, it grew a bit. It didn't actually work in that place. Once we had actually done it, it seemed odd. You couldn't actually shift people's gears quick enough. They'd be going along and suddenly this thing would come in and they thought it was merely a set-up for another gag. But then it kept going on, it wasn't over in thirty seconds it was on for another minute, then another, and they couldn't figure out was going on. It became very confusing. Then we tried it in front of the film and it seemed to go better there because people didn't have any preconceptions at that point. There's only brief moments when you see any of us in it. That also gave us the chance for that gag with them coming in and attacking the middle of the film.
LOFFICIER: Had you always planned on it being old men?
GILLIAM: Yes. I liked the idea of trying to get octogenarians behaving in that manner.
LOFFICIER: They were all stunt men, weren't they?
GILLIAM: No, there was just one. They were old music writers and things. It was really a battle trying to find eighty-year-old men. It was nice because they ended up rising to the occasion. They hadn't been asked to behave like that for years, climbing over buildings and doing all the things their doctors had probably warned them against, and enjoying it. There were no injuries, except for one disaster... well, he wasn't nice anyway.
LOFFICIER: Was there an actual accident on the set?
GILLIAM: It was just on the last day, after a very nice lunch. Somebody stepped backwards off something. He broke his foot, is what he did. It was a pity, because everything had gone extremely well, they'd done all their stunts with no problem. The last day, they were a really happy bunch, they'd had several bottles of wine, and he walked off backwards...
IDLE: Not much of a story, "Man Breaks Foot on Python Film".
LOFFICIER: Was that Michael Caine in the Zulu Wars sequence? After all, Zulu was his first big film.
IDLE: Say yes!
GILLIAM: We tried to get a lot of stars in the film and none of them wanted to be in it.
JONES: Yes. We were turned down by Clint Eastwood, Julie Andrews, Paul Newman... Paul Newman thought about it, we got a very nice letter from him saying that he would really like to, but he thought that after all he wouldn't. Clint, I'm afraid, turned us down cold. I don't think he even replied to our letter.
IDLE: There was a section in the middle of the film actually, just to explain. They weren't asked just to star in this work. Famous stars were asked to comment on the heating arrangements in cinemas, so they had to come forward and talk to the assistant manager and tell him if the heating was up too high and if you sit too close to the central heating you might get a little rash. These were the things they were asked to do... which they turned down! So it got cut.
LOFFICIER: When you write this type of film, does your script have to be very tight to make the jokes work. Is there ad libbing?
JONES: It has to be tight, really. You've got to get everything there at the right moment. All the props, the locations, everything has to be designed.
GILLIAM: One that was done on the set was Eric polishing Mike's lens. One of the few things that was actually thought of on the day.
JONES: That's when the lift doors open and Eric is giving Mike's camera "Cannonlingus"!
LOFFICIER: Is it frustrating when you go off and do things individually, yet people persist in calling that a "Monty Python Project"?
IDLE: It can be frustrating and annoying, but it's largely inaccurate. That's why it's annoying. Because one of the great delights is going off and doing projects which aren't group projects.
GILLIAM: It's calmed down a bit in the past year and a half to two years.
CHAPMAN: I used to get fed up with the question, "Which one are you?" It's a very difficult question to answer!
IDLE: People need a label though, you can't avoid things. I think we tend to see the differences more than the audiences, and more than anybody cares.
LOFFICIER: Do you think that has adversely affected any of the projects?
JONES: I think Terry's first film, Jabberwocky was affected by that in a way. It was really a very different thing form a Python film. It wasn't the same kind of laughs.
GILLIAM: Our mistake was doing a medieval film after doing Holy Grail with Mike Palin and Terry Jones in it. When you do things like that you're asking for trouble. I was quite amazed reading reviews of Time Bandits. They didn't harp on the Python connection too much. They mentioned it, but it was at least seen as something quite different. I think that was the advantage of having a little kid and six dwarves playing the lead. I think Mike's film, The Missionary, has had a little of that, being compared on the same level when it's meant to be something quite different, the whole level of humor is different.
JONES: If people don't like The Missionary, it tends to get compared with Monty Python, and they obviously haven't caught on to what it is. The ones that did like it can see it's something different.
GILLIAM: They don't say it's a second rate John Ford film...
IDLE: And that's what it is, right?
LOFFICIER: When you decided on locations for this film, was Tunisia ever considered or was it at the top of your list of places not to go?
CHAPMAN: It wasn't at the top of my list, no.
IDLE: It was the first three places of my list!
JONES: I rather liked Tunisia. I think it was jolly nice!
IDLE: I think that answers your question!
JONES: I don't know what happened actually. There is the Zulu scene, which we should have shot in Africa. But for some reason, I don't know why, we decided to shoot it just outside Glasgow.
IDLE: That's close! Africanish!
JONES: We did have a revolt of the natives, actually. Because the day came for the Zulu charge, and the one thing we wanted was blue skies, otherwise it was going to look like Glasgow. It was a cloudy and drizzly day. We were waiting for the 150 Zulus that we had recruited in Glasgow, Glasweegian natives. Suddenly, word came up from the dressing rooms that there was something going on. There was a revolt going on because they refused to put on their costumes, because they said they were too skimpy and it was too cold. They refused to do it and they all had to be bussed back home again. There were 150 ugly scenes in the changing rooms! So we couldn't shoot it. We had to put it off to the next day, when we got 100 white Glasweegians, whom we had to black up and put wigs on. It took us all day to black them up, and it was 5:00 in the afternoon by the time we got to shoot the scene, and the sun came out! That's why you never see many of the natives up close, we only had half a dozen genuine black natives, the rest were all very obviously white Glasweegians!
LOFFICIER: Do you like to make a statement with your films? Would you be disappointed if the audience left and didn't think about what they'd seen?
CHAPMAN: I think we would be, probably. Surely with this one, and with Brian. We were very pleased that it made people think a little.
GILLIAM: I think it's quite good, because it can be taken on different levels. There are those who can take it on an outrageous silly level, and there are those who can get really pretentious about it.
JONES: I think it helps the comedy if it makes a point, it makes it funnier.
LOFFICIER: What would you count as your major influences?
ALL: Alcohol! Drugs!
IDLE: I think there's a surreal streak running through all British comedy.
LOFFICIER: Do you consider the Goon Show to have been an influence?
CHAPMAN: It was in that at about the age of thirteen or fourteen, most of us listened to that on the radio. Certainly it was an influence. For radio shows at that time it was anarchic, it didn't fit into the mold of the rest of radio comedy. So it was a liberating influence.
JONES (turning towards the tape recorder): Michael, you should have the last answer. What do you think about all this?
PALIN (on tape): You're trying to catch me out with that, aren't you? Fish? Yes, I eat fish, I do. I don't see anything particularly wrong with eating fish. otherwise, they'd take over the world! If we didn't eat them they'd be absolutely everywhere. We'd be shoved under with the little buggers. I think it's what life is really all about, isn't it? We have to eat other people in order to protect ourselves. Like Americans have to eat Russians, and Russians have to eat Chinese, and so on. It's just one of those things that goes on and is really, the motive of life and why we're all here.
Interview © 2000 Randy Lofficier