And Now For Something Completely Different: Several Monty Python members write books

This may not come as much of a surprise to many, but I am, and for as long as I remember always have been, an immense fan of Monty Python. As a child I remember watching two of their movies, The Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life, over and over, loving the silliness of The Holy Grail (which to this day is my favourite film) and pretending to get the jokes in The Meaning of Life. As I hit my adult years, I discovered the other Monty Python movies, then discovered the television show they made, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and quickly digested all forty-five episodes. I even managed to find most of the albums they made (including my favourite, Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, which must be the funniest audio recording of all time).

But now I had ignited something deep within me, an insatiable hunger for more of this comedic genius. I re-watched John Cleese’s brilliant Fawlty Towers. I discovered the odd comedy Terry Jones and Michael Palin produced around the same time called Ripping Yarns. I watched the television shows the Monty Python crew had starred in before coming together. I watched movies that featured some of the pythons, such as A Fish Called Wanda and Erik The Viking. I even watched all of Michael Palin’s travel documentaries (which I must say were thoroughly enjoyable). With a little room left for dessert, it occurred to me I should look into whether any of them wrote books – in particular if any of them wrote fiction. And it turns out, some of them did.

The three books I intend to look at are the novels The Road To Mars by Eric Idle, Hemingway’s Chair by Michael Palin, and the non-fiction volume Calcium Made Interesting by Graham Chapman.

The Road to MarsΒ by Eric Idle

This bizarre novel is perhaps one of the most thought provoking and insightful books both of and about comedy I have ever read. Set vaguely in the future, it follows the story of two comedians, Muscroft and Ashby, who suddenly find all their gigs along an inter-planetary vaudeville circuit called ‘The Road To Mars’ are cancelled, for no explicable reason. Thrown into the mix are divas, mastermind terrorists, a micropaleontologist (who studies the evolutionary implications of the last ten minutes) as the narrator, and my favourite character, Carlton, a robot who is attempting to decipher the essence of comedy, and why he as a robot doesn’t understand or appreciate it. It is through this last character that the novel seems to split, being partly a hilarious science fiction tale rather similar to the work of Douglas Adams (which is interesting, as Adams had cited the Pythons as being an influence on him), and partly a dissertation on comedy, coming from somebody who frankly is in a position to ponder the art of humour so philosophically. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel, and would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of comedy on any level (which surely covers most people).

Hemingway’s ChairΒ by Michael Palin

I have mentioned this novel briefly before on my blog, as this was a book I only got around to reading quite recently. It is a very English story, set in a small English village, mostly around a post office (I know, not exactly a setting that bounds with excitement). Martin Sproale is assistant postmaster, and is obsessed with Hemingway, but when he is beaten to the position of postmaster by an outsider, Nick Marshall, who then steals his girlfriend and brings controversial changes to the post office, much to the annoyance of the workers and villagers, Martin soon has to find inspiration to fight back, as his hero would. It sounds inspiring in a sort of humble way, and as I read it I kept expecting it to make me leap up and cheer for Martin, but I just don’t know that it did. The book ended up being a lot stranger than I had anticipated, and when I finished I wasn’t entirely sure what to think. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but it isn’t a book I think I’ll be in a hurry to read again. Having said that, the writing was lovely and very evocative, and there were some funny moments in the story. If you’re a fan of Hemingway, or of Michael Palin, it is definitely worth a read, but it probably isn’t for everyone.

Calcium Made InterestingΒ by Graham Chapman (edited by Jim Yoakum)

This is an anthology containing, as the front cover states, various “sketches, essays, letters, gondolas”, but also monologues, teleplays, articles both by himself and also by others about him, and much more. Throughout them all, these pieces and fragments reveal the many sides of Chapman, from the anarchist who liked silliness for its own sake, to the man who campaigned tirelessly for gay rights, who became a qualified doctor only to walk away from medicine for comedy, and who became one of the most influential comedians of his time. The book is fascinating, intelligent, but most of all just downright hilarious – from the first page beginning with “This book is dedicated to the following apology” (which is then followed by an apology letter he wrote to a pub), through to the “What you may have missed by skimming through this book” page included at the end. I often found myself laughing to the point of being in pain while reading this, so if you are a Monty Python fan, I absolutely urge you to find this book and read it.

Have you read any of these books before, and if so, what were your opinions? Would you be interested in reading them if you haven’t yet done so? And lastly, are there any comedians you love who have written books you also enjoyed?

20 thoughts on “And Now For Something Completely Different: Several Monty Python members write books

  1. I LOVE Monty Python! My dad introduced me to Holy Grail sometime during my teens, and we then watched the entire Flying Circus on DVD (he’s a huge fan with at least two MP t-shirts). Have you seen The Rutles? So funny.

    I had no idea any of them wrote books, although I’m not surprised to find out they did. The Road to Mars Sounds Great, and I might have to get Calcium Made Interesting for my dad! Great post πŸ™‚

    • Hooray, another Python fan! πŸ˜€
      I have seen The Rutles, I completely forgot to mention that film! It was funny, and sadly it’s a little neglected – it essentially started the mockumentary genre, but was eclipsed by This Is Spinal Tap a few years later (which, as much as I love Eric Idle and The Rutles, Spinal Tap is the superior film). But yes, it was a very funny film.
      The books are good, and they have written more too. I know Eric Idle has written another novel and a kids novel, and of course he wrote the musical Spamalot more recently. Michael Palin has also written a play, and I know Graham Chapman wrote a book called “A Liars Autobiography”, where he told his life story apparently but pretended it was all lies, because nobody would believe him anyway. Or something ridiculous like that.
      Glad you enjoyed the post! πŸ™‚

  2. I am so grateful to Prairie Public Television for airing so many British comedies and most especially Monty Python. Both hubby & I throughly enjoyed watching the entire series, their movies, as well as Fawlty Towers. The books you’ve mentioned sound much like the characters who wrote them and might give a little insight into the minds that created their comedy. I will have to add them to my growing list of To-Be-Read books! πŸ™‚

    • That is good you manage to get a lot of British comedies! We get quite a few aired here in Australia too, mostly because we have such a high British population here.
      They are definitely worth reading, these books, if you enjoyed the various Monty Python movies and series. Like you say, they do provide quite a lot of insight into who they are as people, and some of their deeper thoughts about both society, and their art of comedy itself. πŸ™‚

    • It really is an amazing movie, isn’t it? I watch it at least two or three times every year, and it always makes me laugh, even now. Every now and then I spot something I didn’t see before too – for example, only recently I noticed at the very beginning of the witch burning scene, Sir Bedevere is playing with a swallow, attaching a coconut to it with string and setting it off to fly, a scene which is so brief I missed it entirely until maybe two years ago.
      I am quite certain I could quote most of that movie, if I was put on the spot! πŸ˜›

  3. I’m going to go ahead and say what everybody else has already said: I love Monty Python! They were a staple for afternoon sillliness at my house (much to my mom’s dismay). I’m going to have to look these books up. And maybe find a copy of the Holy Grail to watch! πŸ™‚

    • That’s funny you mention that, as my mum often didn’t care for Monty Python either – it was entirely dad’s doing that I ended up growing up with these guys (thank goodness).
      I was thinking, just after I wrote this post last night, that I really felt like sitting down and watching some Monty Python, too! πŸ˜›

    • Hahaha, no, I think actually the madness came long before the reading…I am pretty sure the madness appeared almost immediately following my birth πŸ˜› I probably do seem a little excited in parts of this post, but I suppose it is just because I really have grown up with Monty Python, and their comedy has always had a profound effect and influence on me. Just talking about it makes me start smiling and laughing. I always love when I’m teaching and some of my teenage students start quoting Monty Python too – I love that after forty years, teenagers still find it funny. πŸ™‚

  4. Monty Python here as well. I wish to write a book as funny (someday) as 1/10th funny and original as these guys and I watched every episode as well, have seen everyone of the movies and even have some of the albums although in very low audio quality but still enjoyable. I’ve been meaning to buy Monty Python’s The Lawyer’s Cut which is an extensive biography of the entire life of each of the Pythons from their beginngs until today but I can’t find it anywhere!!!! But anyway, although I knew about the existence of Monty Python’s books I never thought of buying books independently from each member but I will now! Thanks a lot for the recommendations. Dennis Moore, Dennis Moore, etcetera, etcetera…

    • I know what you mean – writing anything funny is so much harder than people expect. I tend to find I’m funnier when I’m not trying to be funny, so I’m going with that, although my humour could never compare with that of the Pythons – they are just timeless and genius.
      Definitely watch The Lawyer’s Cut if you can get your hands on it – it is really quite fascinating. It goes for 6 hours (which is hilarious in itself) but it is awfully good stuff, and I have rewatched bits of it twice I must confess.
      And I had to laugh at that….Dennis Moore…hahaha. πŸ˜›

  5. I adore Monty Python. I’ve only ever read Michael Palin’s diaries during the time they were filming the series, never a novel written by the men themselves!

    Life of Brian has to be my favourite comedy film. Also, Fish Called Wanda is comedy genius. Never fails to make me laugh.

    • Ahh, I’ve only read Palin’s diaries from the python years – I haven’t read any of his later diaries, though I’ve been meaning to for some time!
      Life of Brian is definitely very funny, it is up there in my favourite comedy films. They’ve all done some great things outside of Monty Python, though I do think they were at their best when they were together (to the point that I didn’t like the fourth series of Flying Circus as much because Cleese wasn’t in it for various reasons – it was still funny, but not as good as the other three series).

  6. Self proclaimed Python fan as well – It’s interesting to see how the Pythons have branched out post-Python. I really like Michael Palin’s travel documentaries (some of them are on Netflix). I was also fortunate to see him receive the Magellan Award from the Circumnavigator’s Club in 2009. He seemed very fond of the friends he met on a small boat while on the Indian Ocean in “Around the World in 80 Days.” So much so, that he went back 20 years later and found most of the same crew!

    • Yeah, I have heard about/seen the special episode he filmed 20 years later going back to meet them again, I’d like to watch that sometime, as I remember seeing them in Around the World In 80 Days (which was always one of his better travel docos). It is interesting to see how they have gone – some of them staying more in comedy whilst others branching out to other places like travel or history.

  7. Pingback: Which comedians and actors do you think could write a great book? | wantoncreation

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