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.
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).
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.
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?