If you haven’t seen them, chances are you’ve at least heard their sketches parroted by friends or bar patrons enough times that you likely have no trouble recognizing the humor of Monty Python. Well, by now you should — they’ve been around for 40 years. In honor of this milestone, IFC presents Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut), a six-part documentary series on the Pythons and their work, directed in part and coproduced by Bill Jones, son of Python Terry Jones, along with his collaborator and coproducer Ben Timlett. We caught up with the pair to discuss the film and what it was like to “grow up Python.”
So tell us a bit about this project and how it came to be.
Bill Jones: It’s a six-part documentary that’s going on IFC. We’ve split off, obviously, the life of the Pythons as a team into chunks, and each chunk represents a portion of their life. … [The first covers] from their early childhoods up until just before they start doing the Flying Circus series, so just before they start working on the programs. And then you’ve got the second one, which is about their starting Flying Circus. The third one’s sort of what the programs [were like] internally, called Python on Python, where we’ve just got all of the Pythons talking about each other. And then the fourth one is about [Monty Python and the] Holy Grail. Fifth one’s about Life of Brian. And the sixth one’s about Meaning of Life, Live at The Hollywood Bowl, Graham’s death and then a little bit of Spamalot.
Ben Timlett: Episode 4, for me, is more about them breaking America, really. America was the key to their real success. Obviously they were successful in the U.K., but we’re only a small country, and their success in America is really part of that episode. And then, Episode 5, we just thought we had to devote an entire episode to Life of Brian. Everybody — certainly in the U.K. — feels it was the best film they ever made. Although, our experience is that Americans, they seem to all love Holy Grail more. But you know …
They don’t often seem to take themselves seriously, but with six hours to fill, do we see much of that serious side in this documentary?
Bill: I think it’s actually a mixture of both.
Ben: They are incredibly honest. They don’t really care about what they say about each other — which is quite amazing as a group, that they’ve sort of held together, even though part of it is that they’ll say horrible things about each other.
Bill: They all do it — they don’t get upset by it, because they’re all like, “Well, it’s probably a bit true.”
The Pythons obviously have had an impact on this side of the Atlantic, but there’s still a distinctive divide between British and American humor that persists.
Ben: Some people just don’t like sketch comedy, I think. Essentially, that’s what it is. I think in terms of what the influence is on new comedians … I think the problem for new comedians, if they’re doing sketch-based stuff, is trying to do something that Python didn’t do. I mean, a lot of comedians that we spoke to said it’s very difficult — they would write a sketch and then go, “Oh, hang on — that’s sort of half a sketch. It’s actually a Python sketch.”
Bill: I think all new comedians take a bit of what they enjoy, and a good comedian will put a bit of themselves in it and make it funny in their own way. It’s not bad being influenced by anything and everything. Just before [Monty Python] were about to start shooting Flying Circus, in [the U.K.], a program called Q came out, which was done by this guy called Spike Milligan. He was part of a band who used to do comedy on radio, called The Goons. And the Pythons were all massive fans of The Goons. So when they came on television, you could have gone, “Well, the Pythons are just doing The Goons on television.” … But it’s quite interesting to see why Spike’s comedy is not remembered — his Q series isn’t really remembered — but the Pythons’ is.
The obvious question to you, Bill — what was it like growing up “Son of Python”?
Bill: By the time I got to school, Python weren’t that popular. It was sort of in between all the reruns, before we had a lot of channels — it wasn’t really on telly. The famous parent in my primary school wasn’t my dad. It was another guy’s dad who was on a kid’s program called Grange Hill. Everyone was excited about him being the famous one. … He was the sports teacher with the bald head.
I don’t know. I’ve got a silly line I tell people, that it is a bit strange growing up and going to school and knowing that everyone at school has seen your dad’s ass. But it was a great — I think I had a pretty lucky childhood, because he was, you know, my dad was famous, but it never sort of impinged and stopped us doing anything. I mean, the only time that I remember people coming up and asking for autographs and things would be if we were on holiday in Italy or France, and then you’d be in a restaurant, and another English person would come up and go, ‘Oh! Can I get your autograph?’ But because they were really like the only two English people in the area, they felt like they could approach, but when we were in London, it never really happened.
Ben: I remember watching Meaning of Life aged 10 or something. I mean, Meaning of Life is an incredibly scary film. It has Death in it, and Mr. Creosote used to scare the @#$% out of me, and I wondered, “What am I being shown?” … Mike and Terry did a series called Ripping Yarns. I remember there was one called “The Curse of the Claw,” and I remember sitting down [and watching it] at that age, and I couldn’t sleep for months. [Laughs.]
Bill: Yeah, I remember “The Claw” being scary, but I don’t remember Meaning of Life being scary.
Ben (To Bill): The liver donors?? Showing the liver donors to a 10-year-old??
Bill: I don’t know! I don’t remember it being scary —
Ben: Very liberal views …
Bill: I remember “The Claw” being scary. … One other thing I remember is watching Life of Brian, when Brian goes to the hermit in the hole. I remember not liking that scene too much, because at the end, they’re carrying my dad off, and I’m like, “Ahh! They’re being mean to my dad!”
The Pythons had parted ways a number of years before Graham Chapman’s death. Do you remember that event bringing them together, galvanizing them in a sense after having gone their own ways for a number of years?
Bill: Well, I think it was a bit of a full stop about them as a team, to do any more real Python things altogether. And I think Mike Palin is particularly — he’s [said], “It doesn’t work unless they’ve got all the Pythons together.” And now that Graham is dead, it’s difficult to do any more as Monty Python, because they’re not Monty Python unless they’re all there. So I think it was more of a bit of a full stop rather than a galvanization.
Ben: Eric Idle had gotten an offer to do a big show, a big worldwide tour, and they got offered $10 million or something like that. And Mike initially said yes, and then changed his mind, feeling that without Graham, it wouldn’t be the same.
So how were they about getting together on this particular project? Do they agree with a bit of a sigh, or do they willingly answer the call of history?
Ben: It was sort of on and off. One of them wanted to do it, then one of them didn’t, and then obviously Bill’s dad supported it all the way. They’re a democratic sort of existence, so it’s quite difficult for them to agree on anything. Not just this — I think lots of other things, as well. But once they had agreed to do it, they were actually fantastic. And what’s been nice is the momentum of it. Because as it’s gotten bigger and bigger, the momentum has really taken them, and now, they seem to be really happy about it. Terry Gilliam popped in yesterday … so we showed him quite a bit, and he was giggling a lot.
Bill: Showing anything to Terry G. is great, because he’s such a great laugher. He just fills the room with laughter. But he was really enjoying it, finding it funny, and loving the cutting of it, and the pace of it. Because I think, harking back to the amount of stuff we wanted to have, the pace of it is really high-tempo to try to manage that.
Ben: And then the interviews — John Cleese, I was probably the most nervous about doing. I had interviewed him once before and he was OK, but he was really happy — absolutely happy. I think he’d got his divorce through, so I think that was it, more or less. [Laughs.] But he was in a great mood, even though the day before he’d had to do seven hours interview for some Fawlty Towers documentary they were doing. … But he was great. So ultimately, they have been very supportive.
They’re such bright guys, too — all of those brilliant historical references that were part of the Python sketches, that relatively few of the general public would even recognize these days …
Bill: Yeah, they went to Oxford and Cambridge …
Ben: Apart from Gilliam.
Bill: Yeah, apart from Gilliam, the American of the lot. But they came from the sort of hotbed of the academia world. They are all really bright. In the documentary, Dad talks about being a bit worried about going to … Cambridge?
Ben: Oxford? I can’t remember where your dad is from.
Bill: But he’s worried about going there because he’s thinking, “These are, like, the brightest people in the country,” and he’s worried that he’s not going to be as bright. And then he says, “I get there, and I realize it’s not true! No one’s brighter than anyone else!” And we were like, “No, that’s just because you’re bright, as well! That’s why you were able to fit in!” [Laughs.]
Ben: They’re passionately interested in things. Gilliam as well — he goes at a million miles an hour. His brain is just firing off stuff. I remember, we were visiting with one of the heads of IFC, and we were having dinner. … Your dad came with Gilliam. We were talking about something, and then you had some conversation with Terry Gilliam about something to do with constant physics and the universe, and Gilliam stopped talking to everyone else and said, “No — Bill’s talking about something interesting!”
So before we terminate this interview, what about any plans for future projects?
Ben: I think it would be hard to persuade them to do another one.
Bill: I don’t know — maybe we’ll wait until the 60th anniversary.
Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut) premieres on IFC Oct. 18-23.