Monty Python has always been considered quintessentially British, but the comedy troupe has a key Chicago connection: Kim “Howard” Johnson, who’s written several books on the group since his comprehensive tome The First 200 Years of Monty Python was published in 1989. A founding member of the first resident ensemble at ImprovOlympic, Johnson also cowrote Truth in Comedy, a manual on Chicago-style improv, with late Second City and ImprovOlympic guru Del Close and ImprovOlympic cofounder Charna Halpern.
Johnson appeared in the 1979 Monty Python film Life of Brian–doubling for Graham Chapman in the role of Biggus Dickus–and occasionally works as John Cleese’s personal assistant. Now based in downstate Ottawa, he first met the Pythons in 1975 at the old Carnegie Theatre at Rush and Oak, where Monty Python and the Holy Grail had its Chicago premiere. That movie is the basis for Spamalot, a new musical scripted by Eric Idle, directed by Mike Nichols, and starring David Hyde Pierce, Hank Azaria, and Tim Curry, which begins previews at the Shubert Theatre this week. We talked Johnson into calling up an old pal on the eve of the show’s run. —Albert Williams
Kim “Howard” Johnson: You’re sort of a Chicagoan-in-law. [Idle’s wife, Tania, is from Willow Springs.] What do you like most about the city?
Eric Idle: It very much doesn’t have a cultural “cringe.” It’s very much its own place. Unlike Boston, it doesn’t feel the presence of New York and feel slightly inferior. It has a wonderful sense of its own self, a great attitude. It’s a great theater town with great audiences. I very much like it.
KHJ: You’re obviously familiar with the audiences. [Idle staged his Greedy Bastard show at the Vic in 2003 and Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python at the Chicago Theatre in 2000.]
EI: I carefully selected Chicago for the tryouts, because after the Exploits tour and the Greedy Bastard tour I just think they’re great audiences. And it’s a great place to open something. I hear it’s great in the winter.
KHJ: John [Cleese] saw a rehearsal or two in New York in October, and he was very impressed by what he saw.
EI: It was delightful that he came in to see it. It’s very moving, in an odd way, to see it being sung and danced after 30 years. It’s rather wonderful.
KHJ: It has to be a really strange experience.
EI: It’s a great experience, a nice experience. I e-mailed [Terry] Gilliam when I was trying to persuade him to come in: “It’s like being dead, and seeing what happens after you’re dead!” The whole theater is being turned into a Terry Gilliam cartoon–there are clouds lowered from all over the ceiling. I wanted him to see that because I thought he’d be very touched.
KHJ: I’ve always felt that the two great comedy traditions of the last 50 years have been the Goon Show-Beyond the Fringe-Monty Python school, and then the Compass Players-Second City school. With Mike Nichols’s roots, Spamalot’s got them both. Did you feel any sort of linkage or synergy?
EI: No! (Laughs.) He was my first thought to direct, because he’s funny. I think what we needed was someone who was (a) senior to us, so that everybody else would respect him and his decisions, and (b) somebody who knows exactly where the laughs are–someone who had ideally been a comedian. Mike Nichols is perfect in every single way. And also, he adds a wonderful power and appeal to Broadway. Our box office [for the Broadway run] opened yesterday and sold half a million dollars. We had lines around the block, which hasn’t happened in ten years on the opening day of a Broadway show.
KHJ: Holy Grail is a film with music, but it certainly isn’t a musical.
EI: It only has three songs, really.
KHJ: So you had to turn it all into a musical. That must have been the greatest challenge.
EI: The greatest challenge was in finding a plot! (Laughs.) No, actually, the Grail, like all Python material, constantly threatens to become a song. “I’m not dead yet” is absolutely a song, isn’t it? It always had to be a song. “Burn her!”–it always had to be a song. It’s actually very easy to write songs in any Python thing, because they just set you up with the silly ideas. So that was not hard, because John [du Prez, Spamalot composer] and I had written 150 songs together. We’ve cut from about 30 or 40 songs that we’ve recorded. By the way, I’m happy to announce to those lazy bastards who haven’t bought seats, that if they go to the foyer or the shop next to the theater, we are putting out the official bootleg, which is me singing all the Spamalot demos, which will be out for a few weeks before the cast album is available. And we’re including seven tracks that are not in the show.
KHJ: When you were working on the script and the songs, did you make any concessions to the mainstream audiences, as opposed to the hard-core Python fans?
EIL: I don’t think there’s any difference. I think people like to flatter themselves that they’re hard-core and everybody else really doesn’t understand it as well as they do. (Laughs.) I think this film happens to be amenable to 10-year-olds and 100-year-olds. There seems to be no demographic for it. Everybody loves Holy Grail, for lots of different reasons. It doesn’t have any vile language, so there were no concessions that had to be made at that level. One hasn’t really had to compromise, except to try and find a plot and an ending, neither of which the Grail movie had. It’s OK in a movie to go along and say, “OK, we’ll stop it now! You’re under arrest!” But you can’t do that in a theater. And you have to have a first-act intermission, and build it up, and feel you’re going somewhere in the theater, though that may be illusory–we’ve had to solve that issue. [To readers] And had you bought tickets, you’d find out what that was! But now that’s just going to be a mystery, like the Holy Grail itself!
KHJ: How did you go about fleshing out the characters, so that the actors weren’t just impressions of the characters in the film?
EI: I’ve done something rather clever, but I don’t like to say it before it opens. There are more through lines for the characters, and they play more people.
KHJ: Is there an English pantomime or music-hall feel to the show?
EI: Oh, it’s very much a panto. In the English sense, not in the American sense.
KHJ: But you do have real women in the show.
EI: You bet! We have Sara Ramirez, who’s going to be a big star–she’s fantastic!
KHJ: Are there still men in drag, I hope?
EI: Of course! Who else would play the Terry Jones role? The mother of Galahad becomes more like Mandy, the mother in Life of Brian, really. She has a bit more to do.
KHJ: More than any of the other Pythons, it seems like you’ve been the one to embrace Python in recent years, first with Greedy Bastard and now Spamalot.
EI: Well, the Greedy Bastard tour was mostly me doing my songs–my stuff is in Python, but it isn’t all Python. The Greedy stuff was more me talking, and me doing my songs, and talking about Python, and some Python bits. I try to move away, but you can’t move away that far–it’s a stage of moving away. But I find you can’t do anything to compete with Python. It’s too big. No matter what you do, people say, “Well, it’s not quite as good as Python.” So I find more liberty going inside Python and seeing what else can be done in the form of Python. That gives me more freedom, rather than just talking about the fucking stuff all the time, which you have to do endlessly if you try and do anything else.
KHJ: The price you have to pay, I guess.
EI: It’s a fine, not a price! But The Greedy Bastard Diary is coming out in February from Harper-Collins. It’s a new form, really–I think I’ve invented “autoblography.” It combines three elements: there’s the travel book, secondly it’s the autobiographical book, and thirdly I’ve put in my stand-up, so you can read it as a joke book as well. So you get a sense of what’s being done onstage at the same time you read about the travel and the same time you read about what happened to me in my life. So it’s kind of an intimate traveling biography, which I think is kind of new. It evolved. It didn’t start like that, but it’s become that.
KHJ: And speaking of other projects, the long-awaited Rutles sequel is coming out in March on DVD.
EI: It’s Can’t Buy Me Lunch. My old character is looking back on the career of the Rutles, and he’s interviewing people like James Taylor and Bowie and Robin Williams and Steve Martin, and hundreds of famous people, about the effects of the Rutles on the world and on their life.
KHJ: Wasn’t this sparked by the Beatles’ Anthology CDs?
EI: Exactly–and those ABC documentaries, which are cobbled together with old film footage and interviews talking about them. It works quite nicely. And I used Neil’s [Innes, Rutles songwriter] new music from his Rutles Archaeology album, which didn’t go over terribly well because it had no context. I pulled some of the tracks from that. I liked a lot of the music a lot. And I used a lot of old footage, which I discovered in a warehouse in New Jersey–outtakes and things.
KHJ: Speaking of Rutles and Beatles, you and George Harrison were very close friends. Did he influence or inspire your own music?
EI: Yeah. I mean, obviously, we played guitar together for years, so he helped me with a lot musically–gaining confidence. He’d say, “Come on, let’s write a song,” and we’d sit around and play. It was nice. He was very useful to me, because after being in a famous group–well, he wrote the book on it! So he would teach me how to be at ease with having been in a famous group, how not to be terrorized by it, and how to come to terms with it. We both shared that experience.
KHJ: There are certainly parallels and analogies.
EI: Well, we were English boys of a certain age. We were born within three months of each other, not far from each other. I was living in Liverpool on the other side of the Mersey when he was growing up, too. I speculate in my book that we might have even met at the age of eight, because I remember boys would come across and we’d play. It always felt to me when I met him that I knew him already, but I could never prove it.
KHJ: That’s the mark of a true friendship. You know, it might surprise people to know that Spamalot is not your first musical. The first one premiered on BBC Radio.
EI: Yes, Behind the Crease–or Sticky Wicket, as it was first and better named. It was quite fun, but it was really about the three things the English love most: sex, royalty, and cricket. It involved a journalistic scandal and it was set in the West Indies on a cricket tour. We sang the songs live in front of an audience, and John du Prez conducted an eight-piece orchestra.
KHJ: Was it useful to have had that experience when you started work on Spamalot?
EI: Well, we’d been trying to write a musical for years. After that, we wrote a musical of “The Owl and the Pussycat,” the Edward Lear poem, which then turned into my book The Quite Remarkable Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat. If you listen to the tape or the CD we have eight songs there, and it got a Grammy nomination. So, we have been trying to write and find a good subject for a musical since 1986. I’d done The Mikado for Jonathan Miller before [Behind the Crease], and I became convinced that musical comedy was bound to come back as a form.
KHJ: And you’re bringing it back with a vengeance.
EI: Well, The Producers brought it back first. It’s finally time to stop [musicals] being the MTV extended video, which was the final end of the Andrew Lloyd Webber era. You’re really effectively watching a long MTV clip.
KHJ: I know when the other Pythons all look back on Holy Grail, it’s sort of like Rashomon when I hear them talk. Mike Palin says it was five weeks of shit and tooth blacking.
EI: I agree! It was horrible! Who said it was any good?
KHJ: Actually, no one.
EI: It was hell! We had five weeks to shoot an entire movie, and on a tiny budget of $400,000, where we shot every hour of the daylight. It was unbelievable, an achievement of sheer dedication. Only our lot could have pulled it off, I think. But it has some of the appeal of A Hard Day’s Night, because we’re so confident about not knowing what we’re doing that it shines through. It has a youthful exuberance to it, despite being covered in shit. It really is “Always Look on the Bright Side.” It was really not pleasant. But then, filming the battle of Pearl Harbor [for Monty Python’s Flying Circus], when we’re all dressed in drag and fighting in pig shit, wasn’t pleasant! Often comedy isn’t pleasant. If it hurts, it’s funny. That’s the basic rule.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, John Downing/Express/Getty Images, Tama Herrick/Zuma/Corbis, Thos Robinson/Getty Images.