Tag Archives: humor

Monty Python is the Meaning of Life

Well, I’ve done it. To improve the silly, Monty Python-esque, surrealism-inspired book I am currently writing (in truth, I’m currently writing two books simultaneously, and only one of them is silly) — I’ve determined that I need to come to a greater understanding of stand-up, skit, and other forms of comedy. Essentially, I need to rapidly, efficiently develop a high level of expertise in something I’ve never done. Yay! MORE impossible goals!

So, how do you graduate from being just a snarky writer and entertaining guy/gal in a crowd to a full humorist? No idea! But here’s my current strategy:

1) Read books by and on Monty Python:
– The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus: All the Words (Vol 1 and Vol 2) (reading one episode a night and acting out key scenes to practice movement, elocution, and emotion)
– Michael Palin’s Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years (the full 700 page book, not the abridged audio (which is also good) for an inside perspective of Python in it’s heyday and the personalities involved)
Monty Python Speaks (for the opinions of the other members)
– Graham Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography (I only have the abridged audio read by Chapman, I’d love a hard copy so I can get past the abridgements but they are rare and expensive! I re-listen to this regularly to try and get that madness back in my words)

The goal of this research is to be able to build a sort of mental armature or model of each member of Monty Python as they were back in the old days, to try and estimate how each of the six members might think. Not sure if this will prove to be of any value, but I’m hoping it will give an extra perspective and polish to my work. As a note, I am finding Terry Gilliam to be a particularly fascinating individual, and John Cleese is a strange type of hyper-analytic genius.

Note: I would really like to read The Pythons: Autobiography, the classic Monty Python’s Big Red Book (which is blue, of course), and Brand New Monty Python Bok, but I haven’t been able to find them for a reasonable price — and I’ve spent so much money already, it’s really hard for me to justify it.

2) Read books on Comedy:
The Comedy Bible by Judy Carter (very interesting insights to modern joke and sitcom structure)
The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus (Vorhaus wrote “Married With Children”, but I can forgive him, there are some great brainstorming techniques in here, but his plot advice is pretty rudimentary)
Step by Step to Stand Up Comedy by Greg Dean (not very far into this one, but it gives you a lot of information about the classic punchline that is missing from the Comedy Bible, as CB focuses on “Act-Outs” and performance.)
– Signed up for Dean Lewis’s Comedy Workshop, where I will have a last performance at the Dallas Improv. (I sat in on one of his Level 2 classes, and everyone was HILARIOUS; if there is any hope for me to really learn this, this may be it)

The goal of this is to learn performance and modern joke structure, to give me more insights into the old Monty Python mindset. This is far outside my normal limns and safety zones, a dramatic shift for myself personally, and the stage work especially is a stretch for me — and fills me with a terror of a uniquely gut-clawing and nauseous breed. A bit like gas, really. Or a chestburster.

3) Listen to Watch Comedy
– Eddie Izzard’s Dressed to Kill (he is the heir apparent to Python’s style, and it’s amazing how effortlessly it all comes together; especially trying to work out when and how he does his faces and changes in intonation)
– Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy (some obvious influence on Izzard, love his body mechanics)
– Steven Wright I Have a Pony (great surrealism, but I crack up when I try to be that stonefaced)
– Comedy Central Presents and Comedy Central Death Ray, whatever other stand up I can get used/cheap
– I’d say Flying Circus and all the movies (Holy Grail, Life of Brian, Meaning of Life), but I’ve seen them so much they’re almost memorized.
Beyond the Fringe (A strong influence on Monty Python, where Dudley Moore got his start; really kicked off the wave of satire that Python later rode)
Do Not Adjust Your Set (Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle) and At Last the 1948 Show (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle) (both series are Monty Python pre-cursors)
I’m Sorry I’ll Read that Again (John Cleese and Graham Chapman radio show, another precursor)
– The Compleat History of Britain (Palin and Jones) (another precursor that I’ve only found on youtube)
The Goon Show — Spike Miligan, Harry Seacombe, and Peter Sellers (a strong influence on the 5 British Monty Python members when they were kids)
Fawlty Towers

The goal of this is to identify what I like best and to analyze it, to see what is being done. For instance, how to Martin and Izzard fill time when they’ve forgotten what’s next? What do you do if a joke fails? How do you make the audience accept surreality in their humor? And HOW IN GOD’S NAME does Martin walk around on his toes with his knees bent without falling down?

4) Constant Practice
– Carry notebook to jot down ideas constantly
– Carry Digital Voice Recorder to record act-outs and ideas and test runs of jokes and anything that gets a snicker during the day
– Do brain storming exercises every day (this also helps with serious writing)
– Somehow learn to have no shame on stage, practice Act-Outs as part of every day stuff, but only if appropriate
– KEEP WRITING BOTH OF MY NOVELS (this has been difficult and slow since I broke my thumb (hey, did I mention that my right hand is in a cast? typing now requires gymnastic effort), but it is critical; this is all about making me a better writer.)

This is the part where the rubber meets the road, practice, reciting jokes aloud, opening up myself and uncoiling the stresses that keep me mousy and quiet during the crushing banality of ordinary life. I don’t LIKE being quiet and mousy, and I’m NOT, not with my friends or on my own time. While I obviously find this freeing — downright revolution-inspiring — there’s one part I don’t like a about it: Comedy is built on negativity in an almost universal manner. Comedians talk about what scares them, annoys them, upsets them, weirds them out — jokes about things they like usually flop for the same reason long periods of happiness with no conflict flop in fiction… Conflict is central.

In fact, what I’m finding out is that the elements of comedy — even stand-up jokes — have a lot in common with fiction writing. Minimalist verbiage, good hooks in the setup, universal themes, punchy pacing, the importance of being unexpected. My hope is that my expertise in one area will transfer easily to the other.

Special thanks to my writing friends (Jonathan Wood (author of No Hero), Michelle Muenzler, William Ledbetter) and to my wife for supporting me on this crazy project. Especially to my wife; she has to put up with most of it.

A Fun Stylistic Analysis of Monty Python, and a Request for Help

If you know me at all, you know I like Monty Python. It would not be far from the truth to say I was raised on a steady diet of Python (and, of course, Doctor Who. But that is off topic — GET BACK IN THE BLOODY BLUE BOX, TIMELORD!! It’s not your post!)

The result is that I have a zany, surreal sense of humor, and I tend to like my humor British. Despite the fact that I have lived most of my life in Texas. You can imagine the complications (the skits write themselves, don’t they?)

So… When I decided that I should write something funny for a change (instead of all this dark stuff I’ve been struggling to sell, as full of irony as it may be (i.e., “Teddy Bears and Tea Parties: A Horror Story”)), funny to me meant Monty Python.

This left me with quite a problem on my hands (and when I say problem, I mean a twenty-foot tall electric penguin with green tentacles shooting out.) So I did what any self-respecting only-child of two college professors WOULD do — I started studying.

I downed the whole Python series again in one go (doing my best to keep an eye on how things worked), and then all of the movies. This of course was not enough. I needed something I could analyze at a much more leisurely rate. Rather than driving my wife mad by rewinding skits and sketching out scripts for them, I dived into the written materials out there… (Pardon me while I elide time for convenience and pacing — if I had the skills, I would insert a Terry Gilliam-style animation, probably about monkeys using books as wings, but at some point turning into monkey-headed cherubic angels all shooting plungers off their harpstrings at each other, while a large, decapitated head of Graham Chapman (he’s dead already, he won’t mind) eats large parts of Parliament in the background. However, I do not have any animation skills whatsoever, so there is no animation, and you’ll just have to deal with it.

Ahem… I seem to be rambling. Let’s hope I keep it up, it’s a downsight more interesting that me actually saying anything.

Python then kicked me to the “Goon Show”, and the “Goon Show” to “Firesign Theater”, and then back to Python (Graham Chapman’s “Liar’s Autobiography”) who — with a sharp pass to Westminster Cathedral — sent me spinning under the feet of “At Last It’s the 1948” show, then to Kingsley Amis who gets the ball stolen from him by Cyril Connolly and book on Pythons and Philosophy — who shoots — and SCORES! GOOOAAAAL! And all the books and TV and radio series are all hugging each other now, in this, the first FIFA finals in untaming one man’s sense of humor.

It’s been quite an adventure so far, and I guess I will see if it pays off with the new novel, but the new novel is not what this post is about.

It’s about something I didn’t expect to find. Way down deep in the dank, cavernous mazes of Michael Palin’s Diaries (somewhere between the plastic skeletons chained to the wall and the fake rats squeaking and trying to nibble my toes off with their little rubber teeth) — and simultaneously in Graham Chapman’s “Liar’s Autobiography” — and simultaneously-again in “Monty Python Speaks” and again-again in the audio-commentary for the Monty Python Autobiography, I stumbled into a strange sort of perspective:

Success rarely happens in a day. It’s random. It is, in a way, luck.

These guys were good — really good — arguably the BEST at what they did, but they were still “lightly paid writer/performers” until one day… They just suddenly realized they weren’t. They didn’t expect it to happen. They were just plodding along, and then, all the sudden, they were hanging out with famous people, making a little more money, and then a LOT more money.

When I go back and look at “The Complete and Utter History of Britain” and “At Last the 1948 Show” and other things, I see that they were doing very Python-style stuff before Python. Not as extreme, no, not as experimental, not free from the constraints of format or punchline — but still very Pythonesque. In effect, Python was just another logical step in what they had been doing all along — and it went big.

…And this makes me think it can happen to anyone. Most of us work hard at our arts and never get noticed. But it CAN happen, and it does happen, and you don’t even realize it’s happening, usually, until — BOOOOM! — you’re being shot out of a cannon with a raving maniac shouting, “You better learn how to land, son, or this is really going to hurt!” up at you.

And that thought… Well, it gives me hope. (Not the cannon one, the one before that — oh, you know!!)

And now we come to the dream-portion of this post. Terry Gilliam once described several of the incredibly lucky events in his life as, “It was like I was willing them to happen.” That he knew such crazy strings of coincidences were possible, so he put himself out there in the way of big events, where they might be, and — well — they just hit him.

I want to be like that. I want to put myself out there in the middle of things, so this is my dream:

I’d like to meet all of these guys (the living ones, obviously.)

I know a lot of them are tired of Python. They’ve moved on (and rightly so!), done huge bodies of wonderful work — Terry Gilliam has some absolutely astounding and amazing movies, Terry Jones has his documentaries, Palin his innumerable series, Cleese as always is a genius, and heck, Eric Idle has even written a Science Fiction book called “The Road to Mars”!

But that’s my dream, to one day meet all of the living Pythons. Why? I really don’t know. They just seem like they’d be a blast to hang out with, really. Who could ask for more than that? That I’ve found their work hilarious, moving, and even inspiring may also enter into it.

The problem is, I don’t know these guys, they don’t know me, and, really, what chance does a minor-league-short-story-writer-wannabe-novelist really have of meeting (much less shaking hands with and sharing a pint of beer or a cup of tea) with mega-stars that live anywhere they want to live and do whatever they want, when they want?

Here comes the hard part, and if I don’t say it now I won’t ever say it:

I need your help — specifically, your brainpower, your voice, maybe a little bit of your time.

I want to meet these guys, and the way I grok it, the only way they’re going to want to meet me is if the situation fascinates them. So what I need is the crazy, the surreal, the absolutely impossible:

I need an internet movement.

Specifically, an “S. Boyd Taylor wants to meet Monty Python” movement. With buttons! Fliers! Silly goings on!

If you want to help — post a link to this, retweet it, talk about it at work, facebook it, tell your budgie, or call up John Cleese if you used to share a toothbrush with him at University and are still close, or even post YouTube videos of you in a Gumby outfit with a handkerchief on your head chanting, “S. Boyd Taylor wants to meet Monty Python.”

Anything harmless and humorous, really.

Then we’ll see if it works.

Writing Accountability and Monty Python

‎”Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” (EB White)

It’s mostly due to this quote that I find myself resisting the urge to write out scripts longhand for my favorite Monty Python skits and tearing them apart to find the gears and levers, the way I tear fiction and poetry apart.

Perhaps I should do it anyway? I’d really like to write something completely, utterly mad.

BTW, +1000 words today. I really want to start writing twice a day to see if I can hit a steady 2000; that would let me crank out the rough drafts for my currently-outlined novels at a much faster rate.