Terry Gilliam apologizes for “being dead”: How his pre-Monty Python animation helped define a generation’s sense of humor

By on September 9, 2015

Yesterday, for only about ten minutes, an online glitch at the trade publication Variety‘s website accidentally resulted in the publication of an pre-written obit for filmmaker Terry Gilliam, which caused a bit of Twitter panic, as you might imagine, followed by a million jokes about dead parrots.

Gilliam — who is very much alive and well — responded to hearing the news of his own death on Facebook, saying “I APOLOGIZE FOR BEING DEAD, especially to those who have already bought tickets to the upcoming talks, but Variety has announced my demise. Don’t believe their retraction and apology!”

This reminded us, however: A few months ago, the Open Culture blog had a wonderful post (“Terry Gilliam Reveals the Secrets of Monty Python Animations: A 1974 How-To Guide) about Terry Gilliam’s appearance on Bob Godfrey’s series “Do It Yourself Film Animation Show,” which satirized animation and commercial advertising, making animation accessible to the masses by taking the mystery out of its production process.

Even though other blogs have posted about Gilliam’s appearance on Godfrey’s show (including, years earlier, Dangerous Minds), we thought we’d post about it too, as it gives us a chance to introduce Gilliam’s early pre-Monty Python animation work, which we think helped define an entire generation’s sense of humor.

In this 1968 short film, Story Time, we meet a variety of characters that inhabited Gilliam’s pre-Python imagination: a cheerful cockroach named Don; an ordinary man named Albert Einstein (“the only Albert Einstein not to have discovered the Theory of Relativity”) whose hands have a life of their own, staying out late at night, misbehaving and committing adultery with feet; and finally, the moving pictures on an over-sized Christmas card, who interact with each other in all sorts of bizarre ways.

Here’s the recent Open Culture post:

Before he directed such mind-bending masterpieces as Time Bandits, Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, before he became short-hand for a filmmaker cursed with cosmically bad luck, before he became the sole American member of seminal British comedy group Monty Python, Terry Gilliam made a name for himself creating odd animated bits for the UK series ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set.’

Gilliam preferred cut-out animation, which involved pushing bits of paper in front of a camera instead of photographing pre-drawn cels. The process allows for more spontaneity than traditional animation along with being comparatively cheaper and easier to do.

Gilliam also preferred to use old photographs and illustrations to create sketches that were surreal and hilarious. Think Max Ernst meets Mad Magazine. For ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, he created some of the most memorable moments of a show chock full of memorable moments: A pram that devours old ladies, a massive cat that menaces London, and a mustached police officer who pulls open his shirt to reveal the chest of a shapely woman. He also created the show’s most iconic image, that giant foot during the title sequence.

On Bob Godfrey’s series ‘Do It Yourself Film Animation Show’, Gilliam delved into the nuts and bolts of his technique. You can watch it above. Along the way, he sums up his thoughts on the medium:

‘The whole point of animation to me is to tell a story, make a joke, express an idea. The technique itself doesn’t really matter. Whatever works is the thing to use. That’s why I use cut-out. It’s the easiest form of animation I know.’

He also notes that the key to cut-out animation is to know its limitations. Graceful, elegant movement à la Walt Disney is damned near impossible. Swift, sudden movements, on the other hand, are much simpler. That’s why there are far more beheadings in his segments than ballroom dancing. Watch the whole clip. If you are a hardcore Python enthusiast, as I am, it is pleasure to watch him work.”

(h/t Jonathan Crow at Open Culture)

Open Culture also have previously posted about another early film by Gilliam called The Miracle of Flight.

“The film was made in 1971 for the American-British TV show ‘The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine’. ‘Monty Python’ was on hiatus that year, so Gilliam went to work for the short-lived ‘Comedy Machine’, creating the opening credit sequence and various animated features using his trademark airbrush and paper cutout techniques.”

Terry Gilliam — born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1940 — had moved with his family to Panorama City, in the San Fernando Valley (or, simply, “the Valley”), when he was twelve. He later went to Occidental College, a private, co-educational liberal arts college located in Eagle Rock, a suburb of Los Angeles, California, where he ultimately became a political science major.

After graduating, he moved to New York, where he ended up working with the great Harvey Kurtzman as an assistant editor for Help! magazine, a sort of more adult-themed Mad Magazine. That’s where he first met John Cleese, who had appeared in one their fumettis (illustrated with photographs rather than drawings).

The magazine eventually folded and Gilliam ended up hitchhiking around Europe, which he loved, before moving back to L.A., where he eventually found work as a freelance cartoonist and illustrator at Carson/Roberts, a hot boutique-style advertising agency in Los Angeles, a job he obtained through his friendship with Joel Siegel, who worked at the agency. Siegel and Gilliam had worked on a book project previously, called The Cocktail People (Siegel later became the movie critic for ABC’s “Good Morning America”).

By the way, you can thank — or blame — Carson/Roberts who were responsible for that optimistic 1970s phrase “Have A Nice Day” and the happy face design — it’s probably their biggest claim to fame. Their biggest clients were Max Factor, Gallo wines, Gates Learjet, Max Factor, Baskin-Robbins, Universal Studios, and Mattel Toys, who all spent millions on their ad campaigns. Jack Roberts — one of the co-founders — was also involved in a high-profile advertising campaign in Eastern newspapers to persuade the Brooklyn Dodgers to move to Los Angeles. Carson/Roberts were Los Angeles’s largest advertising firm until it merged with Ogilvy & Mather in 1971.

While working at the agency (legendary L.A. artist Ed Ruscha worked there too, as a layout artist), Gilliam worked on movie ads for Universal, including one for Don Siegel’s Madigan (in 1986, Gilliam told the L.A. Times, “It was a really bad time for Universal; they were doing the worst pictures imaginable. I remember doing a line for ‘Madigan,’ a Richard Widmark movie. I wrote, ‘Once he was happy; now he’s Madigan.’ That’s how much I hated it.”

Gilliam also worked on a campaign for Andersen’s Split Pea Soup, but was frustrated to learn that the campaign he’d designed, top to bottom — radio ads, print ads, everything — hadn’t increased sales, not because his work wasn’t good work, but because cans of the soup itself weren’t yet available in most stores.

Despite the fact that the ad agency were laid-back and he made his own hours (arriving late in the morning, hiding in his office ’til lunchtime, taking a very long lunch each day, and leaving early) — Gilliam also says he was hired only because of his cool hair style at the time — he was frustrated with the silliness of working in advertising. He loved living in Laurel Canyon at the time too, but he missed Europe, and so did his English girlfriend, Glenys Roberts, a reporter for the London Evening Standard who had come to L.A. with him. She wanted to move back.

Gilliam quit his job at Carson/Roberts after eleven months (some sources say he was fired, but Gilliam himself says he quit) and he and his girlfriend then moved to London, where he ended up working as freelance illustrator for periodicals. He was hired as the artistic director for Londoner, which was fashioned after Clay Felker’s New York magazine. It was where Glenys had found a job too. However, it proved to be short-lived, publishing just a few issues before folding. Gilliam moved on to more freelance illustration work, working for the Sunday editions of the London Times, Nova, and Queen.

Ultimately he became frustrated with the sporadic freelance work and, wanting a steadier salary to rely on, he reached out to his friend John Cleese, who introduced him to some of the TV people in London, and soon he found a job writing sketches for “Do Not Adjust Your Set” (Thames TV, 1968), where he met future Python colleagues Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle. He also worked on a show called “Marty” (BBC, 1968), and then became the resident cartoonist for “We Have Ways Of Making You Laugh,” a BBC show, where he drew caricatures of the show’s guests as they arrived. Gilliam would finish off a caricature of them, and at the end the camera would mix to his drawing of the guest.

One week, Gilliam suggested turning the guest caricatures into an animated film, by cutting out the drawings and moving them around, and one of the show’s producers — an amateur cartoonist, it turns out, who bought a few of Gilliam’s written sketches — gave him the greenlight, but only gave him two weeks and a budget of £400 (less than $1000) to complete it, but it was enough to get him started.

Gilliam began cutting out figures from magazines and books, blending them with his own illustrations, and then shot the images using stop-action filmmaking techniques. He would paste the cutouts and drawings on a board, cover them with glass, photograph them, lift the glass, move the characters slightly, set the glass back down, shoot again, and this process soon began to take on its own personality, Gilliam’s personality, which was unpredictable, darkly funny, and irreverent. What Gilliam did was to take earlier influences who had used clippings from magazines and newspapers to create whimsical but pointed commentary, like surrealist collage artist Stan Vanderbeek had in the mid-50s (his 1963 film Breathdeath was obviously a huge influence on Gilliam), but then make it his own.

When the BBC finally was able to talk John Cleese into their long-standing offer for him to do a comedy sketch show, which would become “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” (also known as Gwen Dibley’s “Flying Circus” and Monty Python), Cleese brought along Gilliam to do the graphics to introduce and close the episodes, and to act as comedic links between the skits. Gilliam also, of course, made occasional appearances on the show — acting with Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle — but mostly he worked alone.

“Monty Python” premiered on the BBC in October 1969, and although just 45 episodes were telecast over the next five years, and then broadcast in the United States on PBS in the 1970s, from 1974–82, the show had an incredible impact, helping to define an entire generation’s sense of humor, a mix both intelligent and erudite topical stuff — often political or popular culture-ish in nature, much of it very wry, very dry, and very British — with very surreal and silly, often puerile jokes (some of the fartier jokes that came to be known as “bathroom humor,” which mothers across American seemed to hate).

The show also pushed the boundaries of comedy on British television with its willful lack of structure. Because of their dislike of finishing with punchlines, they experimented with ending the sketches by cutting abruptly to another scene or animation, walking offstage, addressing the camera, or introducing a totally unrelated event or character. A classic example of this approach was the use of Chapman’s “Colonel” character, who walked into several sketches and ordered them to be stopped because things were becoming “far too silly.”

Gilliam’s opening titles to the show — which shows Cupid coming along and squashing down a heavy foot, before moving on — is an example of the surrealist-influenced animation Gilliam had become known for, which is also both for it’s production style (working with paper cut-outs and a mercurial imagination) and for the element of surprise, which hinges upon the idea that something, anything, that you’re seeing can be snuffed out at a moment’s notice. There’s certainly a kind of black humor about that, adding to the Monty Python comedic ethos, mixing absurdity with a sense of stentorian gravitas at times so that the jokes themselves weren’t always evident at first.

The troupe themselves had creative control which allowed them to experiment with form and content, discarding rules of TV comedy. Their influence on British comedy has been apparent for years, while in the U.S. it would influence comedy writers working at National Lampoon, and the early seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” to name just two examples.”Pythonesque” has entered the English lexicon as a result (Terry Jones commented on his disappointment at the existence of such a term, claiming the initial aim of Monty Python was to create something new and impossible to categorize and that “the fact that Pythonesque is now a word in the Oxford English Dictionary shows the extent to which we failed”).

It took Gilliam about two weeks to produce the two and three minutes of animated film sequences seen throughout the show. It was, in his own words, tedious and “brain-damaging” undisciplined work. In the credits of the first five episodes, he wasn’t even listed with the others. His sole credit was for animations. He worked seven days a week on the cut-and-paste and stop-action work, spending most of his time in isolation, working from vague cues in the script (sometimes as bare as “insert a Gilliam sequence here”), going through the painstakingly slow animation process under a tight deadline. The voices and sound effects were done by Gilliam himself, getting under a blanket with a tape recorder and making his typical grunting and farting noises, and rattling pots and pans.

Even though Monty Python operated as a democratic committee —each of the members could exercise a veto if he objected to an idea for a skit — the others never knew what Gilliam was going to bring to the studio, and they rarely, if ever, vetoed anything he brought them. Often, in fact, the Pythons would take Gilliam’s animated stop-motion bits as a starting point to delve deeper into a stream-of-conciousness, allowing many of their sketches to blend into one another.

The BBC didn’t interfere for the first three years that the showed aired, until the show’s popularity forced them to step up and take notice of what they were putting on the air. Suddenly, it seemed, they felt they needed to begin to censor some of the skits.

In one of them,”Summarizing Proust Competition,” Graham Chapman describes what hobbies he enjoys (“golf, masturbation and strangling small animals” was his answer). The BBC cut out the word ‘masturbation’ and all that followed, but left in the laugh that followed so that when the show aired, it appeared the laugh was for “golf.”

There were other examples of the BBC’s meddling as the show went on, but the worse censhorship and editing came from across the pond, here in America. Columbia Pictures decided to see if there was enough interest in the British-made TV comedy sketch show, and so they edited (rather sloppily) a feature film for distribution to U.S. theaters in 1972, called And Now For Something Completely Different. It bombed at the box office, so there was no interest in Hollywood for backing other Python films, at the time.

Then a small PBS station in Texas started airing “Monty Python” and it caught fire, and soon PBS stations across the country had picked up the show. College-age students helped to spread the word, and the show became a kind of word-of-mouth cult hit. Then, ABC-TV in New York, sensing that they might be missing out, picked up the last series of six “Monty Python” shows, and edited them into two one-hour specials. The editors trimmed down three hours of sketches and animation until they had 104 minutes of Python material to work with, but they ruined a lot of sketches, cutting out entire middle sections. They also ridiculously censored out words they thought might offend the delicate American audience, like cutting out the words “naughty bits” from one sketch.

Gilliam’s name — he was the only American in the group — was the name listed on the injuction filed on behalf of the entire Monty Python troupe in their lawsuit against ABC for violating their copyright by making such egregious edits. The entire matter was settled out of court, after two years, but not before the court ruled that the BBC didn’t own the shows and ordered all syndication rights to “Monty Python” revert to the group themselves. The five surviving Pythons (Chapman died in 1989) have been receiving equal shares of worldwide TV royalties ever since.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.