The Hot Seat: Michael Palin

Not all Palins are completely awful.

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Illustration: Bob Kelly


When they began entertaining England by doing silly walks, staging All-England Summarize Proust competitions and other strange bits 40 years ago, the comedy troupe known as Monty Python started a journey that would make them some of the most iconic comedians in history. Michael Palin, 66, stole the show in some of the team's most memorable films—including as Sir Galahad (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), the ex-leper (Life of Brian) and the Catholic guy who is forced to sell his children into medical experiments in the iconic "Every Sperm Is Sacred" musical number (The Meaning of Life). Since then, Palin has gone on to become a much-respected writer and travel documentarian ("practically David Attenborough," in the words of our British coworker), but can still keep his sense of humor as we discuss the meaning of Python and its new six-part retrospective documentary.

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So how does it feel to have been supplanted as the best-known Palin in the United States?
Well, it's extremely kind of confusing. I feel for my family most of all, because there aren't many Palins in the world, so when the headline is PALIN DAUGHTER PREGNANT, my own daughter, bless her, is 34 and would probably quite like to be pregnant. Or say, MRS. PALIN REVILED, my wife would be concerned. But there you are. I think it's quite a Pythonic situation. It's like when you're sort of haunted by an alter ego. But she exists, as far as I know.

You're an extremely funny man, but she is a natural comedic talent.
Yes. I think she is a natural comedian. She certainly seems to get a lot of laughs, whether she intends to or not, I don't know. But you know, we should be careful here. She may be running the country one day.

In that instance, I'll be on the first boat to London.
The Plymouth brethren will be coming back.

The footage in the doc of you and John Cleese arguing with the clergy about Life of Brian is classic. Do you think that the film would have a different reception if it were released today?
That's an interesting question. I certainly think it would be as controversial as it was then. And I kind of learned from the experience of Brian in America about the divisions in the U.S., really. What happened on the East Coast and what happened on the West Coast was not necessarily reflective of what happened in the middle. Very different tastes, and not just people who didn't find it funny, but also people who were angry about it. And yet, lots of our fans were from Des Moines and Baton Rouge and places like that. I think Python served its purpose, which was as an alternative film for people who think differently from the rest, do you know what I mean?

You're often accused in this documentary of being entirely "too nice." How do you respond to those accusations?
[Laughs] I don't know! I think it's a bit of a slur on decent people like Terry Jones, who are absolutely unassailably nice. And he'd probably get a little bit pissed off that I'm the one who is claimed as nice. I mean, clearly John and Eric aren't nice. And Gilliam is sort of in a strange world, where I wouldn't say nice was a concept that comes into it. But Terry is very, very nice indeed, and I wouldn't want to be the only one slurred with niceness.

Someone else pointed out that you only get riled up when you don't get fed. Could it be English cooking itself that's the problem?
I mean, I don't eat a lot, but I eat regularly. I quite like traditional English food. I quite like a good stew. Mashed potatoes. Or fish-and-chips, well-done, beautifully battered cod with a nice bit of mushy peas on the side. Fantastic.

You have children. Grandchildren now. How do you determine which ones you'll sell on eBay?
No, none have been sold for medical experiments yet. I've attempted to let them get on with their life. I have tried to show my grandson bits of Monty Python, but they already live in a Monty Python world. I realize that's where it all comes from, when you're three years old and you do extraordinary things on a whim without any sort of connection to reality. I think that's rather what Python did.

Quite right. Is it wrong that I dothe ex-leper hop at every opportunity?
Do you? [Laughs] That's good. Well, if you work hard enough, and there is a sort of groundswell of people who like what you do, in the years to come it could be an Olympic event.

Or I could put it on the Internet and make a million dollars.
Yeah. Go for it. I would sue you. But you can have a go. We're very litigious.

Monty Python: Almost the Truth airs Sun 18–Oct 23 on IFC.

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