Author: Lena Smith
Occidental alumnus Terry Gilliam 62′ shifted in his plush red chair onstage for the duration of his interview with KTLA’s Sam Rubin Oct. 19, bouncing on the cushion, crossing and uncrossing his legs and ending each answer with a punchline. Absurdity is part and parcel of his career.
Gilliam’s appearance in Glendale as part of the “Live Talks Los Angeles” speaker series was the first of three stops marking the U.S. launch of his memoir, “Gilliamesque,“ with jokes, anecdotes and gimmicks from the book.
Gilliam is perhaps best known as “one of the guys from Monty Python,” specifically the one responsible for the animation of monsters, topless figures and God in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Gilliam took on different roles for each film, often depending only on what sounded like fun. And like all of the Monty Python members, he did everything from directing to acting to creating his unique animations.
He is also a successful Hollywood director. After working on countless Monty Python sketches, he took the lead on such films as “Time Bandits” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
“I started from the top,” Gilliam said of his film debut as part of Monty Python. “I’ve been working my way down ever since.”
Before rising to fame through the Monty Python troupe, Gilliam got his comedic start at Occidental’s snarky satire magazine, “The Fang.” As students, he and his friends took over the satirical magazine and published it as a mashup of cartoons and comedy. Under Gilliam’s tutelage, “The Fang”‘s contents took on a striking resemblance to the “Mad Magazine comics” by Harvey Kurtzman that he idolized as a kid.
From the stories he told at the event, Gilliam spent more of his college career pranking his fellow students and churning out issues of “The Fang” — six per year — than studying. Current editors Brita Loeb (senior) and Maddy Farkas (senior), who brought “The Fang” full circle when they attended the event, expressed envy at the amount of attention Gilliam was able to give to the magazine.
“If I could full-time ‘Fang,’ that would be awesome,” Loeb said.
Despite a self-professed mediocre academic record, Gilliam found a job right out of college. He had sent copies of Kurtzman-inspired editions of the “The Fang” to Kurtzman, who was then at that point editing “Help!,” also a satirical publication. He landed an offer to be Kurtzman’s assistant, according to his memoir. His job at “Help!” built on what he had practiced as an editor of “The Fang” — he ran the Manhattan office and researched news for the magazine to poke fun at.
“It was encouraging that he was doing something he always wanted to do,” Loeb said.
Moving on from his time at “Help!,” Gilliam talked about meeting the other members of Monty Python when they all ended up working on a children’s show for BBC. At that time, he was wearing his hair long and had a Jim Carrey grin. He loved filling the scenes of the children’s show with gag jokes, which were more tame than many of those that appear in Monty Python films, but made it a treasure hunt for adults. As the group was forming, Gilliam’s knack for humor caught the attention of Monty Python member Eric Idle, who was responsible for Monty Python’s silly songs.
“[Idle] had an eye for the absurd,” Gilliam said.
Absurdity pervaded Gilliam’s Monty Python scenes, according to his memoir. It later entered his Hollywood filmmaking, with comedic and cartoon elements creeping, or maybe stomping, into films like “Time Bandits,” the most successful movie he directed in Hollywood, and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
For Gilliam, Hollywood was full of narrow-minded executives, only willing to support $10 million movies for independent theaters and $100 million blockbusters. It was an alien environment when compared with Monty Python production where, Gilliam said, the filmmakers had complete freedom and only needed to worry about making each other laugh.
At Alex Theater, Gilliam succeeded in making his audience of devoted fans bust their guts, and he laughed at himself right along with them. The interview leaped between topics like the source of his imagination, the dryness of Hollywood, the projects he turned down and the reason actors like to work with him. Gilliam’s conversation was as alive with comedic detail as his movies, while each joke he told was anchored with honesty.
“As someone who wants to go into the [film] industry, I liked listening to someone being real about it,” Farkas said.
He discussed how he tells stories with images as much as with dialogue, the delicate power of music behind a scene and the skittishness of many audiences today, particularly on college campuses, in response to comedy that is not politically correct.
On the last point, Gilliam said he worries about the death of comedy resulting from society’s timidity. Today’s “The Fang” editors echoed his sentiments wishing audiences would laugh at more jokes that stretch political correctness.
“There’s a certain amount of offense in comedy, but it’s smart offense,” Loeb said.
This article has been archived, for more requests please contact us via the support system.