In honor of April Fools Day and National Humor Month, here’s a look series that I originally ran in 2014 on the “props” of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Even the boys of Python should appreciate the irony the weirdest member of the troupe that defines British-style comedy is American. Terry Gilliam was born in Minnesota, but became an ex-pat in the 1960s like many of the counter-culture teens and young adults.
Once there, he fell into a rather silly crowd, worked as a strip cartoonist for magazines (including one photo strip featuring John Cleese), and did some animation for a children’s program called “Do Not Adjust Your Set” featuring his soon-to-be Python pals Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
Gilliam is often known today by many film buffs as the director of several cult classic films including what he called his 1990s “Trilogy of Americana” that included “The Fisher King,” “12 Monkeys” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but his eye for the surreal and the off-beat that was so prevalent in his animation, remains true to his work today.
He liked to mix his own original art (the giant foot, and 16-ton-weight, for example) with movable cutouts, often taking advantage of the seriousness of Victorian era antique photos and illustrations, or even well-known fine art images, to create the unexpected, madcap and sometimes just freaky weird style that Monty Python’s Flying Circus just wouldn’t be the same without.
Where to Find It:
The bottom line on finding original artwork, especially work signed by Gilliam himself is, well “Good Luck.” His work is not easy to find.
Any “cels” or images used in the Monty Python movies or series are even more elusive. There are a few signed pieces from time to time on sites like Comic Art Fans, and even eBay, but these will fetch well over $500 for a simple line drawing. Not unreasonable for original work, but out of range for the standard Python fan.
Don’t let this be discouraging, because it isn’t hard for find concentrated examples of Gilliam’s work. A&E has released a series of “Personal Best” DVDs for each member of the Python clan, and the Terry Gilliam version features 45 of his best ‘toons. These retail for $19.95, but can be found on Amazon for $10.95, and Barnes & Noble for $14.86.
Gilliam also wrote sort of how-to book called Animations of Mortality in 1978, later turned in to a CD-Rom edition in 1996. The book features words and sketches that give a glimpse of what goes on inside the head of an animator. The hardcover edition isn’t cheap (about $97 on Amazon), but paperback versions will run around $31.
In 1999, author Bob McCabe released Dark Knights and Holy Fools: The Art and Films of Terry Gilliam: from Before Python to Beyond Fear and Loathing. If you can get past the overwhelmingly long title, the book is a good look at the evolution of Gilliam’s work. This book ranges in price from around $3 to $6 for used hardback and paperback versions, to about $17.99 for new paperback versions and $73.99 for new hardbacks.
Later this year, Gilliam will have his own say with a new autobiography Gilliamesque, a Pre-posthumous Memoir. Pre-orders are currently being taken on Amazon and other book sites.
A great online source for Gilliam’s animation and other work has been compiled by someone who knows the man best, his daughter, Holly.
The site, Discovering Dad, hasn’t been updated since 2013, but still has plenty of Gilliam facts, art and wonderful personal memories from Holly Gilliam. She also maintains a Twitter feed that is more current.
Now for something, completely different…Make Your Own Art:
There are plenty of vintage images and illustrations to play with on the Internet. The easiest method is to take a portrait and make it “talk.” Cut out the image along the mouth and down both sides of the chin, like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Attach the cutout “mouth” to a thin piece of paper, and tape it slightly at the top (see image above). This will make a nice little handle for a picture puppet. Add a couple of googly eyes or other painted or glued on features to make them even sillier. This is the type of animation popular sites like the eCard business, JibJab have mimicked.
Gilliam and the Pythons also did their share of poking fun at current events and celebrities. Go through old catalogs or magazines for full-body images of over-publicized persons — singers, politicians, actors, reality stars, over-memed cats — who you feel might be in need of some humbling.
Now they can be assembled on paper like your your own personal marionettes. Take a series of pictures of them in different poses for a photo animated strip like Gilliam liked to do in his early years.
“The whole point of animation to me is to tell a story, make a joke, express an idea,” he said. “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.”