The Early Works of Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam is having a busy year. This past week in London, the English National Opera opened its new production of Hector Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini directed and co-designed for the stage by the iconoclastic filmmaker. In July, Gilliam will appear on stage for ten performances of a much-demanded reunion of Monty Python alumni at London’s O2 Arena. On top of all this, Gilliam also has a new sci-fi film being released in theatres internationally; The Zero Theorem (2014) starring Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Thierry.
Due to his unique place in pop culture, most of us are familiar with Gilliam’s origin story. He is the Monty Python animator who went on to direct outlandish and enduring films like Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). In the introduction to his book Gilliam on Gilliam, professor and film historian Ian Christie observes that many of Gilliam’s films “mix elements of Python undergrad revue humour with an appeal to the mythopoeic that would normally be considered serious. Yet their tone is rarely that: it is scatological, surreal, symbolic – and often silly.”
This subversive silliness is a trait Gilliam acquired as a young man from veraciously reading American humour magazines, particularly Mad and Help! under editor Harvey Kurtzman. Gilliam remembers “I grew up with Mad magazine, which was satirical but also playfully nonsensical… It was silly beyond belief, and wonderful because it was so smart. Mad became the Bible for me and for my generation… It was a combination of nonsense, satire and lampoon, but above all it was precise, because the editor, Harvey Kurtzman, was a real taskmaster. A lampoon had to look exactly like the real thing, and he insisted on real craftsmanship.” After helming a humour publication at Occidental College, Gilliam worked under at Kurtzman at Help! magazine in New York City where he first met comedian John Cleese.
Just prior to his Python years, Gilliam moved to London and cut his teeth on British television comedies like We Have Ways of Making You Laugh, Do Not Adjust Your Set and Hart at Barker. The children’s program Do Not Adjust Your Set turned out to be a key ingredient in the formation of Monty Python, bringing Gilliam together with Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. In 1969, these four were joined by John Cleese and Graham Chapman from ITV’s At Last the 1948 Show to create a BBC sketch comedy which was to be called “Owl Screeching Time” before they came up with a better title.
In 1979, Gilliam complied three of his non-Python cartoons from his television career into a 9-minute short called Storytime which begins with a fairy tale about a pet cockroach Gilliam had while living in New York. Storytime also includes “The Christmas Card” which was originally created for the Do Not Adjust Your Set Christmas special in 1968. An animated sketch called “Beware the Elephants” from We Have Ways of Making You Laugh features characters being crushed from above by falling pachyderms; a gag which prefigures the famous giant foot from the opening titles of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. After developing his craft with the Python troupe, but before they made the transition into feature films, Gilliam applied his familiar animation style to the title sequence of an otherwise forgettable Vincent Price movie called Cry of the Banshee (1970).
Between the second and third series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Gilliam created animated sequences for the short-lived television program Marty Feldman’s Comedy Machine starring British comedian Marty Feldman (best known in North America for playing Igor in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein). Comedy Machine was a British-American coproduction between the UK’s ATV and ABC in the United States and, with Gilliam’s involvement, the show nakedly aimed to find the same counterculture audience which had embraced the Pythons. Although it only lasted one season, some of Comedy Machine finest moments include Gilliam’s eye-catching opening titles as well as the particularly Pythonesque animated segment The Miracle of Flight which slowly builds over five minutes toward a killing punchline.
In 2001, Gilliam created a list of his choices for The 10 Best Animated Films of All Time which was published by London’s The Guardian newspaper. Gilliam’s list included seminal works by avant-garde European animators like Ladislaw Starewicz, Jan Svankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk, the Quay Brothers as well as cartoons by industry heavyweights in the United States like Walt Disney Pictures, Tex Avery, John Lasseter, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Gilliam is currently in preproduction on a film he has been trying to make for decades, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; an oft-thwarted project which was the subject of the documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002).