Forty years ago, as the Beatles were ending their dominance of a musical era, another British troupe was emerging and would ultimately change the history of comedy. This band of merry men – five Brits and one American – formed Monty Python and slapstick comedy was never the same again.
These six men were American animator (and later director) Terry Gilliam and British comedians John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman, who died in 1989 from throat cancer. The survivors recently joined forces in an epic documentary, "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut)," which was co-directed by Terry Jones' son Bill and Ben Timlett. "Thirteen years after 1969 we called it a day and have been living off it ever since. It's been quite nice getting together at odd events to celebrate ancient people," said Gilliam in an interview with ABC News Now's "Popcorn with Peter Travers."
"'Almost the Truth' is an in-depth look at the six men and their complicated relationship with one another. The comedy came out of tension between people who loved and hated each other," explained Gilliam who animated, wrote and acted in the Monty Python skits. He co-directed with Terry Jones the troupe's first film, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975) and the third and final film, "Monty Python's the Meaning of Life" (1983).
Gilliam's reaction to Cleese describing him as "unbalanced" in the Python documentary highlights the cheerful contrariness of their relationship. "He's a mutant," Gilliam told Travers. "He's spent a fortune in wives and alimony, on psycho therapy and it hasn't done any good." He then proceeded to analyze the rest of his former castmates: "Mike, on the surface, would be (most balanced), Eric is very together and Terry is Welsh, so it's all over!"
Gilliam, who chafes at Hollywood executives, calling them "corporate thinkers" who "are not brave," believes the secret to Python's success was partly because "it was so unfettered by managers and agents and execs. It was just six men who were trying to make us laugh." The other part was because they were not bound by political correctness or fear of offending their audience. "When offense becomes the most important thing to people, you stop thinking," he claimed.
Gilliam's favorite Python sketch is "The Undertaker," which aired in "Monty Python's Flying Circus Show" episode 26. In it, Cleese takes his dead mother in a bag to the undertaker, who suggests that they eat her: "We cook her. She'd be delicious with a few French fries, a bit of stuffing. Delicious!" Cleese is momentarily tempted, saying he feels "a bit peckish" and then protests he can't do it. The undertaker seals the deal by offering to dig a grave where Cleese can throw up afterwards if he feels guilty. That skit was, according to Gilliam "utterly and completely offensive and thank God we did it!"
Gilliam believes that, because of the obsession with being politically correct, major stars are going to TV where there is more leeway. He cites as an example Al Pacino and Barry Levinson who are making a telepic about right-to-die champion Dr. Jack Kevorkian for HBO because "studios won't touch it. They live in fear. Decisions in Hollywood are made in fear of losing jobs. There is no courage." The show Gilliam watches the most is, not surprisingly, the animated comedy series "Family Guy" because it's "outrageous and wonderful."