John Cleese would spend hours finessing a script—choosing the right word, or considering where best to place a comma for greatest comedic effect. His writing partner, Graham Chapman preferred to sit quietly, listening, smoking his pipe, and from time-to-time suggest an idea that would often turn an average sketch into something extraordinary. One such example, was Chapman’s inspiration to insert a dead parrot into some old material that led to the writing of one of Monty Python‘s most famous routines.
The “Dead Parrot Sketch” developed out of something Cleese and Chapman had previously written for a one-off special called How to Irritate People. Produced by David Frost, How to Irritate People was a collection of sketches introduced by Cleese, and co-starring Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Michael Palin, Connie Booth, Gillian Lind and Dick Vosburgh. The programme was notable for being the first time Palin worked with Cleese and Chapman, a year before they created Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as Palin explained in Bob McCabe’s biography of Chapman, The Life of Graham:
‘...that was the first time I’d ever worked with John and Graham, as an actor, and that was very much like a miniPython, except that I wasn’t writing with Terry [Jones]. I was an actor with their material, but we changed it a little bit in rehearsal and we’d really enjoyed doing that, even though the end result had not been successful, largely due to problems with recording.’
The show appears never to have been shown on British television, but was aired in the US on January 21st, 1969. The programme contained elements of material later used on Python, in particular the “Car Salesman” sketch, which eventually became the famous (Dead) “Parrot Sketch.”
The “Car Salesman” was more than a piece of creative comedy, it was an idea suggested by Palin, and based on his own dealings with a less than scrupulous garage owner, as Cleese explains:
‘..that was based on a man called Mr Gibbins, which is Helen [Palin’s] unmarried name. And Mr Gibbins ran a garage somewhere in Michael’s area, and Michael started to tell me about taking his car in to Mr Gibbins if there was something wrong with it, and he would ring Mr Gibbins and say, “I’m having trouble with the clutch,” and Mr Gibbins would say, “Lovely car, lovely car.” And Michael said, “Well, yes, Mr Gibbins, it is a lovely car, but I’m having trouble with the clutch.” “Lovely car, lovely car, can’t beat it.” “No, but we’re having trouble with it.” “Well, look,” he says, “if you ever have any trouble with it, bring it in.” Michael would say, “Well, I am having trouble with it and I have brought it in,” and he’d say, “Good, lovely car, lovely car, if you have trouble bring it in,” and Michael would say, “No, no, no, the clutch is sticking,” and he would say, “Sign of a quality car, if you had a sticky clutch first two thousand miles, it’s the sign of good quality,” and he was one of those people you could never get to take a complaint seriously. And Michael and I chatted about this, and I then went off and wrote a sketch with Graham about a man returning a second-hand car…’
The sketch has Chapman, as a Jacques-Tati-like customer, dealing with Palin’s furtive car salesman.
How to Irritate People wasn’t successful, but when they started writing sketches for the first series of Monty Python, Cleese recalled the “Car Salesman Sketch,” instinctually recognizing there was “something funny in it”.
Cleese considered the garage a cliched location and together with Chapman, it was changed to a pet shop. They then discussed whether the pet should be a dog, whereupon Chapman suggested the idea of a parrot.
Chapman’s partner, David Sherlock described the working relationship between Graham and Cleese to that of Gilbert and Sullivan:
‘I think Cleese is definitely W. H. Gilbert, who was an absolute stickler for the words being said correctly…And Graham was a great believer in a broad sweep and then thinking about how it could be shaped.’
Chapman preferred to interject ideas, or lines, rather do the hard, sedentary toil of writing. Yet, it was Chapman’s anarchic view of the world that inspired another famous Python sketch.
...His contribution to Python was immense and immeasurable—not only shifting a dog to a parrot, but coming up with such classics as the famed “Ministry for Silly Walks,” an idea sparked off when [Graham] saw an elderly man struggling to walk up Southwood Lane near his home on London. Both him and Cleese being too busy to write the idea themselves, [Chapman] phoned up Palin and Jones and insisted they write something based on his original observation.
After Chapman’s death in 1989, Cleese re-worked the “Dead Parrot Sketch” as the opening of his eulogy to Chapman.
And even Margaret Thatcher could “do” Python lines (although not very well):
Previously on Dangerous Minds: