When I was in high school, my brother and I were lucky enough to get to see Monty Python’s Graham Chapman in a very rare live performance. It was 1986, and he appeared at the Masonic Temple (now the new wing of the Art Museum) here in Portland. We begged our dad to let us go, and he somewhat reluctantly agreed. I think he knew how obsessed we were with Monty Python, and that this was quite probably a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see even one of them in person.
I still have my ticket stub floating around here somewhere. It always turns up when I’m not looking for it, but it disappears again on the rare occasions that I need it. I realize that this entry would be slightly more compelling if I could provide photographic proof, but for now, you’ll just have to take my word that I still have it.
That night at the dinner table, Dad gave us his equivalent of a warning. “Now, British comedy tends to be a bit. . .blue, so they may say things that you guys aren’t used to hearing, and make some crude jokes.”
“Yeah, Dad, we know what to expect. We’ve watched Monty Python for years, and they’re definitely not ‘blue’ or whatever.”
“Is there an opening act?”
The present-day version of me will now step in and tell you that there was indeed an opening act, but we’d never heard of them, either before or since. They were quite terrible. In fact, I can remember only one line of their boring sketch comedy routines: someone yelling, in a mock-drunken stupor, “Start the fuckin’ car!” Oh, the hilarity.
“Well,” Dad continued, “I’m sure you guys will be fine, but don’t be too surprised if blah blah blue blah blah—” I don’t even remember the rest of what he said, actually. I was much too excited to finish dinner and get downtown.
Dad drove us to the Masonic Temple and dropped us off by the door. We waited in line, everyone buzzing with excitement, until the doors finally opened and the line of people was let in. It was the first live comedy show we’d ever seen, and we expected to see Graham peeking out from behind a curtain or, if we were really lucky, sitting on one of the metal folding chairs in the audience somewhere. We kept glancing around the room, hoping for a sighting. The opening act came out and did their thing, and like I said, they were terrible. The audience dutifully clapped, and some people even laughed a bit, but we thought it seemed like a mistake to have an opening act for a colossus like Graham Chapman. Anyone coming between us and him was an unwelcome distraction.
After what seemed like forty-five minutes (because it probably was) of torturous comedy, Graham came out on stage. He received a thunderous standing ovation before he settled into his part of the show. It wasn’t a comedy performance, as such. He mostly told stories, some of which were funny and some of which were not. He talked about his new Dangerous Sports Club, which involved lots of skydiving and things, and warranted a longish slide show. (I think Douglas Adams was in the DSC as well; I seem to recall him being in a picture or two in the slide show.) Graham talked quite a bit about Monty Python, obviously, and told us a great story about how during the final season of Flying Circus, the censors started to suspect that one of the members was homosexual. One of them was, of course, and it was Graham, although he was still publicly in the closet at the time. But when the Pythons kept getting letters from the BBC saying You Guys Really Need To Do Something About This Homosexual Problem, it all came down at the exact same time that John Cleese decided to leave the group. The remaining members took the funny opportunity to write to the BBC: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We have discovered the offending member, and he has since been sacked.”
My favorite moment of the show, however, was during the question-and-answer session near the end of the evening. Most of the questions were the usual variety of softballs like, “Do you miss being in Monty Python?” or “How hard is it to get into comedy?”, but one guy stood up and asked, “What’s a jindiggot?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re referring to.”
“But you said it.”
“Er, I don’t. . .think I did.” Graham was gamely trying to answer the guy, but by this time, everyone was looking at each other in a what-in-the-world-is-this-guy-talking-about way. We all turned and looked at him as he started to really get nervous.
“Yeah, you did. It was in The Holy Grail. . .the scene with the French guy yelling insults at King Arthur from the top of the castle. You said, ‘You and all your silly English jindiggots.’ ”
At that point, everyone realized what he was talking about, and we all burst into peals of laughter. The French knight couldn’t pronounce the word ‘knights’, so it sounded like ‘ken-NIG-ots.” This guy had misheard the line and wondered for years what a ‘jindiggot’ was. Now Graham was performing in HIS town, and answering HIS question, which must have seemed like the most amazing opportunity in history.
“Um,” Graham said diplomatically, “there seems to be a slight misunderstanding.” The audience was howling by now, as Graham had to good-naturedly explain the joke that everyone else in the world knew so well. Furthermore, it was John Cleese who had spoken the line, not Graham. Graham was King Arthur, standing at the base of the castle and the opposite end of the conversation, being taunted by Cleese’s French knight. As the audience continued to laugh, the guy realized his mistakes and slunk low in his seat, presumably praying for a quick (and hopefully invisible) death. That was definitely the highlight of the night, and no one had any further questions, so Graham took the opportunity to wrap up the show. He thanked us and walked off to another thunderous standing ovation, after which he came bounding across the stage like a rabbit, with his fingers raised next to his head like rabbit ears.
I don’t think anyone knew yet that Graham had cancer. When he died three years later, there were rumors of AIDS, but they proved to be unfounded. The world was stunned; he wasn’t even fifty years old. The other Pythons are all still alive and presumably well, but I’m pretty sure they’ve never been to Portland. It was a huge honor to have been able to see him here, and I certainly won’t forget it.
R.I.P., Graham. Happy Monty Python Day.