Back in the seventies, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was cutting edge comedy, and I was a big fan. I’ve always been a fan of comedy, but not so much of comedians. Comedians are funny while performing, but in person, sometimes they can be downright obnoxious.
My theory was that the Monty Python guys were different; being British they would all be naturally funny and not at all obnoxious. But I had run up against seemingly nice, funny people, at least that’s what their public image was, who turned out to be anything but.
Michael Palin was my favorite member of the group, he seemed to have a subtle, yet way-out-there humor that appeals to me, and so I was hoping for the best.
I got a chance to photograph him while he was doing a press tour to promote ‘A Fish Called Wanda’. I knew that it would just be a guy in a downtown hotel room and a 10-minute shoot-and-get-out, so I prepared my blasé, met-and-seen-them-all attitude, but was still excited.
Knocking on the door of the appointed room; Michael Palin himself answered the door. It wasn’t some lackey; it was Michael Palin. It was the first time I had seen this happen. The door is always answered by a publicist, who asks you to wait a minute while the subject finishes another interview, or combs his hair, or talks on the phone to their coke dealer. No, Michael Palin was standing right there, smiling that familiar, show-lots-of-bottom-teeth smile.
I wasn’t prepared for this. I use the time publicists insist on to steel myself against any fan-type reaction to the celebrity du jour. This time I had to go straight into it, without as much as a faux jaded look.
Michael reached out his hand and said “I’m Michael Palin, a pleasure to meet you” in an exceedingly polite English way. I just smiled and stared. He said, “You must be from the San Francisco Examiner, she (the publicist) is just inside on the phone".
I opened my mouth to introduce myself, and started laughing. Not the kind of polite laughter that comedians come to expect, but full-on maniacal laughter.
He asked me if I wanted something to drink; my answer was hysterical laughter. He asked where I wanted to shoot the photo, more hysterical laughter. He must have thought the Examiner sent an absolute moron.
We walked back into the sitting area of the suite, where the publicist was still on the phone. Michael started doing funny faces to make her laugh. As I tried to compose myself, I realized that the room was rather dark, and holding a camera still while laughing was going to be a challenge. But by now my laughter was unstoppable. It only made it worse when I tried to stop, like trying to stop giggling in church. He continued annoying the publicist, but she managed to keep a remnant of her composure; I, on the other hand, was nearing apoplexy.
Managing to work up enough self-control to actually say something, I asked him to just stand in the doorway to the sitting area, since it had the best light. He stood there pleasantly posing for me, while I shot several frames. What I was seeing through the camera was not the man I had met; he just looked like a dull Englishman standing there in a doorway. My laughter was dying down to occasional snickers now. He looked like he didn’t know quite what to do, so I said, “Let me know when you've had enough of this.” He snapped back with, “That’s enough”.
I started laughing again. He repeated, “That’s enough”, and his eyes got big, and he advanced toward me. He was now swinging his arms wildly and doing pseudo karate chops at me. This just set off my laughter once again, but I managed to keep shooting. He closed the sliding doors to the other room while standing between them, and kept trying to get to me. He started yelling something in German, and fought with the sliding doors, making weird noises until he was right up against my wide-angle lens.
I was completely helpless, my eyes were all teared up and couldn’t breathe, let alone speak, and I was almost out of film. In just a few minutes I managed to shoot and reload three times. Knowing that by now I had to have some good pictures, and that I was looking more and more like a complete idiot, I ended the photo shoot on account of laughter, definitely a first.
Michael suddenly stopped his tirade, and turned instantly back into an English gentleman. It was like he threw some kind of Jekyll and Hyde switch. He politely asked if I was sure I’d gotten enough, I squeaked out, “Yes, more than enough”. He reached out his hand again, and I managed to shake it and looked for the door through my still tearing eyes.
I composed myself to some degree as I walked down the hall to the elevator. The elevator door opened and there was a crowd of tourists, I lost it again; they were all speaking German.