Why you should care
Graham Chapman was, as the Monty Python boys would say, something completely different.
How do you eulogize a man who once rode a gondola down a ski slope?
Twenty-five years ago in the Great Hall at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, the members of Britain’s legendary troupe, Monty Python, did their best to fittingly remember their longtime comrade-in-comedy, Graham Chapman, who died from throat cancer on Oct. 4, 1989, at the age of 48.
Chapman’s writing partner and good friend John Cleese, who started collaborating with the 6-foot-4-inch performer when they were students at Cambridge University, took the lead in paying homage — in a manner that Chapman would certainly have applauded.
Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard!
“Graham Chapman, co-author of the ‘Parrot Sketch,’ is no more,” Cleese begins his memorial remarks, borrowing lines from what is arguably Python’s single most famous skit. Chapman and Cleese wrote the sketch, about a man returning a dead parrot to a dismissive pet shop owner, in 1970. When Cleese initially had the customer returning a broken toaster, it was Chapman who suggested a dead parrot, characteristically taking the idea to the next absurd, unforgettable level.
And following in that tradition, Cleese’s eulogy quickly shocks the viewer with its own unexpected turn. Should we be sad about Chapman’s untimely death? “Nonsense,” Cleese says. “Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard! I hope he fries.”
In a band of misfits and provocateurs, Chapman, the son of a Leicester police inspector, was the craziest — the one who perpetually pushed the bounds of propriety and delighted in causing offense. Chapman, Cleese says, “would never forgive me … if I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste.”
Chapman’s unconventional, often extravagant, life had more than its share of ups and downs, but it never veered in the direction of good taste. One of just a few open homosexuals in the entertainment industry at the time, he had lived with his partner, writer David Sherlock, for 24 years, but when he originally came out, he did so to a group of party attendees that included his girlfriend. A trained doctor, Chapman had given up medicine for comedy and struggled with alcoholism for years, imbibing “three pints of gin a day” until he stopped his “torrential drinking” cold turkey.
Chapman’s “splendid defiance,” as Cleese describes it, was always on display. Cleese recalls Chapman — who played the lead straight-man roles in Python’s films Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979) — “crawling around on all fours” at BBC parties; rubbing up against the legs of executives; dressing up as a carrot and refusing to speak during an appearance at the prestigious Oxford Union; and leaving curse words on small pieces of paper around Cleese’s apartment, forcing him and his wife “into frantic last-minute paper chases whenever we were expecting important guests.”
Even Chapman’s death came as a shock, coming right before the Pythons were to celebrate their 20th anniversary — “the worst case of party-pooping I’ve ever seen,” fellow Python Terry Jones would observe.
But the Pythons, led by Cleese’s irreverent remembrance, wouldn’t let the fact that Chapman had “gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky” keep them down for long. The memorial service included a sing-along of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and Cleese’s ultimate tribute to his fallen writing partner — when he became the “first person ever at a British memorial service to say ‘f*ck.’”