(in)Famous Pipe Smokers: Graham Chapman
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23 November 2010

(in)Famous Pipe Smokers: Graham Chapman
 The Definitive Loon

Even as a boy I had a very clear image in my mind as to what constituted the ideal lunatic. The physiological: A pale complexion, long, slender limbs, and a prominent proboscis. The behavioral: A seemingly alert and active body language, contrasted sharply by the subject's complete obliviousness to his own behavior, a manner of speaking which might remain calm and collected even amongst the most complete and thorough insanity, yet which might very well in turn leap up onto a desk and begin squawking like a bird when surrounded by normalcy. The beady-eyed stare and stiff upper lip which could, at any moment, turn into maniacal laughter.

The model for this image, the eidolon of the complete loon, was formed so early in my life thanks to the re-runs of Monty Python's Flying Circus which would air shortly after I returned home from school. The man who inspired them was, of course, none other than Graham Chapman; a man considered even by his fellow Pythons to be explicitly, wondrously insane. He was also a man who in his private life, seemed to almost perpetually have a pipe clenched between his teeth, trailing smoke and chaos in equal measure.

As co-Python Eric Idle noted,"There was the quiet pipe-smoking tweed jacketed doctor, who could elucidate complicated medical facts to the layman while calmly diagnosing and dispensing medicines; there was the quiet pipe-smoking writer, who could sit all day painting his nails with gestetner fluid occasionally interjecting the oddest comments... and there was the quiet pipe-smoking alcoholic, who could reduce any drinks party to a shambles by consuming half a distillery and then crawling round the floor kissing all the men and groping all the women."

Chapman was, like so many of life's most memorable characters, an unabashed jumble of contradictions which somehow seemed to fit together perfectly. He was a human jigsaw puzzle, yet one which rather than being presented in a neat little box, tended more often to appear in the form of a landslide. He was almost painfully shy, and often drank heavily in order to perform, yet was considered by his fellows to be by far the most broadly talented actor of their troupe, playing the leads in both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. He was openly homosexual at a time when this was still considered scandalous, yet conspicuously defied stereotyping; he was a mountaineer, he played rugby, he castigated David Bowie for the androgynous and sexually ambiguous persona he used as a stage prop. Even when it came to pipes he favored staid, traditional, classic English straight-stemmed numbers. His ability to play the stern, stiff-upper-lipped Englishman to perfection (allegedly modeled after his own father, a policeman) saw him frequently acting as figures of (misguided) authority. Most famously "The Colonel", a.k.a. Muriel Volestrangler, who would interrupt skits that had gotten "too silly":

And yet despite his reputation as Monty Python's foremost madman, he was underneath it all a person of science and intellect; though often known to spend cocktail parties discretely crawling around on the floor, very literally biting at the ankles of unsuspecting ladies, Graham was also a licensed medical doctor who, to the surprise of even his long-time co-stars, packed a suitcase full of medical supplies and volunteered his services as the cast and crew's physician during the filming of The Life of Brian. (Which took place where else, but in a scorpion-infested desert in Tunisia.) He was, in his own unorthodox manner, a Renaissance man, albeit one who was, during traveling performances, fully expected to nonchalantly return to the hotel at the most ungodly hours, sporting a black eye (or two).

Graham and John Cleese constituted much of the genius behind Monty Python's writing, in a partnership which the latter described as himself doing 90% of the work, while the former would, after long periods of silence, inject out of nowhere a suggestion which completely transformed a scene, elevating it from the merely comedic to the sublimely preposterous. Were I to ask you, by example, if you recalled the famous "Broken Toaster" sketch, you would no doubt say to me, "What?" Rightfully so of course, for many years ago, as Cleese sat working away, Graham turned to him and said: Make it a dead parrot, a Norwegian Blue. Suffice to say that for all his long silences, Graham was a man who had an unusual way with words:

'He taught us not to respect doctors - they are after all only ex-medical students - and to be honest with our emotions. "Well, it's better than bottling it up!" would be Graham's credo. "After all, who of us in our lives hasn't set fire to some great public building or other..."', Eric Idle noted in Graham's own Autobiography of a Liar. He also wrote, "Graham Chapman was a loony. You can tell that from this book."

Posted by eric at 2:27 PM | Link | 1 comment

Re: (in)Famous Pipe Smokers: Graham Chapman
Funny how the two men who warped my teen years (Chapman and Tolkien) were both pipesters!

Posted by Mark on November 24, 2010 at 1:13 PM

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