Graham Chapman was a member of the beloved, surrealist comedy troupe Monty Python and is viewed as a comedic genius, responsible for some of the group's funniest and most iconic moments. Though largely remembered as the quiet, pipe-smoking Python, Chapman reveled in the lunacy and absurdity that was often depicted in sketches on Monty Python's Flying Circus as well as the group's influential films. Chapman was a complicated man who often lived in excess but was a talented actor and a gifted comedian who displayed an intuition as to what was funny, creating some of the world's most comedic moments.
Graham Chapman was born January 8, 1941 in Leicester, England to Edith Towers and Walter Chapman, a police constable. Chapman was educated at Melton Mowbray Grammar School and showed a strong interest in science, sports, and acting, and notably received praise in a local newspaper for his performance of Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. He also loved to read and listened to comedy radio shows with his older brother John, particularly The Goon Show, which has been frequently cited as a major influence by Monty Python members.
In 1959, Chapman began studying medicine at Cambridge University's Emmanuel College where he joined the Footlights Dramatic Club, the school's historic theater group, and began writing with John Cleese, one of Monty Python's future co-founders. After graduating, Chapman toured with the Footlights, deferring his medical studies for a year and causing him to question whether he wanted to continue his college studies or pursue an acting career.
Fellow Footlights member and English actor Tim Brooke-Taylor fondly remembered his friendship with Chapman saying, "He was a rugby-playing, beer-drinking medical student, terrific fun. A really nice guy, always thoughtful, who somehow knew when you were feeling low and would haul you back up again." (Stevens, 2013).
Following the success of the Footlights, Chapman and Cleese continued their writing partnership and were hired to write professionally for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), initially for programs hosted by David Frost. Chapman, Cleese, and Brooke-Taylor would collaborate with Marty Feldman to create the television comedy series At Last the 1948 Show, which marked Chapman's first significant role as both a performer and writer.
Chapman's work on the show highlighted his brilliant deadpan comedic delivery and while the show was successful, he was still debating whether to continue his medical career. However, between the show's two seasons, Chapman managed to complete his studies at St Bartholomew's Medical College and was professionally registered as a doctor. Comedy eventually became Chapman's primary focus, however, especially after the founding of the Monty Python comedy group.
Monty Python - Cheese Shop
Monty Python's official website reports that the group was founded in May 1969 when five Britons (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin) sat down with American animator Terry Gilliam to discuss working together on a new BBC comedy series. Together, the group aimed to depart from the established conventions of traditional sketch comedy that reflected the revolutionary attitude of the late '60s. Their comedic approach could be best described as irreverent, clever, ridiculous, and unpredictable — elements that were consistent throughout each episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus which debuted on BBC1 on October 5, 1969.
Monty Python's Flying Circus ran for 45 episodes between 1969 and 1974, with the group also releasing books and albums during that time. Chapman's contributions are immeasurable as he helped create some of the show's most quotable and beloved sketches. In 2005's The Life of Graham: The Authorised Biography of Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam recalled, "Graham would do the nudge that would push it into something extraordinary." (McCabe, pg. 139-40). Cleese later remarked that Chapman did little actual writing for the sketches, saying, "he would come in, say something marvellous and then drift off in his own mind." (McCabe, pg. 103).
One of Chapman's greatest ideas resulted in the Dead Parrot sketch that aired in 1969. The original idea was to have a frustrated customer trying to return a faulty toaster but Chapman felt it needed to be more absurd and suggested swapping the toaster for a dead Norwegian Blue parrot.
The famous Cheese Shop sketch was written in collaboration with Cleese, who had doubts as to whether it was actually humorous. The premise consisted of Cleese listing various cheeses he was interested in purchasing to the shop owner who had no cheese in stock, causing Cleese to become increasingly agitated.
Cleese fondly recounted Chapman's talents and assistance in developing the sketch in a 1989 article from The Independent:
"As a writing partner, he had two rare gifts: the ability to get us un-stuck with some inspired off-the-wall conceit when I was enmeshed in very on-the-wall musings; and in addition, the priceless talent of knowing whether something was funny or not. I noticed this early and relied upon it shamelessly. In fact the Cheese Shop Skit — my all-time favorite — owes its life to him. Every dozen or so cheeses, I'd sigh and say, 'Gra, is this really funny?' and he'd puff on his pipe calmly and say 'Yes, get on with it.'"
When it was presented to the other members, they were convinced to film the sketch after Michael Palin found it particularly hilarious and reportedly collapsed to the floor in laughter. Terry Jones and Chapman can be seen in the sketch's background wearing business suits and bowler hats, dancing to a slow crescendo of bouzouki music while Chapman is smoking a pipe.
Chapman's acting skills were highly praised as his fellow Python members considered him to be the best actor among them with Cleese remarking, "he was a particularly wonderful actor." (McCabe, 2005). Chapman was selected to portray the lead role of Arthur, King of the Britons, among other characters, in 1975's Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Studios refused to fund the film and according to Terry Gilliam in an interview with The Guardian, Monty Python turned to English rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Genesis for financial support as they saw it as "a good tax write-off" because U.K. income tax was "as high as 90%" at the time. (O'Neill, 2002).
Chapman struggled with alcohol throughout his life and began drinking heavily while attending college and continued during his time in Monty Python. While touring with the group, Chapman's excessive drinking caused him to miss his cues to go on stage. An article in the Daily Mail recounted, "During filming, he needed to bolster his confidence, and alcohol helped him shed all his inhibitions for wild, anarchic performances." (Stevens, 2013).
Cleese initially recognized the severity of Chapman's drinking problem during the filming of Monty Python's first film, 1971's And Now for Something Completely Different. When Cleese and Palin were searching for a script in Chapman's briefcase, they found a bottle of vodka that was nearly empty — at 10 in the morning. Cleese later recalled, "That was the first time I realised something was going on, over and above the fact that some people drink a bit too much." (Stevens, 2013).
Chapman's drinking worsened throughout the '70s, provoking outrage in pubs, arriving late to rehearsals, and hampering his skills as a performer. During the rehearsals for Monty Python's film Life of Brian, Chapman struggled to keep up and would frequently lose track of which part they were on, causing them to constantly stop and retake. Around Christmas of 1977, Chapman decided to give up drinking so that he could properly perform and ensure the film would be successful. Not only did Chapman stop drinking for the rest of his life, Life of Brian was a massive hit and continues to be ranked as one of the greatest comedy films of all time with Chapman's performance as the titular character considered by many to be his finest role.
Chapman was also a prolific pipe smoker, frequently seen with a pipe in several Monty Python sketches as well as constantly smoking one off screen. He primarily preferred classic, straight English shapes such as Billiards and Pots. Chapman also interestingly referred to his pipe tamper as a "progger." In a 1989 article from The Guardian Michael Palin noted, "A progger was Graham's name for the flat-headed instrument which he used to bed down the tobacco in his pipe. I never knew whether it was a real name or not. Graham liked words and used them well, but if he felt the right one didn't exist he'd invent another one."
In his autobiography So Anyway..., John Cleese recounts a particularly amusing story about a prank he pulled on Chapman and their conflicting recollections about the event:
Chapman published his memoirs in 1980, titling the book A Liar's Autobiography as he believed "it's almost impossible to tell the truth." (Chapman and Yoakum, 2006.) Chapman continued to act throughout the '80s until 1988 when it was discovered Chapman had cancer which eventually spread to his spinal cord and was ultimately declared inoperable after several surgeries and treatments. He passed away October 4, 1989, the eve of the 20th anniversary of Monty Python's debut on British television.
Chapman's death greatly impacted the group's members, but they chose to remember their dear friend with humor, something that Chapman would no doubt have appreciated. Terry Jones joking referred to the timing of Chapman's death as "the worst case of party-pooping in all history." (Marasco and Shuff, 2010).
John Cleese's eulogy for Chapman is especially notable and memorable:
The entire service was the perfect way to commemorate a man who defied convention and brought his own unique voice to comedy. Chapman's funeral service fittingly concluded with Eric Idle and the other Python members leading the attendees in a rendition of the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Life of Brian. Chapman's death was untimely and tragic, but he left behind an impressive body of work that continues to be appreciated by comedy fans and remains timeless.
Monty Python - Dead Parrot