There were mixed signals concerning Graham Chapman's appearance at the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach (a three-day stopover that began Sunday). The audience was keenly interested in an entertainment. What it got instead was a combination reminiscence and career update from someone who apparently assumed that his appearance alone was worthy in itself.
Chapman's assumption was not altogether unfounded. As a co-creator and principal of Monty Python Flying Circus, one of the most imaginative and irreverent comedy troupes of the past couple of decades (they are to the '70s and '80s what the "Beyond the Fringe" quartet was to the '50s and early '60s), Chapman's arrival was preceded by eager curiosity. Would we be treated to that rarity in modern comedy--verbal felicity and wit? As an observer of religious and social tensions, would he bring us a fresh view of the American scene? Was he going solo out of the uncontainable need for a personal statement?
It wasn't long before it became apparent that Chapman's view of American audiences has been shaped by watching American television, where the talk show uses up the rest of the live air that isn't taken by sports and the news. Chapman had no act; or else it was conceived through the talk-show rite where one addresses an audience indirectly through news of one's career. He even brought clips.
The first half of his 90-minute-or-so routine went well. Tall and ethereally slender, and casually dressed in jeans and a striped pullover, he opened by asking the audience for a full 30 seconds of abuse before saying "I should begin by telling you what I've been doing recently." He mentioned working as executive producer on a new movie called "Love Potion Number 9," as well as another, co-written with John Cleese ("the fractionally taller one"), on another project called "Ditto."
His third project--which took up the bulk of his talk-- concerned his shenanigans with the Dangerous Sports Club, "a group of unemployed Englishmen, founded by Zan Rufus Isaacs, who claims to be a second cousin of Queen Elizabeth and is totally loony, the price of inbreeding, I think." Chapman's curiosity was first piqued by an invitation to hang-glide over the dangerous volcanoes of Ecuador. He declined that one, but not a subsequent offer to plunge down the steep, snowy slopes of St. Moritz in a Venetian gondola.
Chapman carried on for some time about the group with vivid anecdotes of taking the slopes in a double-decker bus, a heavy operating table, a two-man replica of the Cruise missile and a race-car hull which, when it crashed, inflicted amnesia on its rider ("which is probably why he goes back"). To this tongue-in-cheek report, Chapman added that the adrenaline rush from these capers lasts two weeks and is the group's raison d'etre.
He described other "brown trouser" escapades, such as "bungeeing," for example, in which one leaps off a bridge or a tall crane while harnessed in the elastic strap used on aircraft carriers to snag incoming planes. Or of flying across the English Channel in a big plastic bubble, or a gigantic flying kangaroo pouch (a caper for which one of his colleagues is allegedly being prosecuted by the British Civil Aviation Board).
Chapman's narrative was as buoyant and phantasmal as those jabberwocky shapes silently overflying the English Channel with their goofy cargo of British eccentrics, and it seemed quite in keeping with the Monty Python theme of form and propriety continuously gathering itself in the face of spectacular collapse.
Imagine everyone's surprise when it turned out not to be such a fantasy after all, as Chapman's clips showed men in tubs or other contraptions (and a huge inflatable red elephant) plunging down snowy slopes; an exceedingly amateur hang glider pitching uncertainly into the mists surrounding Mount Kilimanjaro; or tiny bungeeing figures plummeting from horrific heights only to be snapped up again (sometimes right out of a body of water) by the world's biggest rubber bands (the sight drew a visceral "whoa!" from the crowd).
A couple of anecdotes about Keith Moon of the Who followed (in one, Moon blows up the door of his hotel room in front of the complaining manager as an illustration of the difference between noise and the Who's music). But then the act began to grow precious.
More film clips followed, one of which, consisting of two laundromat ladies (played by Cleese and Michael Palin) who try to ring up Jean-Paul Sartre, was nearly incomprehensible. Chapman talked of topless dancers in London's Hard Rock cafe, of appearing naked in a window before a horrified crowd of female Muslim extras in "The Life of Brian," and of how the Monty Python troupe managed to get its head of steam up before BBC censors could abort its success.
Chapman as raconteur stopped going over once it became apparent that he was treating his audience to warmed-over interview material. And it went flat altogether after several references to toilet humor--which is big in Britain but meets with a certain impatience here.
The most telling moment came when one of his film clips was miscued and had to be reloaded. "Does anyone have any questions?" he asked in the awkward silence that followed. The spirit of the room grew halfhearted. This was a club, not an academic seminar. The promise of something fresh from one of the more imaginative comic minds of the recent past had stalled in the dead air of recycled celebrity. We have no trade deficit when it comes to that.