Les Ramoneurs, by Terry Gilliam (Pilote, 1967)
'Les Ramoneurs', from Pilote #426, 21 December 1967. 

Terry Gilliam is most famous as the only American member of the British satirical comedy troupe Monty Python. He was the mad brain behind their surrealistic photo collage animated cartoons, which often appeared as intermezzos between scenes. Whenever Python had a side project, Gilliam was the man who provided their posters, covers, sets, costumes and make-up. Besides Monty Python, he also started a second career as a highly eccentric film director. Many of his pictures are based on classic fantasy stories or set in frightening future dystopia. His characters often have to combat the system to be allowed to think and dream their own independent thoughts. Gilliam himself can relate, since many of his pictures have been victim of executive meddling, behind-the-scenes disasters and bad receptions at the box office. Nevertheless, some have become cult classics, including 'Time Bandits' (1981), 'Brazil' (1985), 'The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen' (1989), '12 Monkeys' (1996), 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' (1998) and 'The Zero Theorem' (2013). While polarizing audiences, Gilliam is still respected as a highly imaginative and original artist. Both his cartoons as well as his live-action films have inspired generations of equally deranged directors and animators. 

Early years
Terry Gilliam was born in 1940 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father worked as a travelling salesman before settling down as a carpenter. Gilliam had a vivid imagination from a young age. He loved comedians like The Marx Brothers, Ernie Kovacs, the Goon Show and Spike Milligan, while devouring novelists like Lewis Carroll, Hunter S. Thompson, Philip K. Dick and C.S. Lewis. His favorite animators are Walt Disney, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Max & Dave Fleischer, Stan Van Der Beek, Ray Harryhausen, George Dunning and Heinz Edelmann's 'Yellow Submarine' (1968). He also praises Eastern European animators like Karel Zeman, Walerian Borowczyk, Wladyslaw Starewicz and Jan Švankmajer. Later in his career he additionally expressed admiration for Bill Plympton, the Brothers Quay, John Lasseter, Nick Park, Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons', Trey Parker and Matt Stone's 'South Park' and Seth MacFarlane's 'Family Guy'. His favorite film directors are the aforementioned Borowczyk, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Donen, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini. In terms of painters and fine artists, Gilliam admires Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Francisco de Goya, the Dadaist movement, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Laurie Lipton and Bansky. His favorite book illustrators are Gustave DoréEdward Gorey and John Tenniel, while he was strongly influenced by cartoonists and comic artists Robert Crumb, Hergé, Harvey Kurtzman, Will ElderJack Davis and Robert Grossman

Gilliam studied and graduated in political science at Occidental College in Los Angeles. During the 1960s his first work was printed in Fang, a college humor magazine of which he later became an editor. 

In admiration of Harvey Kurtzman, Gilliam travelled to New York City to visit the headquarters of his satirical magazine Help! (1960-1965), despite Kurtzman discouraging him that there was "no work for him, it's a hard place." As luck would have it, Gilliam visited the Algonquin Hotel just when Help's assistant-editor Charles Alverson had quit. He was promptly named his successor. In issue #17 (February 1963) Gilliam introduced himself to the readers. He participated in the creation of a few photo comics, or fumetti, such as 'The Unmentionables' in issue #19 (October 1963), written by Alverston. The comic starred (among others) Gilliam, Kurtzman's daughter Lizzy and a still unknown Woody Allen as "actors".

The best-known of Gilliam's comics for Help! was 'Christopher's Punctured Romance', which appeared in issue #24 (May 1965), co-written by Dave Crossley and photographed by Martin Iger. It stars a man falling in love with a Barbie doll. The actor in question was John Cleese, with whom he would later work together in Monty Python. The same issue also featured Gilliam on the front cover as a monocle-wearing gentleman standing in the sea. In the final issue of Help! (issue #26, September 1965) Gilliam and Crossley also created the satirical pamphlet 'Buster, Have You Ever Stomped A Nigra?', which lampooned racism in the U.S. 

'Christopher's Punctured Romance', starring John Cleese and Cindy Young, Pilote issue #24, May 1965. 

When Gilliam first came to Europe, he provided two short stories to the French magazine Pilote. In issue #331 (24 February 1966) he created a comic strip about a bunch of snowmen titled 'La Bonhomme de Neigeologie'.  A year later he created 'Les Ramoneurs', written by Fred, which appeared in issue #426  (21 December 1967). The story revolves around a chimney sweep and a series of misunderstandings he causes among the residents of a flat.

CARtoons & SURFtoons
Gilliam also provided some comics to Petersen Publishing's magazines CARtoons and SURFtoons, for which Alex Toth also contributed work. In CARtoons Gilliam drew the comic 'My Son Arnold, the Car', which already showed the absurdism and silliness he would later further develop in the Monty Python series.

Animation career
In 1968 Gilliam moved away from comics to animated cartoons. Since he worked with hardly any assistance or budget, he couldn't create full-blown animation. Inspired by Stan van der Beek's avant-garde film 'Death Breath' (1964) and later George Dunning's animated feature 'Yellow Submarine' (1968) he used goofy cut-and-paste collages. He cut out several photographs from books, newspapers, magazines, postcards, erotic photos, advertisements and his own family portraits. Usually he picked out a classic realistic painting or a 19th/20th-century photograph. Just moving these serious-minded characters around already had a humorous effect. The animation was deliberately jerky and unconvincing. To make a character "talk" he just let the lower jaw go up and down. There wasn't even an attempt to synchronize it smoothly to the dialogue. Sometimes he composed two different photographs together to create bizarre-looking people and animals. A moustached man could have a bird body, or arms could grow out of the ground like trees. Gilliam occasionally drew characters of his own, but transformed them into cut-outs. That way he didn't have to draw every frame, but could just animate them like his cut-out photographs.

General audiences first saw his silly and surreal cartoons as intermezzos in the children's TV series 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' (1967-1969) and the adult comedy series 'We Have Ways Of Making You Laugh' (1968) on ITV. At 'Do Not Adjust Your Set', Gilliam first met Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, along with the members of the Bonzo Dog Band. They all wrote and performed zany sketches, which made it a cult show among children as well as adults. Idle, Jones and Palin would later join forces with Gilliam in Monty Python, while Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Band would become one of their songwriters.

My Son Arnold the Car, by Terry Gilliam
'My Son Arnold, The Car'. 

Monty Python
In 1969 Palin, Idle, Jones, Gilliam, John Cleese and Graham Chapman were given their own TV series on the BBC. Actress Carol Cleveland (and occasionally Cleese's wife Connie Booth) played specific female roles. On 5 October 1969 the first episode of 'Monty Python's Flying Circus'  (1969-1970) (1972-1974) aired. In an exceptional situation, they were given complete creative freedom and about 13 episodes per season. The team used this to their advantage. The program quickly became notorious for its surreal, experimental and subversive nature. The title, nor the opening credits, have anything to do with the content. Every episode is unpredictable and weird. Sketches often end without proper punchlines and demolish all comedy conventions. Some share a thematical connection, others just abruptly move into different directions. Certain wacky ideas are pushed to their extremes. Actors occasionally point out how silly their sketches are. Sometimes an episode appears to have ended, yet still goes on for several minutes. Other times it comes across as if a totally different show is playing. Historical and cultural references are made, which only a slightly cultivated viewer might understand. Clever ideas are often juxtaposed with silly, somewhat infantile jokes. To top it all off, Gilliam's bizarre and grotesque animated intermezzos intercut the live-action content. Compared with his animation for 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' and 'We Have Ways Of Making You Laugh', Gilliam could work in color and be more explicit in his depictions of nudity and violence.

At the time, 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' baffled and confused audiences. Even today, the general public finds it too strange and will not get all the jokes. But gradually it developed a cult following, which has only grown over the years. Teenagers, twens and college students love its anarchic and unconventional tone. The Pythons gained somewhat of a rock 'n' roll status, with many people referring to them as "the Beatles of comedy". In fact, many rock stars were fans of the show, including Elvis Presley, the Beatles (especially George Harrison), the Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Lemmy and Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden). By the mid-1970s, the Pythons had expanded their cult appeal to foreign countries too, finding fanbases in Scandinavia, Germany, France, Australia and even the United States and Japan. But the original U.S. broadcasts of 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' on ABC were severely butchered by censorship and many commercial breaks. When Gilliam saw one of these broadcasts he was so outraged that he urged his fellow Pythons to sue ABC. The case gave them a lot of publicity and eventually the judge ruled in their favour. To this day 'Monty Python' is one of the few TV shows in the United States to air without edits or commercial breaks.

In 1971 the series won a Silver Rose of Montreux. In 2019, to support the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of 'Monty Python's Flying Circus', all episodes of the series were digitally restored. 

Monty Python: merchandising and spin-off projects
Monty Python spawned a bunch of merchandising, from books, comedy records and stage shows to five feature films, which expanded their fame among people who never even heard of their TV series. The anthology film 'And Now For Something Complely Different' (1973) was an adaptation of their best sketches with a higher budget. The picture was co-produced by Hugh Hefner's Playboy Enterprises, but nevertheless only made a profit in the U.K. In 1975 the team decided to make a completely new and original story based on the legend of King Arthur. 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' (1975), co-directed by Terry Jones and Gilliam. The picture became a cult classic. Its premier coincided with the first broadcasts of their TV series in the United States, which helped the show's ratings. 

In 1979 their most controversial picture, 'Monty Python's Life of Brian' (1979), was released. The film satirized Jesus, Bible epics and particularly religious fanaticism. Several religious groups protested and in many countries 'Life of Brian' was banned, namely Norway, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, the Middle East and some U.S. states and British villages. The scandal actually made it their biggest box office hit. It also spawned their signature song, 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'. In 1982 their concert film 'Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl' (1982) came out, followed by 'Monty Python's Meaning of Life' (1983), an anthology film more in line with the sketch format of their TV show.

In 1989 Python member Graham Chapman died from cancer, which terminated any further Python projects. The following decades certain interviews, books, films and documentaries featuring (some of) the surviving members were branded as "reunions". In reality, they usually only brought a few of the actors together. Or, even if they were all present, some just had a cameo. Whenever the Pythons were collectively interviewed on U.K. television, Eric Idle was usually "present" through live satellite broadcasts, because he lived in the U.S. by that time. On rare occasions all actors were present in the same room, like the 1998 TV interview in Aspen. But even then, it was nothing more or less than a funny chat. Every attempt to make a new show, film or record remained in development hell. Mostly because it was difficult to get everybody together again for a few weeks, but also because there was always somebody who vetoed the idea.

In 2013, film producer Mark Forstater sued the Pythons over royalties regarding the 'Holy Grail' musical 'Spamalot'. When he won his case, the actors were in serious debt and needed income fast. Between 1 and 10 July 2014, a series of stage shows took place in London, titled: 'Live (Mostly)'. This was their only genuine reunion since Chapman's death. Most were their old sketches, though, with only a slight few changes. Some critics noted that Terry Jones was in no state to perform. Suffering from dementia, he had to rely on cue cards to remember his lines. His fellow Pythons helped him out whenever he got stuck. Gilliam was the only one of the sextet to vocally criticize the event. Despite participating with the shows, he felt it lacked the tension and excitement of their glory years. By just rehashing their old material, they had "sold out" and "became the same establishment they enjoyed to take the piss out of." Whatever Gilliam's and other critics' opinions, the shows brought a lot of media attention, celebrity cameos and cash. Nevertheless, all actors made it clear that this would be their final reunion, period. Indeed, the death of Terry Jones in early 2020, seemed to seal that promise. 

Quick Henry by Terry Gilliam
1962 comic strip by Gilliam, drawn in college, with a reference to an ad campaign of Quick Flit insecticide, created by Dr Seuss. Here the term doesn't refer to a "flit gun", but a slang expression for a homosexual. 

Status within Monty Python
Within Monty Python, Gilliam was the odd one out amidst an already odd group of people. While the others were graduates from Oxford and Cambridge university, he hailed from the university of Minnesota. Together with Eric Idle, he was the only Python to write his material independently. Yet whereas Idle's sketches were at least discussed and judged beforehand, the others only saw Gilliam's work when it actually aired on television. He simply couldn't explain his visual comedy. Another notable difference was that Gilliam only played small roles.  Both in the TV show and the later stage performances and feature films he is usually relegated to cameos. He is the bridge keeper and Patsy - the "horse" of King Arthur - in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' (1975), the demented prison guard and equally crazy prophet in 'Monty Python's Life of Brian' (1979) and the American tourist and unfortunate liver donor in 'Monty Python's Meaning of Life' (1983). On Monty Python's comedy albums he is always absent, except for his cover illustrations. Therefore, he is often forgotten by general audiences or even confused with his namesake Terry Jones. 

Yet Gilliam's contributions to Monty Python should not be taken lightly. He provided all their special effects, dummies, puppets, sets and wacky costumes. Gilliam designed all Monty Python album and book covers, as well as their concert and movie posters. He was present at all their brainstorming sessions, judging and vetoeing ideas. The madcap Yankee also wrote a few sketches and one song: 'I've Got Two Legs'.  Gilliam was co-director of the film 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' (1975) and directed the prologue 'The Crimson Permanent Assurance' in 'Monty Python's Meaning of Life' (1983). Both Monty Python's logo and trademark music should be credited to him. It was his idea to use a funny-looking bare foot from Agnolo Bronzino's Renaissance painting 'Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time' (1545) and John Philip Sousa's military march 'Liberty Bell'. Both are prominently featured in the opening credits of the TV series. Gilliam also animated the opening credits of all their movies. 

Terry Gilliam's animated cartoons have often polarized viewers. Some consider them the highlight of every episode or film. Others find it an irritating interruption of the live-action sequences. Either way, they still give Monty Python a visual and distinctive style not found in other (alternative) sketch shows. Michael Palin once said that Gilliam's cartoons were the only thing their imitators could never surpass. Frank Zappa praised Gilliam as "the only comedic genius from the United States", while John Cleese credits Gilliam with their breakthrough in the U.S.: "Terry introduced two things in Python all Americans love: tits and violence!" 

Monty Python by Terry Gilliam
Cover for the book 'Animations of Mortality', 1979. 

Film directing
Outside Monty Python, Gilliam started a new career as a live-action film director. His first picture, 'Jabberwocky' (1977), is loosely based on Lewis Carroll's poem 'Jabberwocky' and John Tenniel's illustrations. Set in the Middle Ages, it follows a peasant who has to combat a dragon. Because of its medieval setting and Michael Palin's starring role, some countries incorrectly promoted 'Jabberwocky' as a sequel to 'Monty Python & the Holy Grail'. This false advertising likely disappointed many viewers. Apart from this misconception, 'Jabberwocky' was very uneven in its execution. After this flop, Gilliam's next picture, 'Time Bandits' (1981), was a professional improvement. This time travel movie from a child's perspective stars John Cleese and Michael Palin (who also co-wrote it) in small roles, but its special effects and dreamy atmosphere make it more Gilliam's own thing. 'Time Bandits' was a box office success and still enjoys a cult following to this day. It was also adapted into a comic book by Steve Parkhouse.

Universal offered Gilliam a million dollar contract for his next project, which became the Orwellian dystopian picture 'Brazil' (1985), co-starring Palin again. 'Brazil' is a brilliant satire of bureaucracy and our rules-obsessed society. Rock composer Frank Zappa and writer Harlan Ellison named it their favorite movie of all time. Many viewers and critics agree it's easily Gilliam's masterpiece. Beb-Deum's comic book 'Bürocratika' (1987) was strongly inspired by it. Unfortunately Gilliam went way over budget. Executives were worried, especially about the grim and dark tone. They refused to release it, but Gilliam took revenge by showing his own director's cut to enthusiastic audiences. As it gained a cult following and excellent reviews, Universal brought out 'Brazil' in a severely altered version with an obligatory "happy end". But they deliberately sabotaged the picture by not advertising it. 

Gilliam's next film, 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen' (1989), was based on Rudolf E. Raspe's fantasy novel. This time Eric Idle played a supporting role. Despite good reviews, the picture didn't do well and only later gained a cult following. 'The Fisher King' (1991), about a jobless shock deejay (Jeff Bridges) and a homeless lunatic (Robin Williams), is a more straightforward film, which helped its profits. It even won the Silver Lion for Best Picture in Venice. 'Twelve Monkeys' (1995) features a man travelling back to the past to warn people for a deadly virus that will destroy mankind. Thanks to the presence of Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis in the main roles, the picture was a success. 'Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas' (1998), on the other hand, was a complete box office disaster and got booed at the Festival of Cannes. The picture is a frenetic adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's cult novel and partially inspired by Ralph Steadman's illustrations. Only later it achieved cult status. Gilliam's next film was probably the worst moment in his entire career. While trying to adapt Cervantes' novel 'Don Quixote' to the big screen, Murphy's law struck hard. Apart from floods, language barriers, untrained horses and planes flying over, the main actor got wounded and had to be brought to the hospital. Eventually the entire film had to be cancelled. The tragic events were recorded in the documentary 'Lost In La Mancha' (2002) by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. In 2018 Gilliam picked up the project again with different actors and was finally able to bring his long-delayed 'Don Quixote' movie in theaters. 'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote' (2018) nevertheless still received mixed reviews. 

'The Brothers Grimm' (2005), a homage to Grimm's fairy tales, did well with audiences, but only because executives streamlined it into a typical formulaic Hollywood project. 'Tideland' (2005) was a risky adaptation of Mitch Cullin's controversial novel of the same name. A girl who lives in dire circumstances manages to escape in her fantasies, but audiences felt these visions were far too disturbing. Critics on the other hand liked it. During Gilliam's next film, 'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus' (2009), production had to be halted after star actor Heath Ledger unexpectedly died. With some rewrites of the script and help from actors sympathetic to Gilliam's cause, the project was completed. The Faustian story about a man who has a magical mirror, but is under Satan's contract, is one of his few pictures to appeal to both audiences and critics. Gilliam went back to cyberpunk with 'The Zero Theorem' (2014), about a withdrawn computer genius looking for the origin of life. 

Theatrical directing
Gilliam has taken other unpredictable paths too. In 2011 and 2014 he directed two operas by Hector Berlioz: 'The Damnation of Faust' and 'Benvenuto Cellini', in collaboration with the English National Opera, which also ran with equal success in Antwerp and Ghent, Belgium. In 2020 he was approached to direct Stephen Sondheim's musical play 'Into the Woods' in London. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, AKA corona virus, postponed these plans. 

comic art by Terry Gilliam
'How Angels Fly'. 

Graphic and written contributions
Gilliam was interviewed in several documentaries, about Spike Milligan ('The Unseen Spike Milligan', 2005), Mel Blanc ('Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices', 2008), Bill Plympton ('Adventures in Plymptoons!', 2011), Ray Harryhausen ('Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan', 2011), Ralph Steadman ('For No Good Reason', 2012), Ken Russell ('Ken Russell: A Bit of a Devil', 2012), Karel Zeman ('Film Adventurer Karel Zeman', 2015), Nick Park ('A Grand Night In: The Story of Aardman', 2015), Laurie Lipton ('Love Bite: Laurie Lipton and Her Disturbing Black & White Drawings', 2016), Mike Edmonds ('Under the Radar: The Mike Edmonds Story', 2016), the Dada movement ('Gaga for Dada: The Original Art Rebels', 2016), Tom Waits ('Tom Waits: Tales From a Cracked Jukebox', 2017), Walerian Borowczyk ('Love Express: Zagniecie Waleriana Borowczyka', 2018), Edward Gorey ('The Last Days of Edward Gorey', 2019) and Frank Zappa's album 'Freak Out!' ('Classic Albums: 'Freak Out!', 2021). 

Gilliam provided the liner notes to the compilation CD 'Strictly Commercial. The Best of Frank Zappa' (1995) and wrote the foreword to Paul Gravett's book '1001 Comics You Should Read Before You Die' (2011) and Bill Schelly's 'Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America' (2016).  Gilliam wrote a personal homage to Robert Crumb in Monte Beauchamp's book 'The Life and Times of R. Crumb. Comments From Contemporaries (St. Martin's Griffin, New York, 1998).

Since 1993 Gilliam and all six members of Monty Python have an asteroid named after them. Monty Python as a group also has an asteroid since 1997. Gilliam won an Inkpot Award in 2009. In 2011 he was honoured as a Chevalier dans L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. A year later he won a Winsor McCay Award. 

Legacy and influence
Monty Python has had an incalculable effect on modern-day comedy. Continuing the absurd, subversive and fourth-wall breaking tradition of the Marx Brothers, the Pythons have become the second-most famous and influential alternative comedy troupe in the world. Countless sketch shows and comedians have been inspired by them, sometimes downright aping their material. Their spirit can be spotted in shows like 'Saturday Night Live', 'Not the Nine O' Clock News', 'The Young Ones', 'Spitting Image' (created by Peter Fluck and Roger Law), 'The Kids in the Hall', 'Lava', 'Les Nuls', 'Jiskefet', 'Buiten de Zone', 'The Fast Show', 'League of Gentlemen',  'Little Britain', 'Neveneffecten', 'The Mighty Boosh', 'Mr. Show',... Gilliam's animated cartoons had a strong impact on many equally subversive animators, among them: Matt Groening ('The Simpsons'), John Kricfalusi ('Ren & Stimpy'), Mike Judge ('Beavis & Butt-head'), Everett Peck ('Duckman'), Bill PlymptonNina Paley ('Sita Sings the Blues'), Trey Parker and Matt Stone ('South Park') and Seth MacFarlane ('Family Guy').  Masamune Shirow ('Ghost in the Shell') named Terry Gilliam as one of his few Western influences. Other huge fans are F'Murr, Marcel GotlibKamagurka, Herr SeeleMerho, GummbahNixKim Duchateau, Tom Borremans, Michael Monnin, Bas Schuddeboom and Jonas Geirnaert.

Gilliam himself is still highly regarded in fantasy, comic book and animation circles. The madcap director maintains his renegade reputation. A naturalized British citizen since 1968, he renounced his American citizenship in 2006 to protest the administration of U.S. President George Bush Jr. As a result, he can only stay in the US for a mere month. In Hollywood he's still considered a troublemaker and his pictures continue to polarize viewers, critics and longtime fans. At the same time he is one of the few remaining Hollywood directors to actually take artistic risks and make personal works. He therefore built up a loyal cult following with many people admiring his eccentric and highly imaginative style. Gilliam has been named a forerunner of the steampunk movement, since he combines pre-20th century historical imagery with industrial technology. His style is so distinctive, yet difficult to describe, that it inspired an eponym: 'Gilliamesque'. 

Since November 2011 Terry Gilliam has his own Twitter account. 

Books about Terry Gilliam
For people interested in his life and career, his autobiography, 'Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Career' (Canongate Books Ltd., 2015), is highly recommended. The book features many photographs and personal artwork. 

Help cover
Terry Gilliam on the cover of Help issue #24, May 1965.


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