"…If you really want to see the world, you have to stop for a little bit and say, 'For two or three weeks, I'm going off to wherever.'"
Had he retired after his stint with Monty Python, Michael Palin would need no further introduction, his status as a comedic legend firmly established. This, however, was not the case, and the succeeding decades have seen Palin busy writing books (his first novel is due to appear in America early next year), appearing in movies both successful (A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Brazil (1985)) and otherwise (The Missionary (1982), Fierce Creatures (1997)), and, most surprisingly, becoming a latter-day explorer. The 1989 travelogue series Around The World In 80 Days found Palin traveling, as could be expected, around the world in 80 days, but without the aid of air transport. In its follow-up, Pole To Pole (1992), Palin crossed the earth from its northernmost point to its southernmost point, and his current series, PBS' Full Circle, accompanied and expanded by the handsome book of the same title (published by St. Martins) follows him around the whole of the Pacific Rim. Palin recently spoke to The Onion about his travels, his comedic efforts, and his Eskimo fan following.
The Onion: When Around The World In 80 Days first came out, it seemed like sort of a gimmick to send funnyman Michael Palin around the world. But it's blossomed into a nice second career for you. How'd that happen?
Michael Palin: Well, 80 Days was something I took on because the timing was right. We had sort of been through the Python stage; we'd made a television series and made the movies, with the last one being made in 1983. I'd ended after that a series of movies culminating in A Fish Called Wanda, and I felt I'd done enough standing around waiting to be called from my caravan. Someone suddenly rang up and said Around The World In 80 Days was around; would I run with it? And I said yes, I would, because I love travel. There's something about traveling when you're doing promotions, or like I have done for most of my life, which actually negates any experience. You tend to stay in the same hotels; you see airports, interiors of press conferences, TV studios, and that's that. If you really want to see the world, you have to stop for a little bit and say, "For two or three weeks, I'm going off to wherever." And I never had room for that in my life at all, although I knew that it was what I wanted to do. So along comes a chance to travel around the world, and get paid for it, and have it be part of my work, so it took care of a whole lot of different problems. And Around The World In 80 Days was successful, more successful than anyone ever hoped—so was the book that went with it—and that's really what's happened in the last 10 years. I've realized that these shows give me a great opportunity to travel, and I've seen some amazing places. Now I'm going to hang my bags up, as it were, and pack my traveling shoes away and do something else.
O: Are you taking a break, or is this the last series?
MP: Well, I know I'll always want to travel, but this is going to be the last of the big journeys that we do.
O: It's the biggest one you've done, isn't it?
MP: It is the biggest, and I think it's the best, as far as I'm concerned, certainly. It's the one I've gotten the most out of; it's the richest and the most varied, with the most different countries and the most different things seen, and in a sense it's the most pleasurable. But it's also quite tough to go out traveling and experience it all the way around. On certain days, and for weeks at a time, sometimes there's no respite, no really comfortable place we can stop and say, "Okay, well, that's just the day. This evening we'll be in a five-star hotel." It just doesn't happen that often. I think considering the territory we went through, we were lucky to not get very sick; we were lucky not to have any accidents, and I think our luck has sort of… I think we've had our fair share of good fortune.
O: At the end of 80 Days, you seemed pretty spent, and this one actually opened with you seeming really exhausted with the journey before it even started. Was there a reason for that?
MP: [Laughs.] Yes, there was, really. I was filming Fierce Creatures with John Cleese during the summer that preceded the start of our journey, and, as movies tend to do, the movie overran by about two and a half weeks, so I was still stuck in that closet with John Cleese and a spider and Carey Lowell and all of us in various stages of undress three days before I was due to leave for Alaska. So, I'd done a movie all summer, I'd gotten to Alaska, and I'd also gotten a really bad cold, which I think sometimes comes after you've done a very concentrated spell of hard work. And my body just, I don't know, slowed down. And I really did feel at the very beginning of the journey that we wouldn't make it through the first episode, let alone the rest. But you sort of keep going; you get this sort of mental attitude which keeps you going in the end.
O: What made you decide to do the Pacific Rim?
MP: Well, it was a part of the world that I knew very little about. And yet it is talked about an awful lot, and people confidently talk about the Pacific Rim as an entity, as the new sort of powerhouse of the world, which of course has taken a bit of a knocking in the last few months. But what is the Pacific Rim? It was as simple as that. And we looked at it and decided to do a circumnavigation, which gives the journey a kind of shape, and is something I don't think anyone has done before, even if they'd want to. We do go through an amazingly rich and diverse bit of country, so we thought, well, let's go for it. It actually ended up a much longer project than we thought it would be.
O: It took you the better part of a year, didn't it?
MP: We did it sort of as a year-long journey, but we were actually filming for about 10 months of that year. The rest of the time we had a few breathers back home.
O: You probably are the first person to do this, right?
MP: Well, I think so. My little band of seven of us—five of us who actually did the whole journey—probably are. I can't see why anyone else would want to go around the Pacific Rim in one go. But you're following in the footsteps of people like Captain Cook, who did an enormous amount of exploration up the coast and Alaska and down through the islands. I think we really are the first.
O: One thing this journey has given you is the chance to return to places you'd seen before. How much change did you notice in the eight years between 80 Days and this one?
MP: I noticed the most considerable change in China. Because I'd traveled from Guangzhou up to Shanghai by train in 80 Days, and there were skyscrapers and a few cranes on the skylines of Shanghai and Guangzhou, but now vast new cities are being built all the way up that Pacific coast. I've just never seen anything like it anywhere in the world. The infrastructure, the roads that are going up, the new railways, the transit system. There are huge, huge developments on any available land in Shanghai. We saw by the rivers what used to be a collection of fishermen's huts and small houses: They've all disappeared, and there are now enormous buildings which they build at a rate of, I believe, a big floor every day. That's where I noticed the biggest change.
O: You hadn't really done a lot of traveling, outside of promotional work, before you started these series, right?
MP: I used to travel a little in Europe myself. When my children were young, we took occasional exotic holidays in the Seychelles or the West Indies. But that was about it.
O: One thing about your series is that you take the perspective of a traveler rather than an expert. What advantage does that give you?
MP: I think it's that people empathize with me; they feel that they're experiencing all the difficulties that they themselves would experience through me, rather than going through a more conventional learning process where an expert stands and tells you about the edge of a temple, or the type of tree you're looking at, and all those sorts of things. Most of us don't have that kind of knowledge, but we do want to travel. We do want to see other parts of the world, and are probably a little afraid to do so, and they see someone like myself who is reasonably well-educated, but that's about all, leaping off into the unknown and trying it out for them. And I think that works very well for audiences who love travel, because it makes them feel that they can now have a go. A lot of people say to me, "Well, I've done this journey now because I saw your series." But also, people who hate the idea of travel have their prejudices confirmed. They sit happily at home watching it from the couch.
O: It's nice to see that you do make mistakes, and that you're not an expert at everything.
MP: Yeah, it also means that I can play it naturally, which I prefer. I don't like doing a presentation. I don't like having to have my hair brushed a certain way and my suit put on and… whatever, the way presenters appear to be. I would rather be myself, and when I travel, I'm not consciously any different from the way I am at home.
O: You don't tend to get recognized that often, do you?
MP: No, it doesn't happen a lot. The Asian Pacific Rim is practically Python-free, so I don't really get recognized there. There was a time on the island of Diomede, which was sort of an unpromising start where I'm rhapsodizing about this bleak island on the International Date Line, on the Arctic Circle—treeless, inhabited by a few Eskimos catching whales and seals during the winter season—and as we left on a whaleskin boat, this little group of Eskimos shuffled up to me. I thought it was going to be a sincere Eskimo farewell or something, and one of them just pointed at me and said, "Aren't you the guy from Monty Python And The Holy Grail?" So that was a bad start. I thought, "Oh my God, we'll never escape." But, fortunately, through most of the Asian Pacific I wasn't recognized, and through most of Latin America and South America I wasn't recognized, either. Which makes it much easier, because I think the aim of our kind of traveling is to observe the world, not to be stared at ourselves. You know, we hope we're not the focus of attention; we want to look at other people with as little distortion as possible.
O: What's the worst place you've ever slept?
MP: Um, I can tell you that unequivocally. It was a hotel… Well, hotel would actually be probably an exaggeration, but it was called a hotel, and this was in Ethiopia for Pole To Pole. It turned out to be a sort of mud hut with a clay floor, and the pillow was made of old sacks. Whenever I turned my torch on to look what time it was, about a dozen insects of the cockroach variety scuttled away from it. I've never had a night when I've been more in fear of being infestated, or whatever. At the same time, there were all sorts of amorous noises going on just beyond the bamboo clay partition, and I thought, "How can they do it with these bugs all over the place?" Never again, that one.
O: I thought the dhow [a low-tech boat used in the Indian Oceam and surrounding areas] looked kind of unpleasant to sleep on.
MP: No, the dhow was fine, because we slept out on the deck, under the stars, with a cool breeze as the ship moved down the Persian Gulf. That was great. It was bad to shit on but it was great to sleep on.
O: How about food? What do you enjoy, and what do you dread, when you're traveling?
MP: Well, I feel that food is so much a part of a local culture, and if you're going to try to understand and communicate with people whose language you don't speak very much, you have to be able to eat their food and drink their drink, because that's often the way they show their hospitality. I just hope I'm not going to have something that's truly foul and awful. And I was reasonably lucky. I had sort of low-grade bugs on the trip. But I [came across] some very odd things, including maggots in a restaurant in Mexico City, actually on the menu. And a wonderful palm wine that was served to me in an Indian village in the Amazon: It's very, very strong, and in the parts of the Amazon where there's plenty of sugar growing, they ferment it with the sugar, and if they don't have sugar in the area, then the old ladies spit in it and ferment it with their saliva. I'd had a couple of swigs of it, so I asked my guide very nervously, "Is there much sugar growing in this village?" And he shook his head and said, "No. No sugar around here." And I thought, I'll survive that. But you do get sick. When we would spend eight days camping on sandbags on the Amazon, one or two nights I would sort of stagger off to the toilet, as it were. Your bowels seem to lurk in wait for you until you get to the most wretched and miserable lavatory facilities in the world, and then they start letting you down. Not pleasant.
O: Has there ever been a time when you were genuinely fearful?
MP: Um… Yes. Well, there was a time when we were going through a pretty rough area of downtown Bogota, in Colombia, and that's an extraordinary city where great wealth and extraordinary, numbing poverty go hand in hand. Also, a lot of drug trafficking goes on, and we went down to this area called Bullet Street. We were told never to get out of the car, and to keep the camera down as much as possible. But somebody caught sight of the camera, and these guys peered from the cardboard huts where they lived, and threw concrete blocks and bits of wood and whatever they could at the car. We made off pretty quickly.
O: But no bullets.
MP: No, there were no bullets. At the end of it, our cameraman asked if he could go back again so he could get some better shots, and the guide said, "Don't be ridiculous. Next time it will be bullets." So there was that. There was one occasion in, again, one of our nighttime camps on the Amazon. By the banks of a tributary of the Amazon, actually. I staggered off to the loo at about two in the morning, and as I walked back toward the camp, there was jungle all around. I saw these lights approaching—some along the shore toward me, some along the other bank—and it was like, what seemed to be a dozen lamps and lights coming toward us. There was no sound from the camp, and no lights from the camp, and all the stories I'd heard about these villages, which are… Very often, some have only just been discovered by Westerners, as it were. There were awful tales of violent death, people having their throats cut—especially some of the petroleros, as they call them, the people who are there to sort of drill for oil. Some of them met some nasty deaths, and I thought, "God, they're coming after us." So I just dived into my tent and sat there, absolutely in silence. I turned my torch off, and my heart was thumping, and I eventually looked out through a crack in the curtain and realized that it was just about a dozen boats and people walking up the bank, going up the river fishing. They fish at night, because the fish are easier to catch, and it was just a group of fishermen going by. But it was like the end of Apocalypse Now. "Ah, this is it. Downfall."
O: So what's your next project, if not traveling?
MP: I'm going to write a novel next year. I wrote one about four years ago, called Hemingway's Chair.
O: That's coming out here in May, right?
MP: Yeah, I just heard they were going to publish it in May. I'd like to have a go at another one so I can spend the best part of the year at home, rather than on the move; spend more time with my family and especially my children, who are all in their 20s and doing exciting things. I don't want to miss what's going on, so I'm going to be a bit more sedentary.
O: No more troubled movie shoots?
MP: No, not for a while.
O: The rumor was that Fierce Creatures was kind of a bear to make. Is that true?
MP: A bear to make? It wasn't as fun as A Fish Called Wanda. The irony, as I said at the beginning, of it overrunning—so that I only had three days break before going off to Alaska—was that when we came back from the journey, I had to do three weeks of reshoots on the movie. We had to shoot a new ending, which I thought was actually much better. And in the end, I thought we put together a very funny movie. But it didn't have the sort of magic element that Wanda had. No one knows quite why that happened. It was inevitably compared, and I think quite harshly, by some people. Unduly harshly, 'cause I think there's a lot in Fierce Creatures which is very, very funny. And the release pattern in the States was, I think, curious. It was just a huge blanket opening, and once they scented that it wasn't going to work wonders overnight, they immediately panicked, and it wasn't on anywhere.
O: The comparisons were very harsh.
MP: Yeah, but some of the reviews in the States were actually very good. One feels that if there hadn't been Wanda, it would probably have played very respectably, and people would have said, "Hey, this is funny. Nice zoo movie, John Cleese very funny, and animals and stuff." I just don't think it was nearly as deserving of its fate, and it has done very well in some territories.
O: It must have been strange to be in the shadow of another movie, rather than being in the shadow of Monty Python, which seems to have been more of a problem over the years.
MP: Yeah, I think always, if you try to develop from what you've done before, and you hit a success, there are always going to be comparisons. And Wanda had sort of, you know, created a leap from Python, and wasn't entirely Python anyway. It was John Cleese's script. But Wanda created its own legend very quickly, and I think the problem was probably that we waited so long to make a sequel, and should have done it perhaps earlier. I don't know, you can say anything with hindsight. I thought the movie was some of the funniest stuff John's done.
O: What do you think Monty Python's enduring appeal is?
MP: Well, I think it's something to do with the fact that it's irreverent and subversive, and, in a way, it slightly benefits from the fact that it's not mainstream television. It's obviously quirky. No one else has ever done anything quite like Python, I don't think. And the combination of the sketches we did and Terry Gilliam's animation; no one had ever done anything like it before. I think, especially for children, they see it as something joyously anti-authoritarian, a bit subversive, and so totally unlike the conventional forms of television comedy. I think there are a lot of good characters in Python. They may be only there for short sketches—a minute, two minutes—but they're quite endearing. It's not really out to be aggressive particularly, or wholly… against the world. It has some odd surreal sides, as well as things that are sort of set out to make a comment. It's a real mixed bag, but I think that's probably why it works.
O: Over the years, different members have said that they didn't really see what they were doing as revolutionary at the time. Do you see that now?
MP: I don't think you ever do see what you're doing at a certain time as being anything other than, "Does it work this week?" or "Doesn't it work this week?" We would look at each episode when it went out, and we'd agonize over what worked and what didn't work. We always wanted to do something better. I think none of us ever expected that these shows—with what we perceived as their inadequacies—would continue to be rerun, and that people would find little bits that they liked, and that other people would find little bits that they liked. I think we all probably felt, in the '60s and early '70s, that things were just going to improve from there on: Techniques would become more sophisticated, writing would become better, performing would become better, whatever. We were just part of a general rising graph. And they didn't, in a way. Immediately after Python, there was a sort of plateau. And nothing really did change that much. And I suppose I look back now and think it was our timing. We were very fortunate to come out at a time when, certainly in England, television was just breaking loose of its old conventional forms of sitcoms, and yet had not been taken over by modern technology. So, Terry Gilliam, when he did his animation in Python, was not doing what they can do now, with paintboxes and computer-generated images. He was having to cut things out of the paper, put them together, move them an inch, shoot them again, move them an inch… He had to do it all himself. You know, it's funny that I think that's something that makes Python rather special. At the time, we just saw it as making the best of scarce resources.