Interview with Kim Howard Johnson
Kim Howard Johnson has led an interesting and exciting life as a book, newspaper, magazine and comic writer. Johnson is the unofficial official chronicler for Monty Python’s Flying Circus after inviting himself to Tunisia for the filming of Life of Brian in the 1970s. He has authored four books on them, including The First 280 Years of Monty Python. In the 1980s, Johnson became a part of the improvisational Harold movement in Chicago, studying with the late Del Close as a part of the first Harold group in Chicago, Baron’s Barracudas. He co-wrote the improv classic Truth in Comedy with Del Close and Charna Halpern. Johnson has also been a personal assistant to John Cleese and once won $250,000 on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." He is co-hosting a Holy Grail screening and a writing workshop with Monty Python’s Terry Jones coming up on May 9th and 10th, 2009 in Chicago.
Me: I read somewhere that the clues that you have put together a good plan are that you change it as you go along.
Kim Howard Johnson: Yeah, I think that’s very true. You know you follow your passions; you follow your bliss as Joseph Campbell would say. And I think if you’re doing that, even if you don’t go to where you want to go, if you’re following your bliss you end up somewhere better than you would have otherwise, and it’s a much more enjoyable ride. Del and company were a passion of mine and Python certainly. And if you keep doing that, things’ll happen. I mean it took ten years to get my Python book published. I was talking about it like 1979-1980. I mentioned it to the Python office and they said, “Well, it doesn’t sound like anybody’s really interested in something like that," and I thought, “I guess that’ll never happen." And then years and years later, I realized, I should really try this it’s a good idea and that time I didn’t go to the Python office, I just sort of got my own agent and he found a publisher and yeah, it was a huge success. A lot of it’s timing too and it’s hard to know what the timing really is. You just have to always be prepared.
Me: I think a lot of people…I don’t know if this is a now thing or an always thing…if they don’t get this particular opportunity now they definitely seem to give up on it forever.
Kim Howard Johnson: Well, that’s dumb. That’s really not a good idea. Because if it’s a good idea, it may always be a good idea but the timing may not be right. Another thing I’ve learned over the years, nothing is wasted. Everything you do, all of your experiences in your life are all invaluable. Especially when you’re a writer. You can be stuck in some crappy minimum wage job and you might wonder, “Why am I doing this? How do I get out of this?" But then you realize that twenty years later you’re writing for a sitcom and you didn’t realize that the experiences you had there are gonna inform these characters and this situation. You never know when you’re gonna find this thing useful.
Kim Howard Johnson: I can’t remember what your question was. I think I’ve answered a question, I don’t know if it’s the one you asked.
Me: I think you did. You definitely answered a question. I wasn’t going to ask this but I didn’t really see it in any other interviews that you had, what was it like being John Cleese’s personal assistant?
Kim Howard Johnson: It was the greatest job I’ve ever had probably as far as workin’ for someone else. He’s a great boss. It’s doing work that you love with somebody who’s easy to work for and you’re working in the areas you want. I mean, talk about an educational experience, I learned so much in so many different areas working for John. It was the best.
Me: How long was that?
Kim Howard Johnson: I was only onsite in the office about three and a half years. But I continued working for him after I left the office in Santa Barbara, helping him write his corporate speeches, which he still does. It ended up I had a knack for doing this kind of speech writing. I helped him research a lot of this stuff and we still do it whenever there’s a corporate speaking gig that pops up. So you know, it’s a good situation for both of us.
Me: Definitely. Not bad to just kinda have John Cleese call you every once in a while and say, “do this work for me."
Kim Howard Johnson: Yeah, yeah. It’s nice to have John call, but for him to call and say here’s a gig is even better. So, it’s a great thing.
Me: So, going back to working to working with these guys, Python and Del. Do you think working with them improved or altered your creative output at all?
Kim Howard Johnson: Well, one of the two speeches that John gave to corporations was about creativity. (Laughs) So yeah, I would say it helped quite a bit. I knew a lot of that stuff already, but John in some ways sort of codified it and by giving these speeches over and over just solidified it in my mind. You know, the ways to engender creativity. And a lot of it is common sense stuff and and some of it is stuff you wouldn’t expect. If you let yourself be open to creativity, it’ll usually happen.
Me: Mm. Cool. I just wrote an article about that.
Kim Howard Johnson: Oh good, well then it’s true. (Laughs) That supports what John has been saying all these years. He’ll be happy to hear that.
Me: Switching gears to Baron’s Barracudas, you know, I’m obviously a big improv fan. Twenty five years after that team formed there are now thousands and thousands of people doing long-form improv around the country. What’s it like having been on the first Chicago Harold team knowing that there have now been hundreds of Harold teams in Chicago following your lead?
Kim Howard Johnson: Yeah. It was really interesting to go back for (the recent) reunion. We were all a little nervous and a little unsure as to what it was it was going to be like, the stuff that we did. We realized it’s been a lot of years and a lot of teams that have come and gone. Many even studied with Del after we left, and more that studied with Charna and the teachers there. We did not know what to expect. These were people that’ve been doing this for quite a while in all sorts of different forms. We were afraid: were we going to look old-fashioned, was this going to be dinosaur stuff? They call “training wheel Harolds" what we used to do. So, some of us were a little concerned. We knew that we’re not going to be able to do these new forms better than some of the teams that’ve been doing them for years. We’ll just stick with what we know and see what happens. It worked back then, no real reason to think it wouldn’t work now. Fortunately, we were right.
Me: (Laughs) Yeah.
Kim Howard Johnson: You know, I don’t know that we were better than a lot of teams there today, but I know that we weren’t worse. (Laughs) And that was our big worry. The first night there was a little bit of rust, because some of us hadn’t been on stage together for nearly twenty five years. But it really felt good to look around that stage and see some of those faces looking back at you. You step out and do a scene with somebody and all that rust kind of fell away. It was nice.
And one thing we ultimately learned is that there’s not a whole lot being done today that we didn’t experiment with back in the 80s. It’s almost like the stuff that we did for those years, you had teams sitting in the audience watching us, they would pluck out certain games, certain scenes, certain structures, they would pull those out of what we did and just work on those, concentrate on those. It was all sort of different aspects of some of the work we did with Del all that time ago. And that was nice.
Me: Does that make you feel like kind of a father of some of these forms, or more connected to them ‘cause you had worked on them in the past.
Kim Howard Johnson: Well, I think we felt a little more justified in what we did. Like hey, we didn’t do such bad stuff after all. It was kind of nice to know the work we did for Del, inspired these kids or more likely inspired Del to teach these kids later on and what they ultimately ended up doing. Because I always liked to play with structure myself, the whole out-rider concept and one of the best compliments we ever got after the first Harold we did was, “those kids have never seen that before" in reference to certain games or scenes. Which is really nice. If we can teach them stuff that they haven’t seen that hasn’t been done over the last twenty-five years: that’s a really good thing.
Me: That’s cool.
Kim Howard Johnson: And the second night we did it, it was very interesting because we felt a little more comfortable at that point, like we could stretch a little bit. We played a little bit more and we were much looser than we had been the first night, and because of that we tried to do a few new things that we had never done before. It turned out to not be anything terribly major but it just felt good and it felt like if we were together and performing on a regular basis back here, boy we could really kick the doors off of this thing.
Me: Sounds like a movie in the making.
Kim Howard Johnson: (Laughs) Well, you never know.
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