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: So, on that same note, do you think there’ll ever be another Baron’s Barracudas. By that I mean, you guys lived at that theatre practically and you didn’t really have many other crazy performing gigs going on. It was really focused and you really just wanted to rock the art form to its core, whether or not you knew it was an art form.
Kim Howard Johnson: I mean, people talk about Golden Ages of different things. Then I think certainly was a golden age of the Improv Olympic, or golden age of the iO, but the thing about golden ages is I think most people don’t realize that they really are golden ages when they’re in the middle of them. It’s only in retrospect that you can actually look back and see, “hey, that was an interesting time, very original." There will never be another Baron’s Barracudas, but there will be new things that none of us have thought of yet. And they’ll be as interesting and unique as things like that were for us for the next generation. And any time you’re trying to recreate something, it’s usually lacking in some way shape or form, and Del was always much more interested in moving things forward anyway, then he was in being terribly nostalgic. And I think that’s what creativity is about too. It’s moving forward, moving the form forward, moving art ahead and not looking back much.
Kim Howard Johnson: It’s like walking up a mountain. If you’re climbing a mountain you can get up to a certain point and you can stop and you look back down to where you were, but if you stay there for very long you’re going to be too exhausted to forge on into the new territory. And so that’s what creativity is about also, it’s breaking the new ground that’s the most interesting.
Me: Do you think there’ll be another Del Close?
Kim Howard Johnson: (Laughs) Well, Del was one of a kind. There’s going to be other interesting, intelligent, unique innovators but Del was the first of a new generation, the first of the long-form geniuses. That’s not to take anything away from the guys at the Committee, but Del made it his life’s work and that was the difference between him and the Committee. So no, there’s not going to be another Del, but again there’s going to be brilliant teachers that’ll come along, people that will try to take the form in new directions which is the way it should be. It was the way Del expected it would go and the way all of us expected it would go too. Everybody that studied with Del that was interested in doing this stuff, eventually went on and did slightly different variations, teaching what Del taught them but informed by their own choices and their own experiences. So it’s all slightly different facets of the Del motherload.
Me: To keep on this train, what about another Monty Python’s Flying Circus?
Kim Howard Johnson: Again, it’s kind of the same thing. Yeah, there won’t be another Monty Python of course, but there’ll be something else coming along that will also be unique and innovative for comedy. You know, it’s like if you were a big fan of the Goon Show, when the Goons stopped performing it’s like, well, is there ever going to be another Goon show. The answer is no. But then you got Beyond the Fringe. And the fans of Beyond the Fringe would be asking us if there would ever be another Beyond the Fringe, and the answer to that is no, but there’ll be a Monty Python (Laughs). So, it’s always something new. There’s always going to be something else coming along. And you know if you’re smart and you accept that and you deal with that and to some extent you kind of embrace it. Because the new is always gonna be interesting and worth seeing, because they’re the ones who advance the work.
Me: I have two last questions. One is the plug portion of the interview, so I understand that you’ll be hosting a writing workshop with Terry Jones from Monty Python coming up soon. Would you like to talk about that a little?
Kim Howard Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. Terry is actually going to be doing two events in Chicago. The weekend of May 9th (2009). I didn’t realize how rare this was, but I asked Terry, “when is the last time you’ve done this kind of event for a ticketed audience in America," and he said, “I guess I never have." So this is the very first time. It’s two events, he’s going to be hosting
a showing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail
at the Lakeshore Theatre on Saturday, May 9th and then I’ll be interviewing Terry afterwards for 45 minutes to an hour. Discussing the making of the film, his own perspective on it and then he’ll take questions from the audience. I didn’t realize what a unique opportunity it was until he told me that. I knew he was not around very often, but this surprised me. And then the next day in the afternoon is an even smaller event in the iO Theater (this event is sold out), Terry is going to be doing a comedy writing seminar. It’s hard to imagine anybody more qualified than Terry teaching comedy writing. The format there is going to be largely me talking to Terry about his career and writing and writing and performing your own material and again a lot of questions from the audience. Hopefully, this’ll be a great opportunity for students or any interested parties to learn about comedy writing to find out from the master.
Me: Yeah, yeah.
Kim Howard Johnson: It’s actually very interesting, because with Terry, the very first time I met him was at the Chicago premiere of Holy Grail so it kind of comes full circle here.
Me: Interesting. What prompted him to schedule this event? Did you have any hand in that?
Kim Howard Johnson: Yeah, actually, it turns out that I did. It kind of goes back to what I was saying a little earlier. I hadn’t had in the back of my mind, “Oh man, I’ve got to get some seminars set up and some shows set up with Terry," and what he said is he just said was he was going to be at this annual medieval conference they have in Kalamazoo at the University up there. I was e-mailing him about something else and he said he was going to be in town and there’s a chance that I’ll be in Chicago. And I thought, oh great, because I always love seeing Terry, and I just said, “If it looks like you may coming through Chicago, do you want me to see, are you interested in doing anything while you’re here, maybe to help pay for the trip?" And he said, “Sure, see what you can set up." I said, “Whoa, Ok," and I made a few phone calls and this is the result.
Me: That’s fantastic.
Kim Howard Johnson: Again, it just came about because I wanted to have a couple of nice dinners with Terry. Again, this is something that works out great for everybody.
Me: Yeah. So my last question, and thank you so much, because this has been really fun.
Kim Howard Johnson: Oh, my pleasure, this has been fun for me.
Me: Good, good. Do you have any advice for people, whether it be my age or whatnot who feel stuck in their creative lives.
Kim Howard Johnson: A couple different bits of advice. One is from George Burns. He used to say, “Fall in love with what you do for a living." If you fall in love with what you’re doing then it’s never going to feel like work. So, if you’re doing something that you love, then you’re doing the right thing for the right reason. And if you can find a way to make money with that, with something you love, what could be better? The other thing I guess is a little bit of what we talked about before, as far as creativity. Don’t fight yourself. Get out of your own way. Just let it happen. Sometimes creativity takes time. If you’re writing something and you’re stuck, sleep on it. A lot of times you’ll wake up in the morning and you’ll have the answers that you couldn’t find when you were really struggling before.
But you know, anything can spark creativity, anything, anywhere. Bring a notepad with you and just write things down if you have thoughts. One thing that’ll strike me, is I’m sitting down watching a movie, the coming attractions, my mind’ll be wandering and I’ll be thinking about something completely different and it might be just what I need. If you write it down you won’t lose it. You have always be prepared for that bit of inspiration to come. There’s 1,001 little pointers that can help you with your creativity and some of them will work better for you than others. You just have to find the ones that work for you. When the Pythons were writing, there were times, in particular with John and Graham, they would have a writing session scheduled and they would not have any idea what they were going to be writing. But they’d be trying to write a sketch, so they would fool around and make coffee for the first hour or so, look through the paper, and then they’d be struck by something. Maybe it was in the paper or by somebody walking by.
One of the great things for John and Graham sparking ideas were the books they had on the shelf. I think there was a dictionary, there was a thesaurus, there was a Bible. They had reference books like this and they would just page through ‘em and something would spark an idea. Like I said, anything can spark an idea, you just have to be open to it and receptive to it. And then, once you get the idea, then the hard part comes, but it’s also the fun part. It may be a little challenging, but if you love what you’re doing, if you love writing, then it is going to be fun. If it isn’t fun then you’re probably doing it wrong.
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