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, since you’ve sorta done a whole heck of a lot in your days, there are a lot of things you could be defined as: comic writer, chronicler of comedians. If you have to make your elevator pitch to someone, someone asks you what you do, how would you refer to yourself?
Kim Howard Johnson: Oh man.
Kim Howard Johnson: Ultimately, I would say I’m a writer, that’s the bottom line, because that’s the big, broad title that can cover so many of the different things that I do. I do some performing as well, but primarily at heart I’m a writer.
Me: Ok, and then if they pushed you with, “what do you write?"
Kim Howard Johnson: (Laughs) What do ya got? I’ve done just about everything. I mean, that’s one reason I think I’ve been able to make a living writing at least, up to this point, knock on wood. Because, you know if you pigeonhole yourself you’re just creating more problems for yourself. Whereas if you keep yourself wide open to any number of possibilities, I mean, whatever else, whatever comes along, then I think you’re going to have a much better chance of making it as a writer. Because, I mean, I’ve written books. What have I written books about? Well, mostly it’s been non-fiction. But not entirely, you know, I’ve written comic books, I have written hundreds of magazine articles over the last few decades, I’m the official Monty Python chronicler. For the past several years I’ve written the Monty Python desk calendar for American Greetings, that’s what I’m working on right at the moment even. So, it’s difficult to put me down into what I actually write because I go where the opportunities are.
Me: Yeah. I understand. You talk about having to be varied and how that helps your career, do you think that things are any different now in 2009 then they were ten, twenty, thirty years ago for a writer?
Kim Howard Johnson: Well, I can take the longer overview or I can just tell you immediately in the last few months, yeah, it’s been very tight. I mean, one of the magazines I’ve written for for over 25 years is going under. It’s a brutal time for the print media. It’s tough because if you’re trying to make a transition to the web, because nobody has quite been able to get the web to pay the way they want it to. And there is money out there for writers on the web. So, I think we’re definitely in a transition time for writers largely because of that. I think there’s always going to be books; that’s one of the best things I can send out. People are always going to want to read and be carrying around books in there pockets, you know, tangible things with paper. Reading for an awful lot of people is a tactile experience, and that may change but I don’t think it’s going to change in my lifetime.
Me: Yeah, definitely. Do you think you know where that transition is going to take us?
Kim Howard Johnson: Well, it’s certainly going to be online. It’s just the business model hasn’t been worked out to make it really viable to do the same exact things. I mean, if the Washington Post and the New York Times haven’t been able to figure it out, I’m certainly not going to be able to figure it out. But, I’m going to be watching very closely.
Me: I think we all are. Next question: How do you set your creative goals? Especially with a long project like The Funniest One in the Room, what was that, about five years in the making?
Kim Howard Johnson: Yeah, that’s what it was. And I think the answer there is you’ve got to be very light on your feet, you’ve got to be able to move to where the opportunities are when the doors open up. Because after all, that book started out as a screenplay. It was a screenplay that I’d done largely because an old friend of mine, a director who was in my old improv group with Del (Close) suggested I should write it and he would try to get the movie made. If I had just written a screenplay and let it drop, that would’ve been it. It would’ve gone in a drawer some place and all the work and research I’d done would’ve gone for nothing. Well, fortunately my wife suggested, “you should really turn this into a book," and other people had mentioned that along the way. That’s what I mean about being light on your feet. You know, you jump from the screenplay to the book. And use what you’ve got.
Kim Howard Johnson: Some of the best advice, to be honest I ever got about this general sort of thing was from Bill Murray. He said, “You’ve got to get out of your own way." If you become really entrenched in one idea and one way of doing things, more often than not, you’re creating a lot of extra work for yourself, a lot of extra problems. But, if you can move to wherever the opportunities seem to be shifting, you generally come out all right, or at least better than you would have otherwise. Watch where the doors are opening and be able to stick your foot in there and go for the opportunity.
Me: Makes sense. It’s good to have people like your wife and Bill Murray, huh?
Kim Howard Johnson: (Laughs) Yeah, I would say so. That’s really it. It took me a long time to learn that lesson. You know, I would try to force things and force projects that just weren’t happening for whatever reason. And I would get more and more frustrated and I wouldn’t be getting anywhere in general. I just kind of learned to look for the opportunities, and if it wasn’t something that I was 100% passionate about, if I could find an aspect of it that really appealed to me than it would help me to pursue it in that way. And that’s the difference I think between being a working writer and being a dilettante. It’s about using common sense and trying to be pragmatic and saying, “what’s more likely to get me somewhere?" Working on this thing or working on this that already has several people interested in it that are going to help me work on it. It’s somewhat a matter of practicality. A lot of this isn’t pure creativity but pragmatism.
Me: Understood. Moving on, you’ve really had some opportunities to work with some, I think I have written here, some great and twisted minds, Del Close and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Do you feel like you created those opportunities to work with them for yourself?
Kim Howard Johnson: In some ways yes, in other ways I just kind of lucked into them. Again, it’s keeping your eyes open and just seeing where the opportunities are. You know, essentially the Python things started out because I was a fan. And that pretty much led to everything else. I think I have sort of a historian’s mind or an archivist’s mind in some ways, because that led me to want to archive all their works and once I had that stuff archived, boy I’ve got all this material, what am I going to do with it? How am I going to shape it, where is it going to take me? So, I did all of that and that opened up all sorts of doors, and eventually one thing always leads to another.
Kim Howard Johnson: And the same general thing with Del. I knew I wanted to work somewhat with comedy but I didn’t know exactly what I was wanting to do. But I knew Second City was in Chicago, and then I went to Second City and started studying there I found out about the Improv Olympic which is where Del was at that time. And then I realized that I’ve got to work with Del. And I did that. And you know, one thing always leads to another it seems like and that eventually led to so many other opportunities. So, you make your own opportunities in a lot of ways, but if I would’ve said 30 years ago, “hey, there’s this guy called Close, I think I’m gonna write his biography" or if I thought “hey, I want to be John Cleese’s assistant" you know, it never would’ve happened. Because you don’t know the path from B to Z, even A to B sometimes.
Me: I agree. You know, a lot of people want to write with the end. They think they’ve got it all figured out and they want to start with the big thing and they aren’t willing to just stumble on it.
Kim Howard Johnson: Right, right. And there’s some people that are actually able to do that, whether it’s luck or it’s really good planning. You know, some people can say, I’m going to study meteorology when I go to college and then I’m going to end up with my own show on the Weather Channel. And that stuff can happen. But life throws you a lot of curves and you have to be prepared to dance around them and leap on the really good opportunities that pop up when you really aren’t expecting them.
Kim Howard Johnson: Maybe I’m just saying all of this because I was so rotten at planning. That’s just kind of the way it worked out for me and what worked out for me isn’t necessarily going to work out for everyone.
Me: That’s true.
Continue to Part 2 of the interview by clicking here.
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