Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988 by Michael Palin; St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne, 622 pages, $32.50. One good reason why Monty Python's Flying Circus was -- and remains -- so beloved by so many of us is that its antic communal madness was created and performed by men who were, in the main, sane to a thoroughly remarkable degree. It's true, certainly, that Graham Chapman's sexual and alcoholic regimen wouldn't necessarily recommend him for very long to the annals of the ordinary -- or, for that matter, to life itself (he was, sadly, the first of the Pythons to die and, so far, the only one) -- but the rest of the Pythons included sneaky ponderous professors (John Cleese) and ambitious yuppies lurking within.
If one were to have a contest to name the sanest Python of them all, I think, it would come down to a donnybrook between Michael Palin and the mercilessly exploitive Eric Idle with Palin my clear-cut choice.
The very act of keeping a diary is, it seems to me, the distinguishing mark of the certifiably sane -- as well as covertly ambitious -- man (somewhere within you have to suspect that someone else in the future will gander at it besides you and your family).
The first volume of Palin's diaries, called "The Python Years", is, it seems to me, the one to read to learn firsthand about what the world was like when "something completely different" descended upon it from a coalition of brilliant Oxbridgeans who came together in a British world already whirling from Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and the boys from Beyond the Fringe (a Python template, of sorts).
What we've got here is stage two of the rocket after the thrilling and perilous liftoff. "The prospect of international stardom shimmied on the horizon," writes Palin now, which means acclimation (or non-acclimation) to Hollywood in the likes of "Monty Python's Meaning of Life," "Brazil" and "A Fish Called Wanda." A genial, smiling, ambitious and appealingly sane man wrote these diary entries -- a man who could make a project as exciting and lunatic as Gilliam's "Brazil" seem ordinary.
-- Jeff Simon