Order of the Good Write

That Magic Feeling When the Words Flow. A Blog by Debi Rotmil


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Celebrating a Python Anniversary

Screenshot 2015-07-19 13.46.37July 19th, 1988 is a day that will live in infamy. My personal infamy. It’s a day buried in my heart forever and annually celebrated like Christmas.

For it was on this day that I met comedian, documentarian, wanderlust traveler and Monty Python member Michael Palin in the makeup room of studio 6A –  the then home of Late Night with David Letterman.

On that momentous hot July day, Michael was in town promoting ‘A Fish Called Wanda’.  I was working at Program Standards and became friends with Late Night’s receptionist who told me that Palin would be in town within three weeks as one of Dave’s guests.

My stomach dropped to the ground floor of 30 Rock. My world spun. Monty Python were and still are – my Beatles of comedy. In fact, the Beatles themselves likely admitted as much. George Harrison, my favorite Beatle and lifelong idol worshiped them, befriended them, financed them and produced them for years to come, creating Handmade Films to justify the investment money for the production on “Life of Brian”.  Of all the Pythons – Michael was my George. He was the one I studied and admired. I still do today.

So when my friend dropped that lovely bombshell, wheels were set into motion. I spoke to Jane, my boss responsible for cutting out bad words and actions from David Letterman’s script, about having a personal meeting with my Python god. Jane Crowley was a difficult lady, but she was always nice to me. I guess I understood her or felt sorry for her enough to let her transgressions go. She liked me. So, she did me a solid and spoke to Late Night’s talent coordinator to see if a special meeting could be arranged.

It was. Since the coordinator knew Palin as a friend, I was assured that Michael, being a notorious mensch and basic lovely person, it would not be a problem.  In fact, he knew Michael would be delighted.

Yaaayyy!!

With three weeks to prepare, I got my letter writing going. I wrote to Nancy Lewis,  manager of Monty Python’s US properties based in New York, asking if she had some amazing photos I could use so I could chose one for Michael to sign.

Now, you have to understand. I’m not an autograph person. I don’t care that much about getting signatures. Being someone who came up through the NBC Talent Relations intern ringer, I was conditioned to not be star struck. I was to always be professional and low key with stars. I had witnessed enough television groupies who hung out daily in the lobby of 30 Rock collecting photos and signatures from famous people. They seemed so sad. Didn’t they have anything better to do?  I didn’t want to be like that.

But once…just this once…I had to succumb. I had to have a tangible resource to remember this meeting. I wore the suit of total fan wanking nerd. I was comfortable with that. For now.

Ms. Lewis contacted me. She was gloriously sweet. In fact, she found out I also worked with the VP of Standards, who was a dear friend. (He never told me that! Such coincidence.)

She gave me a folder of photos, small head shots, postcard sized beauties. Yet, I chose this picture…

Michael Palin SNL bumper slide I used for his signature. July 19, 1988.

Michael Palin SNL bumper slide I used for his signature. July 19, 1988.

Meeting Michael was a blur. I walked into the make up room and politely said, “Hello, Michael. So sorry to trouble you..” and was immediately interrupted by him swinging into  full Gumby mode (look it up), feigning a fake rant, “How dare you enter…!”

I can’t remember what we said. But all I remember was how incredibly sweet and nice he was. He’s famous for being nice. John Cleese hates him for it apparently…in a frenemy kind of cranky Cleese way.

What I do remember Michael telling me was that the photo I chose was from the week he was in NYC to do SNL. It was from the photo shoot they did to produce the commercial bumper slides aired during commercial breaks. You know the ones. He mentioned there was a big snow storm that week, and he brought his mum along on the trip. She even appeared on the show.  I told him I loved the picture. It was a quintessential NYC photo for such a British man.

Although the ink is fading, he wrote:

“To the One and Only ‘DEBBIE’:

With lots of best wishes, your greatest fan….Michael Palin”

On this Michael Palin Day, I still treasure this. And it’s nice knowing I have perhaps the greatest fan in the world.

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Naval Gazing on a ‘Fry & Laurie’ Memory

Back in the early 90’s, I used to walk around London listening to The Smiths and Bjork.  It left an indelible mark on my brain. Now, when I hear the songs ‘Human Behavior’ or ‘Venus as a Boy’, I’m right back there, walking along the South Bank of the River Thames on a blustery autumnal afternoon – from Clapham Common all the way to Tower Bridge. The thumping beat of “Behavior…” drove my feet. The buoyancy of the reggae vibe of ‘Venus…”matched the grey and ancient waterway.

In terms of The Smiths,  I can’t listen to ‘Reel Around the Fountain’ or “Miserable Lie’ today without thinking of jumping on the tube at Embankment, or walking Birdcage Walk along the St. James’ Park peripheral, approaching Buckingham Palace, then continuing on and on until I ended up on Westminster Bridge. Back at the river again.

In 1991, I was a comedy nerd extraordinaire, who, through the PBS and arts channels of American cable, was introduced to the British comedic mind in the world of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (I was a bit late), Whose Line Is It Anyway?, The Young Ones, French & Saunders, This is David Landers and A Bit of Fry and Laurie. I was about to embark on my first trip to England with my dad.  Besotted with Mr’s Fry and Laurie, and a devoted reader of Time Out London, I found out that a new series of a Bit of… was due to tape the week I was in town. Huzzah!  I called the BBC immediately, NYT to GMT permitting, and got on that list pronto. Screw jet lag.  My first night in London was to be spent at BBC Television Centre, sitting at a taping of A Bit of Fry & Laurie on August 24th!  It also happened to be Mr. Fry’s birthday.

A little background:

I absolutely fell head over heels in love with Stephen Fry and his partner Hugh Laurie. And when I mean head over heals in love – I’m speaking of Stephen Fry.  Yes, I was aware of his sexual orientation. It was a useless desire, likely more of a sisterly type of infatuation, knowing that even if he was really in my life, I’d never stand a chance. Yet, while walking through the streets of London, on my first trip, and many others afterward, I carried the torch for Stephen Fry with the voice of Morrissey in my head and Bjork next on the playlist.

Fry wasn’t totally out as a gay human being back then, but he wasn’t always in the closet either. It’s as though he was an out of commission homosexual hiding in plain sight. He talked of “whoopsies” often, openly adored and emulated Oscar Wilde and wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called The Liar, where the protagonist spends a good portion of the story absolutely gagging in love with a boy. It was a heartbreaking and lovely read.

The book incorporated some of Fry’s own youthful struggles. He was seventeen when he ran away from home. One day, while on the run, he walked into a pub, stole a man’s coat and wallet, and proceeded to fraudulently go on a shopping spree that subsequently landed him three months in jail where he spent his sentence teaching illiterate inmates how to read. He admits today that this incident was a result of undiagnosed manic depression. Even today, it hurts my heart to think of what he and his family must have endured.

But he’s rich and famous now, so I think it’s safe to say – it all worked out nicely.

So, I entered the BBC Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush. Quite the glory there. Python undoubtedly created the Flying Circus within those offices and studios. In fact, the format of F&L was the same as Python’s show. There were in-studio performances with a live audience reacting to previously filmed sketches beaming from television monitors . There was a lady in guest relations who was so kind to me over the phone, she practically placed me in the VIP line. My dad and I ended up in the front row.

The whole show was a blur since it was so many years ago. Yet I remember it took hours to tape. There were sketch set ups, stops and starts, redoing a scene over again, the two stars making quips while the sound was corrected or a light re-adjusted. Hugh would constantly remind everyone that it was Stephen’s birthday, and with his half moon face, Fry would grin and shrug like a little proud birthday boy.

There was a moment, in between a take, that I do remember clearly. Stephen was sitting waiting for something to be re-arranged. Having been in the front row, his gaze turned to me. He stared at me with this strange kind of acknowledgement. He had this dreamy look in his eye and a lovely grin on his face.  It seemed like the stare lasted a good half a minute. I was taken by this. Surely, he’s not really seeing me?  Stephen’s just looking into space and his eyes happened to meet mine. Surely, right? It was as if time stood still, stopping everything for those long seconds until his eyes turned away, back to face Hugh to begin the scene, and everything began to move again.

A few years later, in 1995, Stephen Fry had a melt down. While starring in the West End production of Simon Grey’s Cell Mates, he disappeared, leaving the production without one of its box office luring stars. (The play also starred the late, great, fabulous Rik Mayall)  It was all over the British press. He wrote a note to tell everyone he was a cad, and then left the country. It was another break down. Everyone thought he was going to commit suicide. He was found in Bruges in Belgium alone, alive and ready for therapy. When he returned to England, he began a sabbatical that would last a year or two.

During that time, the world wide web was slowly beginning to weave its platform with rich text and colorful pages. Stephen had a rudimentary website not many people knew about. Somehow, I found it and his email address. Figuring, what the hell, I wrote a fan email, telling him about how he inspires me and how grateful I am to have him in this world. I also spoke of that moment in the studio.

What happened next – blew my mind. He wrote back to me!  In the midst of this great depression and media black out, he responded! It’s like I found this little secret portal called email to connect with a fallen hero hurting. It was amazing that this great talent, this wounded soul, too time out of his quiet life to write back.  I could kick myself for not saving the message. It’s lost in an old, long since discarded 2 gig hard drive.

But I do remember him saying, in response to that staring moment back at the BBC, “It was likely I found a kindred spirit, a kind soul to lay my eye upon.”

Sigh. Mr. Fry, I will always love you. And Hugh, Bjork and Morrissey too.