July 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.
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…
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.