Saturday Morning Cartoon: ‘Storytime’ with Terry Gilliam

By  · Published on November 22nd, 2014

Terry Gilliam

Happy birthday, Terry Gilliam!

Today the director, writer, animator and erstwhile-American turns 74 years old. It’s certainly cause for celebration. Even as a septuagenarian he’s still working. The Zero Theorem only recently opened in the United States, his twelfth feature film as director. There are plenty of ways to pay tribute to the artist and his work with your Saturday, though I’d imagine it’s hard to make the time to watch each of his dozen movies in a row. Instead, if you can carve out just under ten minutes, here’s a more practical option. It’s got more laughs per minute than most of his feature work as well.

Storytime is cobbled together from two separate cartoons that Gilliam made for two different TV shows. The first, the diptych of “Don the Cockroach” and “The Albert Einstein Story,” aired on The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine in 1971. Gilliam also did the opening titles for the series, which you can watch on YouTube. The second, “The Christmas Card,” was created for a Christmas special of an earlier show, Do Not Adjust Your Set. The variety format of both programs was a perfect fit for Gilliam’s knack for self-contained cartoons that break all of their own rules and bust through the fourth wall. This talent would become even more prominent in his years working on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which ran from 1969 through 1974.

The combined short, Storytime, is an excellent example of Gilliam’s irreverent, clever style. “Don the Cockroach” is a lot more than a cutout animation about a bug living in a big house. The initial comedy comes, of course, from the novelty of having one of the world’s most detested species as a protagonist. Don likes being a cockroach, and he wanders about his home doing “those things that cockroaches do.” In one emblematically Gilliam moment, Don disappears into a cabinet and the camera rests on the still image of an open door while a series of increasingly loud crashes resound over it. The comedy of the unseen, unconvincingly masking the entirely impossible, is one of the animator’s signature tricks.

After that Don gets crushed. The foot in question is an opportunity for looping, moving from the young gentleman who stepped on our tiny friend through an endless array of relatives and acquaintances, each with a silly name an even sillier cutout form. Eventually things get back to Don, and the film stops. Foreshadowing the llama-inflected credits sequence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam tosses up a title card apologizing for the previous cartoon and promising to “continue with another cartoon which, we are told, actually contains animated movements and not just a lot of cheap sound effects.” These are cartoons that know they are cartoons, occupying both the spaces of the screen and the audience. Absolutely nothing is as it seems because everything is quite evidently fake.

The following segment is equivalently absurd, if not more so. It is the story of Albert Einstein, whose neighbors hate him because he’s the “only Albert Einstein not to have discovered the theory of relativity.” He’s also very good with his hands, which is an excuse for an anthropomorphic binge on the part of Gilliam’s animation that reaches its logical conclusion in a song-and-dance extravaganza performed by a pair of charismatic feet.

The real triumph of this irreverence is the final sequence, however, a maddening and bewildering Armageddon of Christmas cards. Gilliam cuts up and animated everything conceivable in a wide array of traditional holiday greeting cards, building up characters that tear across the screen and turn up in the strangest places. A hunter takes out a whole slew of animals, a Santa Claus figure tosses children into his magic bag, and a stagecoach flies about. Everything is up for parody, from the typically safe symbols of Christmas to the very laws of physics. This light anarchy with a wicked grin is an early, playful example of the strange, ambitious imagination that would go on to define the rest of Gilliam’s career.