His career after Python has included writing and starring in his own films, The Missionary and American Friends, as well as frequent collaborations with fellow Python alumni: Terry Jones (as creators of the hilarious TV subversion of traditional British adventure stories for boys, Ripping Yarns), John Cleese (as costar of the hugely successful film A Fish Called Wanda and its semi-sequel Fierce Creatures) and Terry Gilliam (as co-writer and -star of Time Bandits and in a starring role in Gilliam's solo magnum opus Brazil). Most recently, he has dabbled in Eric Idle's Python stage projects, taking a few cameo roles in Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy). In 2017, he starred as Vyacheslav Molotov in The Death of Stalin.
He has also written voluminous personal diaries (published in three volumes of about 650 pages each, covering 1969-1979, 1980-1989 and 1989-1998 respectively), various children's stories and two novels, Hemingway's Chair and The Truth, in addition to an historical work, Erebus: The Story of a Ship.
Post-Python, he's best known for a series of epic travelogue series filmed for The BBC. These have taken Palin to dozens of countries on all seven continents, prompted a series of best-selling companion books based on his on-the-spot notes, and led to the so-called "Palin Effect", whereby places he's visited report a massive increase in tourism. They were also responsible for his 2009 appointment to a three-year term as President of the UK's prestigious Royal Geographic Society and the very first Louie Kamookak Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for "achievements in geography".
The travel series so far:
- Around the World in Eighty Days (1989), re-creating, fairly closely, Phileas Fogg's fictional journey around the world. Was completed with a few hours to spare.
- Pole to Pole (1992), from North to South, by way of some sweeping political changes.
- Full Circle (1997), in which Palin circumnavigates the Pacific Ocean.
- Hemingway Adventure (1999), in which Palin follows in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway.
- Pythonland (1999), as part of Python Night, Palin revisits the filming locations of several Flying Circus sketches.
- Sahara (2002), exploring the Sahara Desert.
- Himalaya (2004), exploring the Himalayas.
- Michael Palin's New Europe (2007), in which he (in rather disconnected journeys), travels around Eastern and Central Europe. This sometimes verged on being an Author Tract (albeit a well written, entertaining one) due to his pro-EU views.
- Brazil (2012), no, not that movie he was in but a four-part series in which Palin travels around the fifth-biggest country in the world — then seemingly at the peak of economic prosperity and sociopolitical optimism.
- Michael Palin in North Korea (2018), a two-hour documentary in which Palin visits the Hermit Kingdom.
Alongside these series, Palin's also published books about his trips. Adapted from his travel diaries, they provide deeper personal insights of the locations, transportation, and people he encountered as well as behind-the-scenes stories that detail each trip's daunting logistics and how he and the crew overcame them.
In 1993, the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children was dedicated in his honor, partly because of his role as a stuttering criminal in A Fish Called Wanda, and partly because of his firsthand experience with the issue: his father had a stammer.
In 2013 he was made a BAFTA Fellow (essentially, a lifetime achievement award) for his distinguished contributions to multiple media. He was knighted in 2018, specifically to the Order of St. Michael and St. George, which is awarded for overseas non-military service to the United Kingdom.
Completely unrelated to former Alaskan governor, one-time Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin (whom John Cleese now considers to be funnier than Michael) or her husband Todd Palin. Also not to be confused with author Michael Pollan, despite similarly pronounced names.
Also, is definitely not Eric Idle. No matter what either of them claim.
Tropes relating to his career:
- Corpsing: He was probably the worst of the Pythons at keeping a straight face (he visibly struggles to contain himself during the "Biggus Dickus" scene in Life of Brian).
- Deadpan Snarker: Quite often in his travelogue voiceovers Palin will express a certain dry wit when things start to go wrong. Even more noticeable in the accompanying followup diaries, which of course give him time to reflect at leisure.
- Jack-of-All-Trades: According to Eric Idle, out of the six regular Python members, Palin has the most talent to be able to play the widest variety of characters out of them all, from the brainless Gumby to "manly" lumberjacks to boring civil servants to zealous Spanish inquisitors.
- Nice Guy: Anyone's who's ever worked with him will endlessly sing his praises for both having great ideas and for being willing to collaborate with others. In fact, Monty Python only exists because John Cleese enjoyed working with Palin so much that he insisted that Palin and his collaborators join him and Graham Chapman on their new project for the BBC.
- During the last years of Terry Jones' life, he was largely nonverbal due to his degenerative aphasia (a result of frontotemporal dementia). Palin visited regularly, took Jones out to the pub, and read to him at his bedside. The two had been friends since meeting in college, before the Pythons were formed.
- Oop North: Born and raised in Sheffield, Yorkshire. Lots of the Northern stereotypes appeared in his Ripping Yarns, and were the basis for his King of Swamp Castle in Holy Grail.
- Rage Breaking Point: One of his roles in Monty Python and the Holy Grail was a dung-eating peasant. After about seven takes of rolling around in the cold mud, he finally snapped and had "a jolly good blow-up". This prompted Graham Chapman and John Cleese to break out in applause, because they'd never seen him angry before.
- During an interview program about Life Of Brian in which a Bishop and a conservative commentator repeatedly bashed the film while admitting they hadn't actually seen it, John Cleese remained his usual calm Deadpan Snarker, while Michael was clearly getting more and more irritated as the program went on, despite his efforts to remain in control of himself.
- Rail Enthusiast: Palin is one, without shame. He appeared in Monty Python's Flying Circus as the writer of a murder mystery play whose plot was derailed by the characters arguing about railway timetables. His first travelogue program was titled "Confessions of a Trainspotter" (in which he traveled from London to Kyle of Lochalsh, the end of the line in northern Scotland, and purchased the old station sign to put up in his garden). He has had a Virgin high-speed trainset named after him, in a series named after famous explorers (221 130) and his name is also on a Greater Anglia Super Sprinter railcar (153 335).
- Wholesome Crossdresser: With just a slight mellowing of his voice (and some rouge) he makes a passable older lady.
His travelogues provide examples of:
- Abandoned Area: In North Korea finds Palin visiting the seaport of Wonsan, which the North Korean government is trying to make into a luxury seaside resort for international tourists. Palin arrives by van but is taken to visit the Wonsan international airport. It's a bright, sparkling, new construction facility—with absolutely no passengers, no planes, and no visitors except for him. The eerie thing is that despite the airport being completely empty all the souvenir stores and snack bars and such are still fully staffed. Palin realizes that they're all there specifically to be filmed by his crew.
- All There in the Manual: As stated above, Palin has published books about his trips. Adapted from his travel diaries, they provide deeper personal insights into the locations, transportation, and people he encountered as well as behind-the-scenes stories that detail each trip's daunting logistics and how he and the crew overcame them.
- Around the World in Eighty Days ended with Palin denied entry to the Reform Club in London, where he and Phileas Fogg both started their trips, because it was closed for a function, although he did have a very nice greeting with his friends at BBC Headquarters where he presented the souvenirs he was asked to get on his trip.
- In Pole to Pole, he wins his race against time to make it to Cape Town in time to catch the one ship that can take him to Antarctica, only to find it's fully booked. He still makes it to the South Pole, though, by flying there via South America.
- Full Circle ends with Palin off the coast of Little Diomede Island, two miles short of completing a 50,000 mile journey, unable to land because of bad weather.
- Artistic License Physics: The demonstration of the Coriolis effect in Pole to Pole was a clever fraud. While the rotation of the Earth does have an effect on the rotation of water as it goes down a drain, the effect is very, very small, and in ordinary conditions completely overpowered by more mundane factors like the way the drain is constructed and how water is put into and taken out of it. Experiments have only been able to detect the Coriolis effect by pouring water into perfectly symmetrical containers with drains exactly in the middle, and letting that water stand for at least a day to insure that it is perfectly still. (However, in the original cut, Palin reveals that this experiment is faked, and explains why. In some versions, this section is removed.)
- Author Appeal: If his journey allows him to take a train, Michael will take the train. Something of a Justified Trope for a travelogue show as a train allows lot of arty shots of passing scenery.
- Balanced Harem: In Sahara he chats with a villager who has four wives (allowed under Islamic law), all of different ages. The villager agrees that monogamy might be easier but explains that he really wants a lot of children.
- Bookends: By design in several of his travelogues — leaving from and returning to the Reform Club in 80 Days, doing the same with Little Diomede Island in Full Circle, leaving and returning to Gibraltar in Sahara, and going from one pole to the other pole in... well, guess.
- Brutal Honesty: In In North Korea Palin visits a collective farm. He attempts to help the lady farmer plant her crop. In response to a question the lady says "You are unnecessary", says that they need people who are good at farming, and that people like Palin would be only a hindrance. He's taken aback but admits that she's honest.
- In Pole to Pole Palin visits the Kenyan village and school where he filmed the African scenes from The Missionary. He gives the school his blow-up globe that featured so prominently in Around the World in Eighty Days (and, his diaries imply, enough of a monetary donation to repair the schoolhouse roof).
- In the first episode of Pole to Pole, Palin rides a train across Finland, and he sings a song to himself that any Python fan would recognize.
- In Sahara he teaches the drinking phrase "Bottoms up!" to the nomadic tribesmen. In Himalaya he tells the Nepalese "'Bottoms up!', as they say in the Sahara!"
- In the Tunisian leg of Sahara Palin visits some old filming locations from Life of Brian.
- In 80 Days he tries to engage a parrot in a bird market in Hong Kong in conversation, saying "I was in a sketch with you once!''
- Palin took a train through the Ukraine in Pole to Pole in 1991, just a few months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. While on the train he interviewed a young man who was excited about the Ukrainian independence movement. When Palin came to Ukraine again for New Europe in 2006, he met the same man, and chatted with him about the future of independent Ukraine.
- Later in New Europe, the episode where Palin visits Poland is entitled "From Pole to Pole".
- For In North Korea he visited the DMZ, this time from the North side, 22 years after having visited there in Full Circle. He goes to the same blue conference huts on the border, and the special includes a clip of Palin visiting from the South side in 1996.
- The Cameo: In Around the World in Eighty Days, Python alumni Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam show up to send Palin off and greet him on his return. Palin himself has a knack for finding parts in foreign film productions. In 80 Days Palin makes a cameo in an Egyptian movie. In Pole to Pole he plays "Frogman's Hand" in a Russian documentary about crayfish. In Full Circle, he makes a cameo in Australian soap opera Home and Away. In New Europe he's drafted into a Polish theater performance.
- Channel Hop: The North Korea trip was broadcast on the UK's independent Channel 5, Palin admitting that there was no chance that BBC cameras would have been allowed in the country.
- Covered in Mud: Palin in a mud bath in Pole to Pole, while on break in the the Ukrainian seaside resort of Odessa.
- Depraved Dentist: In the first episode of Himalaya, Michael visits a town in Pakistan known for their dentistry. When he asks one of the local dentists to see his drill he uses on teeth, he is proudly shown a store-bought Dremel tool.
- Dracula: He's a Transylvanian tourist attraction in New Europe.
- Drag Queen: Palin has a chat with a gay Romani Bulgarian drag queen nightclub singer (!) in New Europe.
- In Himalaya, he visits a Hindu monastery and is treated to a performance of a play where most of the monks play milkmaids. He notes two of them having trouble putting on their outfits must not be frequent transvestites.
- Follow the Bouncing Ball: Karaoke was still relatively unknown in the West when Palin sang "You Are My Sunshine" in a Tokyo bar in 1988, as featured in 80 Days.
- Foreign Queasine:
- Michael gets a bit freaked out when he and Basil go to a restaurant in Guangzhou which serves snake. Partially this is because he's never had snake before, but largely because they kill the snakes in front of him.
- In Morocco, Michael tries in vain to avoid getting any sheep's head in his kebabs. Later on, he is somewhat bemused by the amount of camel he ends up eating.
- Fortune Teller: Palin visits a priest of a folk religion in Brazil who casts bones as part of his faith. He asks the priest to predict whether England will ever win the World Cup again, and is told, "No."
- Historical In-Joke: Palin notes while sailing down the Yangtze River in Full Circle that all the villages and waterfronts he's seeing will disappear when the big dam project is completed. 1.3 million people were eventually relocated when the Three Gorges Dam left their homes and towns underwater.
- History Marches On: In Eighty Days, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, which had ended months earlier, is referred to as "the Gulf War." A couple of years later, that name was permanently attached to an entirely different (though related) war.
- Indy Ploy:
- In Pole to Pole Palin and crew are left stuck in South Africa, with no way to complete their trip to the South Pole along 30 degrees east, when the only ship is all booked up. So they fly to South America and to the South Pole from there.
- In 80 Days, Palin's preplanned route from Suez to India has failed, and several alternatives have also proved impossible. In the end he has to rent a car and drive across Saudi Arabia to make his connection.
- Male Frontal Nudity: Palin briefly, when he enters a mud bath in the Ukraine in Pole to Pole.
- Mysterious Antarctica: Guess.
- National Geographic Nudity:
- Not seen personally by Palin in Himalaya (or in most of his other travelogues), but when visiting the Naga people of the India/Burma border area, he picks up a book called "The Naked Nagas". Sure enough, the Frontispiece is a topless native woman.
- Also present with a couple indigenous American tribes he visits in Amazonia in Brazil. This miniseries was broadcast on PBS in the United States.
- Oh, Crap!: Palin decides to visit a famous barber in Bombay, but is somewhat unnerved by the fact that the man doesn't seem to acknowledge him, only figuring out what makes this barber so special when the straight razor is already shaving him: the barber is blind.
- Orient Express: Palin rides it in 80 Days. Ironically, while this was considered so routine that Verne left it out of his novel, transiting Europe gives Palin his first problems, as a railroad strike throws off his timetable.
- Painting the Medium: In 80 Days it cuts to Michael reading a book. He looks at the camera and says "Don't worry, there'll be some commentary coming along in a second. Ah, here it is." The commentary then starts. Later on, the commentary notes that he's been given permission to cross Saudi Arabia, but that he had to make a sacrifice, concluding with "Here, I'll let myself explain it." The Michael being filmed then starts explaining to the camera what's going on.
- In Sahara, the apparently real-life call he places to his wife from the desert is very obviously being staged for the camera...to the point that it starts sounding like a Python parody of itself.
- Psychic Surgery
- Palin witnesses a demonstration by a Philippine con man in Full Circle. He seems to be somewhat credulous and accepting of the veracity of the process but the accompanying book of the series — taken from his on-the-spot diaries — makes it clear that he's not buying any of it for a second, and frankly the "psychic surgeon" doesn't seem to, either. But it's an interesting phenomenon, and Palin's there to observe, not editorialize.
- Palin has a similar response to Buddhist horoscopes and Chinese medicine in Himalaya. While not mocking them outright he does make some humorous call backs to the idea that he was allegedly once an elephant in a past life, and lightheartedly tries to acquire some Chinese remedies because of their monetary value.
- Race Against the Clock
- Around the World in Eighty Days He spends most of the trip falling further and further behind the schedule as written by Jules Verne, but is able to make it all up by crossing the Pacific Ocean in a freighter that moves twice as fast as the paddleboat Verne wrote about.
- The second half of Pole to Pole features him needing to get across Africa in time to get to the one ship going to Antarctica all year. He makes it to the ship, only to find that it is already completely booked.
- Santa Claus: In Pole to Pole Palin visits Santa at Santa Claus Village in Finland.
- Scaramanga Special: In Himalaya, Palin visits the town of Darra, where gun manufacturing is the big industry. He goes to a gunsmith's shop and, while examining the merchandise, makes a joke about a James Bond-style pen gun. The gunsmith promptly shows him an actual pen gun, which can fire a .22-caliber round and also is a functional pen.
- Scenery Porn: Especially in Himalaya, which is filled with staggering views of the mountains.
- Sequel: Around the World in 20 Years, a one-hour sequel to 80 Days in which Palin went back 20 years later to find the crew of the dhow that took him to India.
- Stiff Upper Lip: Michael Palin attempts to keep one as much as possible, whatever the obstacles that he faces. He does slip up on occasion (when his ship from Suez to Jeddah gets canceled in "80 Days," for instance).
- He recalled in a compilation show rewatching some of his old clips that his comedic "I want to go home!" shout after falling in the water running over the logs at the Canadian logging festival was much more heartfelt than it looked. The crew were nearing the end of the Full Circle journey, he was severely homesick, and he really didn't want to be pratfalling into cold water just for a gag.
- Technology Marches On
- Works for and against Palin in 80 Days:
- Email and the Internet would have made some of Palin's travel problems, like his difficulties finding a way from Suez to India, a lot easier; in Pole to Pole Palin likely could have used email to make sure there was space left on the one boat that goes each year from South Africa to Antarctica and back.
- On the other hand, Palin notes that air travel has made passenger trains and boats obsolete in many parts of the world, meaning that in some places, he has fewer travel options than Fogg did. For his ride across the Pacific, Palin has to hitch a ride on a freighter, because there are no cross-Pacific passenger ships any more. On the other other hand, that freighter Palin hitched a ride on was quite a bit faster than Fogg's passenger ship and allowed him to make up all his lost time. And he was able to go through China by train, which Fogg couldn't do.
- Works for and against Palin in 80 Days:
- Tear Jerker: In Pole to Pole, Palin visits the Shiwa Ngandu estate in Zambia, run by a British couple whose family ran the land for decades. They were attacked and killed six months after Palin's visit.
- In Confessions of a Trainpotter he reminisced about the end of steam on British Rail, with views of withdrawn steam engines at the famous Barry Scrapyard, including one with a crying face and the words "Please don't let me die" painted on the smokebox. Stanier Class 8F 48305 is currently in operating condition on the Great Central Railway in Leicestershire.
- Those Wacky Nazis: In the last episode of New Europe, Palin visits the concentration camp at Terezin (Theresienstadt), and the series ends with him at an abandoned Nazi resort on Rugen Island.
- Travelogue Show: Duh.
- Throw It In: Around the World in Eighty Days was supposed to be six episodes. Palin and his crew got so much material out of his dhow journey from Dubai to India that they built a whole extra episode out of it.
- Victoria's Secret Compartment: In Himalaya, Palin sees local women fishing in the Brahmaputra river. When they catch a fish, they toss it down their blouses.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: In Full Circle, one episode ends with Palin and company stranded off of Java, looking for boat transport. The next episode finds them in Australia, without explanation. In an interview on the DVD Palin reveals that he went home after learning that his wife had been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. (She recovered.)
- A slightly less jarring example happen in the same series, as episode six ends with him having completed the initiation run at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, and episode 7 opens with him landing at the Cape of Good Hope in Chile, several thousand miles away.
- Why We Are Bummed Communism Fell: In New Europe, Palin's Moldovan tour guide admits that some Moldovans, especially the older generation, miss the old days of the Soviet Union.
- Witch Doctor: He encountered one in Zambia during Pole to Pole. He was told that he had an "evil shadow" and bad things lay ahead for him; the witch doctor gave him a piece of tree bark (supposedly a medicinal aid) to "wash" with. Palin subsequently visited an estate run by a British couple who were murdered six months later, cracked a rib while white-water rafting, and had one of his suitcases lost by a railway company. Plus, a member of the crew caught malaria. Eventually, he decided to take the medicine that the witch doctor had prescribed, although this did not prevent him from being unable to secure a berth on the only ship that left Cape Town for Antarctica that year. The episode covering these events was called "Evil Shadow".