Eric Idle Recalls Monty Python's Best
has every reason to gab. He's not only the creator (with John Du Prez
) of the Tony-winning musical Spamalot
, he's also the main attraction in the opener of Monty Python's Personal Best
(premiering tonight on PBS; check local listings), a three-week series of specials featuring each Python player's favorite bits, along with new material. (Example: In addition to introducing gems like "Nudge, Nudge," Idle plays a German with a weird theory about Python humor.) To mark this recycling of material, Idle spoke with TV Guide about "the Beatles of comedy," one of his greatest influences and his plans for another stage musical.
TV Guide: The Pythons have been described as "the Beatles of comedy." Do you consider the Beatles "the Pythons of music"?
Eric Idle: I think so. They're marginally better at guitar and they're almost as funny, I think.
TV Guide: George Harrison was a great Python fan and a close friend of yours. What was it about him that you think would most surprise people?
Idle: His sense of humor. He was really funny and he liked to talk a lot. He wasn't quiet at all.
TV Guide: Are there film plans for Spamalot [currently on Broadway]?
Idle: I wouldn't want to remake the [Monty Python and the] Holy Grail any more than I would want anyone to remake A Hard Day's Night.
TV Guide: What's this about "Monty Python on Ice"?
Idle: Years ago, when we were going to do a stage show, we loved the idea of doing "Monty Python on Ice" and making no attempt to learn to skate. The Dead Parrot, the Lumberjack... everything, while just walking around on the ice!
TV Guide: One of your fellow soccer fans, Peter Cook, seemed to have a big influence on Python.
Idle: [On] me in particular. Beyond the Fringe [an early-1960s Broadway revue show featuring the likes of Cook and Dudley Moore] just changed my life; I adored it. Everybody in Cambridge still spoke like Peter [did] when I got there, they all did that sort of Peter Cook voice. He was so influential, it was unbelievable. I introduced him to Robin Williams, which was a cataclysmic event.
TV Guide: What was the funniest moment of your life?
Idle: I don't think there is a funniest moment. It's like saying "What's your favorite sex?" as if you've done it only once. [The funniest moment comes with] the next laugh. I do enjoy being with funny people and laughing. It's one of those great contagious things — I hope it will never stop.
TV Guide: Monty Python has such a deep fan base that you can recycle material, and even pre-Python programs like Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last the 1948 Show are available for purchase. What is it like having so much interest in your work?
Idle: It's fairly astounding that people in America enjoyed Monty Python, which is supposed to be so British-referential. It's still astounding to me that it continues and grows, and now Broadway audiences embrace it. It has something to do with it just being very funny. That would be my only excuse. They're not tied to anything topical and we didn't do satire, which is dead by the next Saturday. Also, [by] writing for other comedians, we got to the top of our game just as we got our own show. The timing was perfect.
TV Guide: How did the Python shows avoid being erased like those of so many of your '60s/'70s contemporaries? There are very few of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Not Only But Also programs left, and Alan Bennett's On the Margin was wiped out entirely.
Idle: The BBC had no sense of archiving in those days — they cost 90 pounds each [to store], and they had no idea there would be a future market for these things. But by chance [the Python shows] were saved. I think the other thing that makes us different was that we were in color, so that still makes us look fairly recent, whereas black-and-white makes it look like an eon ago.
TV Guide: Have you watched any of the Do Not Adjust Your Set episodes lately?
Idle: I once went to a Museum of Television [event] and watched one. We were shockingly young. Mike [Palin], Terry [Jones] and I used to write the material in the morning and perform it later that day!
TV Guide: The Bonzo Dog Band was great on that show.
Idle: They had a very strong influence on Python — they made us much wackier. Vivian Stanshall was a very strange and wonderful talent. They came out of art school and were magical creatures to us.
TV Guide: Did it feel good to expose Catherine Zeta-Jones to movie audiences in Splitting Heirs?
Idle: She'd been a star in England, from her TV series [The Darling Buds of May]. Everybody loved her. She was young, beautiful, adorable — and she was really funny. I don't think I gave her a big break because it was hardly the biggest film success of all time.
TV Guide: You've had an eclectic career that includes film, TV, the Mikado, the Rutles, CDs, novels.... What's next for you?
Idle: Because of Spamalot, John Du Prez and I — we go back 20 years — are trying to write another musical. I enjoy musicals. They encompass everything I like to do — writing plays, writing funny songs and writing moving songs.
TV Guide: Will Rutland Weekend Television ever be released on DVD?
Idle: I hope not. Its reputation grows the less people see it. It was made on such a cheap budget — the entire series was made for 30,000 pounds — and it looks like it. Because I did it without an audience, I really don't know what's funny about it anymore.
For more "Idle chatter" — about the "stigma" of dressing up as a woman, his favorite television shows and Graham Chapman's prolific nature as a deceased comedian — pick up the "Dancing with the Stars" issue of TV Guide, on newsstands now.