A few years ago, Eric Idle told RR-Magazine he was working on his “posthumous memoirs.” He’s since had a change of heart. “The only trouble with posthumous memoirs is you don’t get paid ’til later,” he now jokes dryly, on a call from his Los Angeles home. So on October 2nd, he released Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography. “I wrote it just for myself first and sold it after I’d finished it,” he says. “I thought it would be more fun to do that, then the reader would get more of what I wanted to write.”
The comedian, now 75, came around on the subject because Monty Python’s 50th anniversary next year was fast approaching and he thought it would be a good way to circumvent all the inevitable questions he’d have to face about the pioneering British comedy troupe. But, of course, the other Terry Gilliam–drawn shoe dropped: “I realized you have to go ’round and answer all the questions anyway to sell the book,” he says with a laugh.
Nevertheless, Idle has packed the “sortabiography” with all sorts of dirt and details about not just his work with his fellow Pythons, but his friendships with many major figures in comedy and music over the past five decades, including George Harrison, Robin Williams, David Bowie and more. There are also revelations about films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, his Beatles parody the Rutles and the Royal family’s taste in humor — all recounted in vivid detail.
“For about 28 years now, I’ve written down bits of my life on my computer that I would store in a folder called ‘For My Memoirs,’” he explains. “Back then, they were going to be called Say No More,” he says, adopting the voice of his Python character who lubriciously says, “Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.” “So I had stuff that I’d written contemporaneously, which is great for the memory. Then you just strut about looking back at your life.
“By about the third and fourth draft, the book seemed to be about our generation — people who came out of the War, grew up in the Fifties with rationing and suddenly created this sort of Renaissance in the Sixties,” he continues. “My generation invented rock & roll, photography, television. It wasn’t like now, where people have to follow people who are up in there and get rid of them to have a go at it. There was this explosion of the Sixties for that generation, and we were all born around the same time and I knew a lot of [the musicians and artists], because we were sort of connected. It was a smaller world then.”
While he reflects, Idle transitions from moments of candor to silliness with ease. As he explains both in the book and this interview, it’s a side effect of how he grew up.
Your father died when you were young, and your mother shipped you off to boarding school. How did that shape your sense of humor?
You learned how to get fun out of bleakness. It was a bit like something between prison and the army. It forces you to create your own fun. It was like life lessons.
A point you make in the book is that Python’s humor was unique because it wasn’t topical. Why did you go in that direction?
It was a historical thing. We followed satire. When we were at college, there was a big satire boom in England. It started with [the stage revue] Beyond the Fringe and went onto television with David Frost, That Was the Week That Was. It changed the government. It threw the Conservatives out and it was a protest voice, so by the time we got into television, it had been on for ages. It was pretty much a worked-out theme. So we had to find more abstract, sillier or generic ways of being funny. We tended to come up with characters that didn’t have names. You weren’t supposed to recognize them as “the prime minister.” We parodied generic MPs, not particularized cabinet members.
It’s lasted longer because of that. You don’t have to go back, like you do with SNL. With that show, you go, “Oh, my God. Who is that? Oh, it’s supposed to be Gerald Ford. Oh, he fell over a lot.” You have to create all the context to make it funny again. Whereas, our context is already low. Anything you need to know about the Silly Walk Minister is there. That’s why it’s lasted almost 50 years.
One thing that isn’t clear from the book is how you all got into TV. You went from college to writing for The Frost Report. How did that happen?
We were all in this club called the Footlights at Cambridge, where we wrote and performed and learned [comedy], and then we did the Edinburgh Festival and toured with revues and did cabaret. David Frost came and found us, and this guy, Humphrey Barclay, found us. So we almost went straight into radio and television. We didn’t have to look around very much. It was quite extraordinary, because [the medium] was still growing. People didn’t have those jobs. It was inventing itself, and we were lucky to come into that period of time when we could go and work on all these different shows without even knowing what we were trying to do.
In the book, you write that you came up with the “Monty” part of the Monty Python name thinking of a person you knew from your local pub. Did he ever know that?
He wasn’t so much a friend as a character at the pub. Everybody says, “Has Monty been in yet?” “Oh, where’s Monty?” So, no. Also, that was up in Warwickshire; I’d moved away from that area by the time I was in London. I have no idea if he knew. I hope so. It’s not a terrible thing to be remembered by, really.
Within Python, the rest of the guys wrote in pairs but you were on your own. How did that shape you as a writer?
It’s how I write now. I get up early and start writing. You don’t have to wait for somebody to come and be late and then make a coffee and read the news and go to the bathroom and talk. I like to get on with it. I always say, at least I’m still with me [laughs]. In pair writing, people like to bounce ideas off each other, but I have the advantage of writing alone and bouncing ideas off the group.
You state in the book, “I think all the Pythons are nuts in some ways, and together we all make one completely insane person.” How would you explain the dynamics of the group?
There’s nobody who’s particularly normal. Oddly, I think a lot of them were leaders or head boys of schools, which is quite interesting. But they’re all different. Each of the six people does something the others can’t do, which is why it works. There was remarkably little conflict. It was pretty much about writing and can we make the writing funnier. I think that’s what’s unique about it, too: It’s a writers’ group. The writing came first and we’d cast it after we’d written it all.
We had of course all been professional writers before, so we’d done our Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours. We’d trained. We’d done children’s television. We were ready when we got our chance, and we didn’t even know it was our chance, because we thought we were going to do something else after Python. And of course, I don’t think we did, really.
You didn’t know you were truly famous until you toured Canada. Why did it take so long?
We didn’t really go on the road until about the second season. I put together a little show in Coventry, and the people all went nuts, so we did a tour in the U.K. People came out in force. By the time we got to Canada, the BBC had sold the series to [the CBC]. In Winnipeg, the whole front row was dressed as a caterpillar. So it was a revelation to us, because you don’t see your audience when you’re on TV. When we finally did the O2 shows [in 2014], almost half the audience dressed in characters. That was 18,000 people a night for 10 nights. It was nicely timed, because after that, Terry Jones really couldn’t have done sketches much longer.
Jones’ family announced in 2016 that he has dementia. How is he doing now?
He doesn’t say very much, but I think he recognizes who people are. I think he has 24-hour care. I think you just get lost in that world and it’s harder for the relatives and people around the people in that state than it is for themselves, ’cause they tend to be cut off from anxieties, ’cause they can’t remember anything. It gets worse, of course, and then they disappear into not knowing who anybody is.
Getting back to the book, you write about how you managed to win the masters to your show from the BBC in a legal maneuver. Later, you write that you didn’t make any “real money” until Spamalot. Why is that?
Python was never like a big movie or even a Broadway play. We did very nicely for where we had started from, which was badly paid, and then we made a lot of money from the movie [Monty Python and the Holy Grail]. Though we didn’t actually make money from it for the first 20 years, because other people took it ’round to the colleges and never gave us the money back. After 20 years, the copyright came back to us, and suddenly we owned it. And that was really very good news, because it keeps selling. Then we’d resell the series, because we owned it. But it was 25 years on PBS, which was not going to keep you in the bread. And it was on MTV very early on, which was interesting, ’cause it put our demographic way down and suddenly young people were watching it.
I think it’s nice because people can see the whole show, and it’s not just YouTube clips. We tried hard to make it flow and connect. SNL’s just there. It’s quick, quick, quick, and they never have time for rewrites or even to learn it. We would rehearse for five days and learn the words, so we got better at it and tightened it up.
There were 13 test screenings for Holy Grail as you tweaked it. What was left on the cutting-room floor?
We’d have little screenings for about 100 people in Soho, and the first time we did, it was an absolute disaster. It was awful, all over the place. You couldn’t hear anything. The soundtrack was dreadful. We pulled that off and put on campy, swashbuckling music off [of] records. We just listened to where the audiences stopped laughing and connected the dots. We even shot some bits again. I think the Black Knight was reshot on Hampstead Heath. We found the bits that worked and extended them, so we could keep them laughing. It was a good process. I don’t think anybody does that.
You write that you had an idea years later of doing a film called The Last Crusade, where you’d all be knights. Was that a Holy Grail sequel?
Yeah. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we all played older versions of our younger knights?” We were gonna take the remains of King Arthur — which would have been Graham [Chapman], so that put him in, too — to the Holy Land. It seemed it had a lot of possibilities as a Python movie, ’cause the Crusades are pretty hilarious. I mean, they get as far as Venice when the Venetians fleece ’em blind [laughs].
It’s a shame that didn’t happen.
In a way, yes, but it was in the Nineties. The hardest thing of all was not to get the people together to shoot something like that but to get them together to write something like that. We would often take two years to write a movie. By that stage, everyone was living in different parts of the world and different lives. It was the hardest thing to imagine coordinating.
Shifting to another Python movie, you tell the story of writing the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” for Life of Brian. Have you ever gone back and listened to the original cassette you recorded it on?
It sounds awful. There’s nothing wrong with the track; the music is exactly the same. It’s a jazz track. But it’s the vocal that makes it so memorable. [Adopts Cockney accent] “Some things in life are bad … ” that sort of cheeky, old, cheery character makes it, as opposed to it just being a song. That was something that happened on location, when I was playing Mr. Cheeky. It was perfect. He was also being crucified, and he had the attitude of, “Cheer up, come on,” which was the attitude of our lighting guys. They were all, “Ah, come on. It’s only a leg, y’know” [Laughs]. They had this wonderful Cockney optimism, which comes from the trenches, probably.
You write about George Harrison a lot in the book. What was it like the first time you met him, and the two of you went up into a projection booth and smoked weed?
[Laughs] It was very George, you know. We all went out to dinner and talked all that night. We went back to where he was staying and then went off to see Joni Mitchell. She was at the studio where he was recording Extra Texture. “Do you want to meet Joni?” And I went, “Of course I want to meet Joni.” She was next door and it was just amazing. Then we went back and just talked and talked and talked. That’s how George was. You just talk and get to the bottom of this then.
I went in there, “Oh, what’s John like?” And he’s like, “What’s your John like?” It was like two gang members talking about their respective groups. It occurred to me later that we both played similar roles inside our groups with big power blocks. Once I was moaning a little bit on Brian, saying, “It was hard to get onscreen with Michael Palin and John Cleese.” He said, “Well, imagine what it’s like trying to get studio time with Lennon and McCartney.” I said, “All right. Absolutely. Got it. OK. Check. I’ll shut up now.” Then it occurred to me that yes, in fact, we were slightly the outsiders, playing similar roles in our groups.
You also dedicate a chapter to Robin Williams. What was he like when he let his guard down?
It took about two years before he stopped being funny around me. It was so nice when he finally knew me enough and was confident to just not have to be funny. I think it was very hard for him and his family — for marriages — because there is a real person there, not being this glittery person making strangers laugh. He was lovely. It was just so tragic that we lost him and in that way. We were doing our reunion while he was unwinding. It’s sad.
You once said, “Never do things for money. It’s always the things you do for love that turn out to pay the best.” Can you give examples of that from your life?
Well, Spamalot is the most obvious one. And all the Python movies. Nobody wanted Brian [laughs] except George [Harrison], who put up his money for it. We wouldn’t have made it but for him mortgaging his house. But the things that turn out to be large earners, like Spamalot, you don’t expect. You don’t get much money to develop a Broadway show. There’s some money, but it’s not going to keep you going. Only 18 percent of Broadway shows make their money back; I think that’s worse than restaurants. But when they do, they do. In fact, now it’s a matter of trying to find actors for the movie version.
How is the Spamalot movie going?
I’ve been developing it for about three years with Fox. We’re going into production in January, and now we’re looking at casting. There are a million people who can be very funny and then only about 12 that they want to put in movies this week [laughs], so it’s a very interesting process. I have Casey Nicholaw directing, which is great, ’cause he did the choreography [for the stage version of Spamalot] and Book of Mormon, Aladdin and Mean Girls. Mike [Nichols, the production’s original director] always wanted Casey to direct, too, so we’ve gotten that far.
Maybe you can find roles for some old knights, à la your Last Crusade idea.
I hope we could get little cameos for the guys. It sort of depends on when and where, but it looks like we’re hoping to shoot in the springtime.
What are your thoughts on retirement?
I have many plans to retire but my wife won’t let me. Retirement’s a myth in America anyway. It’s all bollocks. You have to get more and more jobs to pay for health care. I could have been retired 15 years in England. I could sit and write to the papers complaining about everything, but I like the writing part. It’s harder and harder to do. I’m not interested in performing or acting. I did like going out on the road with John [Cleese], and I’ve got a large book tour all around the world. But I much prefer to write and get other people to do these things these days. So I’m looking forward to Spamalot for the next year, and then I’ll happily read a book for the rest of my time.