In His 'Sortabiography,' Monty Python's Eric Idle Reflects On The Meaning Of Life
With Meghna Chakrabarti
Monty Python’s Eric Idle is still “Always Looking on the Bright Side of Life.” He’s out with a “sortabiography” and joins us.
Eric Idle, comedian, actor, writer and singer-songwriter. Member of Monty Python, the comedy group that created “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” which first aired on the BBC in 1969. Author of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography.” (@EricIdle)
On the joy of making people laugh
“It’s quite something to be out there looking for love and affection from a lot of strangers in a dark room. Thriving on a laugh is a vital spark; I think you become kind of a laugh junkie. You need that. You go for that big belter. I certainly like that; it’s a reaffirmation. I’ve just been on a book tour of three different countries, and each time, you want those laughs.”
How would you describe Monty Python’s humor?
“I think it’s kind of an encyclopedic comedy; it only appears to be one show. Each of us write differently, and it’s all apparently linked together by these little animations of [Terry] Gilliam’s, so it makes it look like it’s about something. But really, there’s many different forms of humor. So while we’d often find people would enjoy it, we could never find whether they’d agree about which bits they’d enjoyed.
“I suppose there’s an attitude, which is to mess around with the show itself, and to recognize it’s only a show, and to play with the audience’s expectations. And I think that’s what we did with the most fun, messing with them. I mean, we put out a three-sided album once. Some people still didn’t find the third side for about two months, and then they really nearly fell off their seats.
On what helped him and other Monty Python members write
“Three years of doing comedy at Cambridge, you learn your art. We used to go and do cabaret up and down the country, and perform in front of people, so you learn your trade.
“We’d all done our Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours by the time we were together. You know, we’d reached the tipping point. When we were given our own show, we were perfectly capable of reaping mayhem in it, because we knew not what we wanted to do, but what we wanted to avoid.”
Why did Monty Python connect beyond the U.K.?
“The one thing we were certain of, is it would never go in America. We were absolutely confident of that, and we were completely and absolutely wrong. [laughs] I’m very grateful. But we were picked up by PBS, which was very fortunate for us. Dallas was the first PBS station to play it.
“Suddenly people were watching this thing late on a Sunday night, and it was a perfect storm because then we opened the Holy Grail. It was a bit like Beatlemania; we were strapped in a cinema in New York all day. They had screenings, and we had to sign coconuts. It was very odd.
“[The show] was very English, it had English place names. They seemed to be about English types. We know it goes to 98 countries; the human being is the same in every country. We have the same angers, the same problems and the same issues. So if you get it right for one society, it transposes itself.”
From The Reading List
New York Times: “For Eric Idle, Life’s a Laugh and Death’s a Joke, It’s True” — “The fiftieth anniversary of Monty Python, which debuted on the BBC in 1969, is coming soon, but don’t expect Eric Idle, one of the comedy troupe’s founding members, to celebrate.
“‘Absolutely not,’ Mr. Idle said with a laugh, when asked if the group had any plans to commemorate a half-century of dead parrots, cheese shops and silly walks. ‘There’s no reason we actually should.’
“That doesn’t mean the Python spirit isn’t still alive inside Mr. Idle. He was on the phone from Los Angeles, where he spent the weekend penning new music for the still-in-development film based on his hit Broadway musical, ‘Spamalot.’ And if you’re wondering, Mr. Idle said Tiffany Haddish has been offered the role of the Lady of the Lake and that the script has mostly been ‘solved.’ ”
Rolling Stone: “Eric Idle: A Monty Python Legend Looks Back” — “A few years ago, Eric Idle told Rolling Stone 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.”
Editor’s Note: The book excerpt below contains some explicit language.
Excerpt from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by Eric Idle
The miracle of Brian is that it got made at all, which was entirely due to the generosity of George Harrison. Asked why he mortgaged his Henley home to pay for the entire $4.5 million budget of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, he said, “Because I wanted to see the movie.”
It’s still the most anyone has ever paid for a cinema ticket.
The idea for Brian had sprung from an ad-lib I made at the opening of The Holy Grail in New York in April 1975.
Journalist: Mr. Idle, what is your next film going to be?
Me: Jesus Christ, Lust for Glory.
Interestingly, the Pythons began to take my gag seriously. Gilliam and I improvised disgracefully on the theme one drunken evening in Amsterdam, using highly blasphemous jokes, for which I blame the beer, but it was John Cleese who really liked the idea of doing something about religion. Nobody had ever done anything on the subject. It was a big blank space for comedy. We began by doing research, reading biblical history, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Apocrypha, some of the weirder books that never made it into the Bible. We screened some of the hilarious Hollywood movies made about Christianity: The Robe, The Shoe, Ben-Him, Ben-Her, you know the sort of thing. They were magnificent mainly for the appalling acting of major Hollywood stars that made us laugh a lot.
John Wayne: Shirley this man was the son of Gawd.
We agreed early on, you couldn’t knock Christ. How can you attack a man who professes peace to all people, speaks out for the meek, heals the poor, and cures the sick? You can’t. Comedy’s business is some kind of search for truth. Clearly this was a very great man, leaving aside for a minute his potential divinity. No, the problem with Christianity was the followers, who would happily put each other to death at the drop of a dogma. You could be burned alive if you didn’t believe Christ was actually in the Communion wafer (what, cannibalism?), and they are still bickering about whether gluten-free bread constitutes the real Christ or not. I mean, it’s nuts. Christ admired, saved, and protected women. The followers denied them, locked them up, and insisted in about the twelfth century that the clergy become celibate, with highly predictable results, from popes shagging their daughters to pedophilia.
What we needed for our purposes was a surrogate for Christ. So Brian was born. For a while he was just one of the followers. He was given the job of trying to book a table for the Last Supper:
“Sorry, mate, it’s Seder; we’re fully booked.”
“No, we can’t do a table for thirteen. I can give you one of six, and then another for seven over by the window.”
“Why don’t you want to use both sides of the table?”
At this stage Brian was just a writer, like the other followers who gave the Messiah tips on his speeches: “Lose the bit about the meek, they’ll be too timid to turn up anyway, hit ’em with a couple of beatitudes, the parable about the Samaritans plays good, render a bit unto Caesar so as not to offend the Romans, and then end with the trick of changing the water into wine. That’s always very popular, everybody has a good drink and you’re home and dry.”
People say, “Oh, you’d never make fun of Mohammedans,” and of course not. We’re not Muslims. We were brought up as Christians. I was sent to church twice every Sunday from the age of seven to nineteen, and I loved the language of the King James Bible. I must have heard it read aloud at least three times in chapel. At the age of fourteen I was confirmed by the Bishop of Something, and I even for a while was a believer, but when a boy asked our Padre at school whether he thought Jesus was the son of God, he surprisingly answered: “Well no, old bean.” That from the Padre. So, we had earned the right to examine Christianity, and we treated it seriously. People who thought we were attacking Jesus clearly never saw the movie. He is in the film twice: once at his birth, where it is made very clear that Brian is born next-door and the Three Wise Men have come to the wrong stable, and once at the Sermon on the Mount, where the crowd at the back, quite reasonably, can’t hear very well.
“I think he said, ‘Blessed are the Greek.’ ”
Our movie became about the followers, the interpreters, the exploiters, and the profiteers, the people who seek to control those who wish to believe. A perfectly legitimate target for satire, and one appreciated by many people in the Church, who understood the joke is not about Christ, but about man.
Yes, alright, Stan.
To avoid cheap blasphemy gags, and really examine the subject, Brian became a man who suffers the awful fate of being mistaken for the Messiah. A terrible nightmare. No matter what he does or says, he cannot refute it.
“I’m not the Messiah.”
“Only a true Messiah would deny his divinity.”
“Well, what chance does that give me? Fuck off.”
“How shall we fuck off, O Lord?”
Brian, of course, is a tragedy. Pursued by his followers and wanted by the Romans, he is captured and sentenced to death by crucifixion, then the major form of execution used throughout the Roman Empire.
“What will they do to me?”
“Oh, you’ll probably get away with crucifixion.”
“Get away with crucifixion?”
“Yeah, first offense.”
Mass crucifixions were common. Two thousand of Spartacus’s followers were crucified along the Appian Way. Some were even set alight. (An early form of street lighting.) There is nothing special about crucifixion. In a different century Christ would have been hanged and his followers would all now wear nooses. But in March 1976 it gave us a big problem with the script. With Brian and many of his followers headed for death, how on earth were we going to end the film?
I had a lightbulb moment.
“Well, it has to be with a song,” I said.
“A song. Sung from the crosses. A ridiculously cheery song about looking on the bright side. Like a Disney song. Maybe even with a little whistle.”
And they laughed.
“Like a sort of Spartacus musical,” said someone.
“They can dance, too,” said Gilliam with a gleam in his eye.
And they laughed at the idea that it could become a big production number.
And then everybody said, “That’s it! We’ve got our ending. Hooray, let’s go home for the day!”
So, it went into the script as “I’m Looking on the Bright Side,” and I said, “I’ll write it up,” and I took home some notes I’d scribbled on the back of the script, got my guitar out, and it didn’t take very long at all.
The first thing I wrote was the whistle (G/Dm7/Am7/E7) using jazz chords that I had learned from the Mickey Baker guitar course. It took me maybe twenty minutes to sort out the basic shape of the song using major sixths and minor sevenths and the very useful diminished chord, which George Harrison told me the Beatles called “the sneaky chord.” The verse also appeared very quickly: Am7/# (sneaky)/G/Gmaj6 / Am7/# (sneaky)/G and the words flowed quite simply. After about an hour I had to stop and collect Carey, who was now three years old, from nursery school, and I remember driving home in a hurry so I could play him what I’d written. He really liked the song with its whistling chorus. I had changed the lyric to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to fit my tune, and I recorded it then and there on a little Sony tape recorder, which I still have, and played it the next day to the rest of the chaps. They seemed to like it.
Excerpted from ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle. Copyright © 2018 by Rutland California Weekend, Inc. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House.
Tania Ralli produced this show for broadcast.
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