As a member of the comedy troupe Monty Python, Eric Idle’s name has been synonymous with British comedy for nearly five decades. It’s a history he’s relived in interviews but never in an official autobiography. A few years ago, when he spoke with Rolling Stone, he joked that he was working on his “posthumous memoirs,” but instead he’s decided to recount his life story while he’s still alive.
In his new book, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography (out October 2nd), he recalls how he broke into television, met his fellow Pythons and established a comedy empire with movies and live revues. Along the way, he shares stories of famous friends like George Harrison and Robin Williams, recalls how some of his most famous bits almost didn’t make the cut (nobody thought “Nudge, Nudge” was funny the first time he performed it; the “Bright Side” song was less Cockney) and recounts how he’s made a name for himself outside of Python. Here are 14 things we learned.
John Cleese wrote the first sketch Eric Idle ever acted out onstage.
At a Pembroke College comedy revue, Idle was asked to do a Cleese piece called “BBC BC,” in which he would play an Old Testament weather forecaster. “Down in the south, well, Egypt has had a pretty nasty spell of it recently,” he recalls saying. “Seventeen or 18 days ago, it was frogs followed by lice, flies and, last Tuesday, locusts. And now moving in from the SSE, boils.” Cleese was happy with the performance and asked Idle to audition for Cambridge University’s Footlights revue, where he would meet fellow future Python Graham Chapman.
Monty Python won the rights to Flying Circus in a legal maneuver.
When ABC and the BBC aired chopped-up versions of the show, the troupe’s legal counsel advised them not to accept a £2 million settlement. Instead, they asked for the masters and control over the series. “We may be silly but we’re not stupid,” Idle writes. They earned much more money from rebroadcasts of the show after that.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus almost had another, much sillier name.
“Michael [Palin] wanted to surprise a little old lady in Suffolk called Gwen Dibley by naming the show after her, but while that was funny, there were legal issues,” Idle writes. “In the end, John suggested Python and I suggested Monty after a chap with a mustache and a bow tie in my local pub.” Other possible titles included: Owl Stretching Time; A Horse, a Spoon and a Basin; Whither Canada?; The Toad Elevating Moment; and You Can’t Call a Show Cornflakes. The BBC’s contracts called it Barry Took’s Flying Circus, so they worked with it from there.
Terry Gilliam tormented the other Pythons on the set of Holy Grail with billows of smoke.
There was so much smoke on set that Chapman came up with a scale for it, Idle writes: “From one Gilliam, which was light mist, to 10 Gilliams, which was smoke so thick no one could see the actors.”
Idle formed a friendship with George Harrison over a joint at a Holy Grail screening.
Idle recalls being blown away by the first thing the former Beatle ever said to him: “We can’t talk here. Let’s go and have a reefer in the projection booth.” They did just that, a projectionist watching the icons of music and comedy light up as the movie played.
Around the time he came up with the Rutles, Idle also parodied the Who — and Lorne Michaels chose between them.
“I showed [Michaels] the Rutles gag and a parody of the Who’s Tommy called Pommy, about a deaf, dumb and blind man stuck in a Ken Russell film and his struggle to get out of the cinema,” Idle writes. Michaels ultimately went for the Rutles and got a feature-length film on the “group” produced through NBC.
An early idea for The Life of Brian was about one of Christ’s disciples.
Idle says that iteration of Brian would have had tasks like trying to book a table for the Last Supper and having to ask the maître D’ if everyone could sit on one side of the table (as in Da Vinci’s painting).
The troupe’s ideas for a third film were a lot stranger than The Meaning of Life.
The original concept was called Monty Python’s Fish Film. Possible plots included a story about World War III being “sponsored by advertisers” and another about explorers in the Hindu Kush.
David Bowie once asked Idle if they could work together but Idle wasn’t a fan (yet).
“He asked me to collaborate with him in making a Ziggy musical, handing me a tape of Diamond Dogs to listen to,” Idle recalls. “I didn’t know how to respond so I said, ‘It’s very loud.'”
Though he palled around with the rock elite, Idle couldn’t get them to be friends with one another.
“I would say to George [Harrison], ‘[Bowie is] wonderful and brilliant and funny,’ but then George would become very much a Beatle, ‘Oh, Bowie,’ he would say contemptuously to rhyme with ‘Bowwow,'” Idle writes.
Idle had an idea for a Holy Grail-type movie in the Nineties but the Pythons didn’t want to make it.
The idea was The Last Crusade, “where a bunch of grumpy old knights, loosely based on ourselves, are rounded up reluctantly to go off on a crusade, taking King Arthur’s ashes to Jerusalem.” Each of the surviving members declined for various reasons.
George Harrison had a sense of humor, even when times were bleak.
In 1999, an intruder broke into the former Beatle’s home and stabbed him repeatedly, even puncturing one of his lungs. When Idle spoke to Harrison after the attack, he writes, the Beatle said, “Why doesn’t this kind of thing happen to the Rolling Stones?”
Despite his show-stopping appearance in the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics, the Olympic Committee didn’t pay Idle with any swiftness.
Idle gave a rousing, hilarious performance of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to finish out the London festivities and had agreed to do so for a fee of only a pound. Thing is, he had to sue to get his money — a move he made mostly for a laugh. “[I] got my California lawyer to send them a letter demanding immediate payment of the fee of one pound,” he writes. “They did see the humor of this and sent a letter of apology with a one-pound coin Sellotaped to it. I told Tom, my lawyer, that, instead of his usual percentage, he could keep the entire fee.”
Monty Python almost agreed to a museum exhibition about them but ultimately decided not to.
London’s Victoria & Albert Museum wanted to make a retrospective about the troupe, similar to what they had done for David Bowie and Pink Floyd, but the two sides couldn’t see eye-to-eye on much. The comedians wanted to call the exhibit “Monty Python: The Same Old Bollocks,” which was turned down. So was “Monty Python Exposed.” The museum’s idea was to call it “From Dalí to Dead Parrots” and highlight how the curators thought surrealism had inspired the troupe. “Pretentious nonsense,” Idle writes. “We’re nothing to do with Dalí or Duchamp. For me, Python has always been about comedy. That is the art.” In the end, Python said no to the whole thing. Idle writes proudly, “The museum couldn’t believe it.”