Column: ‘Monty Python’ comedian Eric Idle’s anarchic humor heads for the Huntington archives
You can see it on television, you can watch it online, you can even find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, as a compound adjective -- “Monty Pythonesque,” meaning possessing the surreal comedy of the BBC sketch show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” It was created a half-century ago by a half-dozen amusingly off-kilter wits and humorists who then made “Python” a brand in film as well as television. One of them, Eric Idle, has to his credit novels and nonfiction and, perhaps most splendidly, the musical “Spamalot,” a Tony-winning Arthurian sendup, which is, as they say, soon to be a major motion picture. Soon -- really. Idle lives in Los Angeles, and after one particular tour of the Huntington Library in San Marino, he was invited to make his 50-plus years of notes, scripts, librettos, letters, scores and to-do lists a part of the Huntington’s archives. Here he explains how it happened, and why, and a few other subjects that are completely different.
“Donating one’s papers” sounds very grand. How did this happen?
It happened because my wife and I sponsor something called the Idle Scholar, which brings somebody out from Pembroke College, Cambridge, to [fellow Python Terry] Gilliam’s college, Occidental, for the three months at the United Nations where they’re interning.
In the first year, we took the winner, a young lady, to the Huntington, and it was lovely. Then they showed us around the library, because we were all very interested in the new modern library which they’d finished building.
And they took us down in the crypt, where all the bodies of literature are buried. There were these wonderful air-conditioned rooms of these [archival] drawers that slid out, and there were these wonderful notes from great writers -- also from anybody, really.
So I thought, all this would be great. I’d love for my stuff to be here. And they said you can -- would you? And I said, of course, that would be fun.
So that’s where we’ve gone, bit by bit.
It’s like the Poets’ Corner of California!
Or the comics’ corner! But it’s quite interesting going through your [storage] lockup, because you find all sorts of little gems. There’s all the Python stuff, you know, original scripts and typed-up first versions and all sorts of stuff, which is of interest to everybody but me.
I actually really wanted to be in one of those drawers myself, because it’s so pleasant and air-conditioned in there, and there’s something to read, but I don’t think they do that yet.
I do have one line [from a Monty Python song ] which I’m very, very proud of. It’s called “Medical Love Song,” and it says, “I left my body to science, but I’m afraid they’ve turned it down.”
I’m going through stuff too, which is of interest -- to me, anyway: finding old scripts and things you’ve forgotten you’ve written. And there’s a lot of stuff, nice letters from people in the days when people wrote letters. There’s stuff from Mike Nichols and Carrie Fisher and really funny stuff that people wrote to me, and my [fellow Python] Michael Palin letters from over the years.
You save them because you don’t think they should be thrown away, but they are not much use to anybody except somebody researching who-knows-what in the future.
Among the papers must be material you used for your “Sortabiography” in 2018. Now that it’s out, do you look at that book and think, “Oh, I forgot all of these other things -- I have to write another one”?
Well, yes, there’s a whole part of my life I left out, which I’m working on now. It brings in anecdotes; I think people like the anecdotal qualities of them, where you’re telling funny stories about funny people.
That’s entertaining. Of course, there are in a lifetime -- my lifetime, 76 years -- there’s a lot of stuff, and I’m sure I’ll come across things that will remind me of things that happened: you know, letters and incidents. I look forward to that, in a way, going through it.
You speak of the scholarship that you’re sponsoring. There is at Emerson College a comedic arts BFA degree that’s ...
Wow! Are they looking for a -- do they give tenure? Where is Emerson College?
It’s 3,000 miles the other way; I don’t know that you’d like the cold.
The cold zone, right?
Yes, it is.
No, no, I don’t do cold any more!
Can comedy be taught?
Well, it can be learned, put it that way. The great thing of the Footlights [theatrical] Club in Cambridge was you learned by watching other people be funny and doing it, and then trying it yourself, writing or going on stage and trying to be funny and then getting laughs or not laughs.
And it weeds out the people who are not funny. They think they’re funny and then get silence. It’s hard for them to continue arguing that they’re funny when there’s silence. So in a sense, yes, you could teach comedy.
It’s interesting because it would be hard to teach it now, because you can’t say a lot of what we used to find funny -- in my lifetime anyway. I think comedy does pertain to the moment. So you have to listen to what’s acceptable to be said now, because things change. And the point of comedy is actually supposedly to change them by recognizing such things are absurd.
Is there a distinction to be made among comedy, humor versus wit? Are they different things?
Yes. I’m very fond of wit and I find it everywhere. For example, Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” currently on in L.A. is witty -- specifically witty. It’s not just -- it isn’t funny; he’s not being gross. It’s kind of witty because it’s commentating on things it assumes we know.
I like that. I find it in all sorts of things. Some people’s photography is witty. You’ll find it in painting; there’s some wit in Magritte. The essence of wit is to comment on the moment and to draw other sources into it, referring to other sources.
And comedy is broader?
Oh yeah. Comedy contains many things. It contains slapstick, different types, styles of comedy.
In many ways “Python” was fortunate because there were five writers and one animator and each had a slightly different style of comedy and it’s a sort of portmanteau of comedy things. And if you don’t like that thing, there’ll be something else along in a minute or two quite different – completely different!
You’ve lived here for quite a long time.
Twenty-five years currently.
Have you seen and thought about the difference between British humor -- comedy, wit -- versus the American version?
Well, I think they’ve both lost their sense of humor. Mad as hatters. Both countries have gone completely bonkers.
But I used to say that the difference between English and American humor was American humor paid better, which is also true.
The English are much better at making people laugh at themselves, yourself. They invite you to be laughed at. Whereas American humor, if it gets on television or in films, [Americans] tend to want to be taken seriously and loved as well as laughed at.
The English don’t fall for those two things. They both weaken comedy. If you need to be loved as well as being funny, then that’s not good at all. It’s like wanting to be liked as well as throwing up all over the place.
I don’t think “Python” ever tried to be likable. In fact, I think it was the opposite. We were very happy when we managed to offend people, and it’s slightly sad to me that nowadays everybody kind of likes or they don’t know “Python.”
In England, they haven’t had “Python” on since it finished. The BBC don’t play it, but we’re on in the rest of the world. We’re always on in America in some form or another.
Now we’re on Netflix, which is really extraordinary. The [“Python”] films have lasted too. The series has just been redone digitally, so it’s now enhanced extraordinarily from the ’70s. And it is very nice. I mean, it’s far brighter and smarter than it was when it was first released.
Yet people are not offended anymore; they’re feeling cuddly toward you?
Oh, I think offense is only a matter of time now. They just haven’t got round to it, really.
We always tried to offend. That was the point of it. Part of comedy should be offensive. You want to wake people up.
It has to be seditious.
I think it’s always seditious. But the most extraordinary thing to us has been that [“Python”] went to America and Americans loved it. That was always a given with us that they would never get it. It would be too local. The references would be obscure. So I’m amazed by that.
And I’m amazed by the fact that people are still talking about it and watching it 50 years later; it was the 50th anniversary this October.
That shouldn’t be. When we were doing it, comedy 1969, we weren’t looking back at the comedy of 1919 that much, you know?
Oh, hilarious year, 1919.
The flu [pandemic], you mean? They stopped killing each other long enough to get the flu.
Well, I think laughter and death are very close. I mean, I know that from my song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which is the No. 1 song at British funerals.
And at soccer games.
I understand that, because although it was once taken up by a team which was so successful, they had to drop it because it can only be sung when you’re losing. It doesn’t work when you’re winning at all.
I think because it cheers people up, and it also mentions death. People write to me and they say somebody died, their father, their uncle. And it just lightened the mood for that. It just gives them permission. And I think laughter at a funeral – at a memorial service – is very important. Because it takes that tension off us, and reminds us that we are still alive, and things are funny. And in the end, we are the butt of that joke.
There are people who try to be funny, as we were saying, and people who succeed and those who fail. Is Boris Johnson funny, for example?
No, no. He’s laughable but not funny. I was talking to Bob Newhart the other night. I adore him and cornered him for an hour and a half because I love old comedians. And we were talking about what Buddy Hackett said about comedy, which is very nice. He said, “I wouldn’t trust anybody on comedy unless they’d walked the 15 yards.”
He means from the curtain in the wings to the microphone. And the only people who can actually talk about it with importance are the people who’ve actually done it. And that does make it different as a form.
We, of course, never did improv, because we were writers. and our improv is in the writing room and then rewriting everybody, rewriting suggestions and throwing out ideas.
Once, we were in Canada and they gave us a room with four television cameras and some props and said: “Off you go then.” And we were awful – what do you mean, make it up? We don’t do that! We’re writers. That, I think, was the essence of “Python.” It was a writers’ group -- only writers were in it. I don’t think there was ever a show where the writers were in charge.
What is the status of the “Spamalot” movie?
We’ve got it all ready to go. And of course, Fox was swallowed by Disney and everything came to a grinding [halt]. I’ve got the greatest director on Broadway waiting to do it – Casey Nicholaw, who’s got so many hits on Broadway. He was our [“Spamalot”] choreographer, It was [director] Mike [Nichols] and Casey who made the show.
We’re keen to do this because it’s so not – it’s anti-“Cats.” I think there’s a big market and it certainly doesn’t cost $240 million. I mean, “Cats”! The great thing about “Cats” is it will become legendary as being hilarious.
Absolutely, inadvertently hilarious. We want to make “Bats,” but sadly we’re too old to do anything much.
We want “Spamalot” to be made. It’s in very good shape. And the musical still goes all over the place. It opened in 2004 in Chicago. So it’s 15 years since that and it’s still going strong.
[The “Spamalot” film] is not very expensive. But it is a musical, and it is funny, so there’s three strikes against it.
Did you ever step into the Christopher Hitchens fray about women not being funny? And do you want to?
Oh, absolutely. It’s completely wrong. Probably the only good thing I did in my life is when I was president of the Footlights [club] at Cambridge. It was men only. I became president and I immediately changed the rules and admitted women.
And then the first woman was Germaine Greer. How about that?
Yes! “The Female Eunuch”! Which is an odd title because I think she had more balls than any man I ever met.
She was hilarious. Hilarious. And she was very subversive. She came from Melbourne University: all sorts of antipodean habits of enjoying yourself.
So, yes, she was really funny. She did a nun stripping. She’d come onstage as a nun and then start stripping. That’s pretty subversive. And then she would just -- at the end, she’d get down to a bathing costume and then put flippers on and then go off into the sea.
Well, comedy is a good means of making a point that people wouldn’t listen to if you just tapped them on the chest and said, “Now see here.”
Yes, but I think making points is sort of a secondary thing. When it starts to lecture you, it stops being funny. Most people get news from comedy, which is really bizarre. If you think about 30, 40 years ago, there was the news and then there was comedy. Now it is sort of all mixed up into one -- on the late shows, anyway.
So a Cambridge man is now in California, and the archives of his comedy will be joining the Huntington’s English treasures, from Shakespeare to Gainsborough.
The Huntington is an extraordinary thing and people don’t know about it. I discovered it in the ’80s when I would go for tea because they have the greatest tea shop.
I remember in March 2003, when [President George W.] Bush started bombing Baghdad, I could look on television and it’s like they were bombing the Valley. They had these smart bombs which were apparently going to avoid children.
And we were so depressed, we just drove to the Huntington and sat in the Japanese garden. It’s a place that’s so spiritually calming.
And, they’re kind enough.
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