Eric Idle, still looking on the bright side of life
In Eric Idle’s loosey-goosey new memoir — he calls it a “sortabiography” — the comedian tosses off an aside about Monty Python, the sketch-comedy group with which he made his name.
“I think all the Pythons are nuts in some way,” he writes, “and together we make one completely insane person.”
Despite the offhand manner, there’s a shiny nugget here. How, exactly, are each of the Pythons — John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and the late Graham Chapman — crazy in their own way?
“Oh, I’m not sure I can entirely do that,” Idle replies diplomatically. He’s about to embark on a brief theater tour in support of the new book, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”’; the Boston date is set for Thursday at the Wilbur, hosted by Brookline Booksmith. And he’s happy to take yet another look back at all the comic mayhem Monty Python wrought, on its BBC series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and in the classic movies “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” It’s just that he’s too congenitally polite to talk out of school about his once and future mates.
“It’s big trouble,” he continues, before giving it a tentative go. “‘Eric Idle says Michael Palin is nuts because he always talks about himself, and he pretends to be modest but writes diaries every day.’”
With a laugh, he stops himself there. The surviving Pythons are still meeting semi-regularly; they still have a manager, and there are plans to celebrate next year’s 50th anniversary. (The original show debuted on the BBC in 1969.)
Actually, Idle says, Monty Python’s preposterous blend of gags, misunderstandings, perturbations, and stiff-upper-lip Britishisms might be blamed not on the members’ deficiencies, but their mums’. Where else would all those high-pitched, hairy-legged, purse-clutching characters have come from?
“We all had difficult, strange mothers,” he says cheerfully. In fact, in the book he explains how his mother sent him at age 7 to a boarding school for boys who’d lost their fathers in World War II. When his mother dropped him off (“dumped me there”), she didn’t say goodbye.
“Well, I didn’t want to cause a fuss,” she told him later.
All these years later, he understands, sort of. “They’d just come through a war. There were reasons to shut up and get on with it,” he says.
However, in all his years living in Los Angeles, he’s spent plenty of time on the psychiatrist’s couch.
“Emotionally, shrinks are just appalled by that,” he says — by the idea that any mother could treat a child that way. “And you laugh, because laughter is the correct response, in the end.”
Ah, the end. Idle’s close friend, the late Beatle George Harrison, was known for his spiritual quest, but he also had a wicked sense of humor, as evidenced by the fact that he bankrolled “Life of Brian,” the Pythons’ ruthless spoof of Christianity. How did he manage to reconcile those two facets of himself?
Simple, Idle says: because both religion and comedy are ultimately about facing death.
Asked who he considers to be his best friends these days, Idle says, not unhappily, “The sad news is, when you get to my age, they die.” (He’s 75.)
Actually, he’s come to think that comedians just don’t have many friends. He’ll name a few: the comedian and onetime “Saturday Night Live” cast member Kevin Nealon. David Mirkin, who created Chris Elliott’s “Get a Life” and co-wrote “The Simpsons Movie.” Jim Piddock, a fellow Brit who has appeared in many movies, including the mockumentaries “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind.”
Idle, who cofounded the Beatles parody the Rutles and titled his book after the whistling ditty he wrote for the shameless crucifixion scene in “Life of Brian,” has always enjoyed the songwriting process. He counts ELO’s Jeff Lynne as another of his dear friends.
“I like people who play guitar and are funny,” he says. “That about circumscribes my social life.”
Like most of the Pythons, there have been times over the past decades when he’s wished he wasn’t entirely defined by his association with the group. He’s appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, written a couple of novels, and helped create the stage show “Seussical.”
In the end, however, he’s pleased to keep the Python spirit alive. He is, after all, the one who adapted “Holy Grail” into the hit Broadway show “Spamalot.”
“We’ve had time to do other things, and they were whatever they were, and people still want to talk about Python,” he says. “I think that’s quite nice. I mean, how many different things must you do in one lifetime?”
‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ with Eric Idle
Hosted by Brookline Booksmith. At the Wilbur, Oct. 4, 7:30 p.m. Tickets $40. www.thewilbur.com