Although ERIC IDLE was actually the second-youngest Python (Palin has the distinction of being the youngest by only a few weeks), of all the Pythons he’s the one who projected an aura of youthful rebellion. Cleese, only four years older by the calendar but light-years away in demeanor, might as well have been his father. He had rock-idol hair past his shoulders during the Python years, and even though it was mostly kept pinned under the wigs of his characters onscreen, the viewer sensed a certain anti-authority wickedness in his eyes.
Idle had none of the fuzzy, free-spirited anarchism of Jones & Gilliam, nor the warmth of Palin. You got the sense you didn’t want to piss him off. His writing and performances were more sharp-edged, and he quickly garnered the title “The Sixth Nicest Python.” With the Cleese/Chapman and Jones/Palin writing partnerships established early within the group (and Gilliam off doing his animations), Idle wrote solo. He didn’t mind, he said, but it did make it twice as hard to get his stuff in the show because he didn’t have a partner acting as a sympathetic laugh-track during group read-throughs.
As the group branched into other media, Idle began building a niche as the “musical” Python — he was a decent guitarist and had a knack for catchy, witty lyrics. Many of the more memorable Python songs came from him, including Life of Brian’s mighty “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life,” which has practically replaced “God Save the Queen” as the British national anthem. (Idle’s collaborator on some of the melodies was composer and arranger John DuPrez, who scored Brian and The Meaning of Life, and provided the music for Idle’s Spamalot, see below.)
Idle, like Cleese, has raised some eyebrows (my own included) for seeming to be non-discriminating with many of the projects he’s chosen over the last 25 years or so, leading to accusations of money-grubbing. Idle himself has sometimes played on this, naming his two concert tours the “Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python Tour” and the “Greedy Bastard Tour.”
However, on his highly interesting website (well, highly interesting to me — it’s mostly his “reading diary”), he points out that the majority of his recent projects have been taken on with no expectation of profit, and if you really break down his choices, a lot of his more dubious stuff was something that may have seemed genuinely interesting at the time, or was done as a favor to a friend. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.
BEST PROJECT: The Rutles — All You Need Is Cash
TV movie, first broadcast on NBC, March 22, 1978.
Rutland Weekend Television was part of the first wave of Python solo projects, coming to BBC screens in 1975, around the same time as Cleese’s Fawlty Towers and the pilot episode of Palin’s Ripping Yarns. Written by and starring Idle, and co-starring Neil Innes (another performer steeped in music and comedy — he was the leader of the quirky British cult act Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band), it was a sketch show based around the premise of being “Britain’s smallest television network” (a premise familiar to fans of Canada’s SCTV which began a year or so later). Under-staffed and low budget, the show came and went in two abbreviated seasons and hasn’t been seen much since. Idle himself owns the rights to the show, and has indicated he has no intention of re-issuing them in any form. So what is Rutland Weekend Television’s lasting legacy? The greatest Beatles parody/homage of all time, The Rutles.
The Rutles started life as a brief sketch on RWT, featuring Idle and Innes performing an original, note-perfect recreation of the circa-1964 Lennon-McCartney songwriting style called “I Must Be In Love.” It might have gone no further, but when Idle was the guest host of Saturday Night Live in the fall of 1976, he shared some clips from RWT. The Rutles caught the attention of SNL producer (and Beatles super-fan) Lorne Michaels.
There was always a mutual admiration between Python and SNL, despite their different approaches to sketch comedy. The Python shows were meticulously written over a period of months, rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed, then filmed and edited tightly, weeks ahead of airtime. An average SNL episode was written on the fly in a night or two, rehearsed once (twice if there was time), and thrown at the public, ready or not, live every Saturday night. The story goes that Chevy Chase met Lorne Michaels while both were in line to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The younger SNL camp idolized the Pythons, and the Pythons respected the fearlessness of SNL (they said it reminded them of their early days doing nerve-wracking live revue at their universities). Idle and Michael Palin guest-hosted several times each in the show’s first five seasons. Lorne Michaels believed there was a lot of potential in The Rutles, and produced a TV movie built around them — All You Need Is Cash. Presented as a fake documentary, Cash fleshed out the Rutles “story” from inception to break-up. From the grainy black-and-white of postwar Britain, through the colorful Pop Art and psychedelic eras, and finally the dawn of the cold, gray ’70s, Cash captured the feel of a “rockumentary” perfectly. (Just as RWT foreshadowed the more well-known SCTV, Cash beat This Is Spinal Tap to the punch by several years.) Each era got a few Innes songs that sounded so much like Beatles songs they circulated as Beatles “outtakes” on a few bootlegs. Creating style pastiches of early Beatles stuff is relatively straightforward — songs like “Hold My Hand,” “Ouch!” and “Number One” faithfully matched the energy and innocence of the early days. The band’s later, weirder era was probably more of a challenge, but the challenge was met. “Penny Lane” is recast as “Doubleback Alley,” “All You Need Is Love” is echoed by “Love Life,” and the psychedelic epic “I Am The Walrus” meets its doppelganger in “Piggy In The Middle.” And there are several others, each of them charming and matching the sound and feel of a different Beatles song…without ever becoming an outright Weird Al-style parody or stealing any of the original melodies (Innes had to go to court to prove it.)
The Rutles were played onscreen (mostly) by the musicians who created the soundtrack: Innes as “Nasty” (the John character), South African session musician and producer Rikki Fataar as “Stig” (George), and veteran British R&B drummer John Halsey as “Barry” (Ringo). Idle (“Dirk”/Paul) wrote the screenplay, acted, and co-directed, but did not perform on any of the actual songs. (Halsey’s former Timebox bandmate, Ollie Halsall, sung the “Dirk” vocals for Idle to lip-synch, and appears as “Leppo,” the early “fifth Rutle.”). Thanks to Lorne Michaels, the supporting cast was chock-full of SNLers: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner put in appearances, as does Michael Palin. Mick Jagger and Paul Simon appear as themselves, ruminating on the Rutles phenomenon. Watch closely and you’ll spot Ron Wood as a Hell’s Angel…and is that really actual Beatle George Harrison playing the TV reporter? I believe it is…
A little knowledge of Beatles history helps you get some of the jokes and references, but is not required. What did the Beatles themselves think? George actively participated in its production (he and Idle had been friends for awhile), Ringo has been overheard singing Rutles songs in private (particularly “Ouch!”), John refused to return his preview copy because he loved it so much, and Idle said McCartney had slightly ruffled feathers at first, but warmed up because Linda liked it. You will too.
WORST PROJECT: Splitting Heirs
Released by Universal Pictures, 1993.
It looks to me like Idle was trying create his own trans-Atlantic crossover hit by following the formula of A Fish Called Wanda: take two Pythons (in this case, Idle and Cleese) and two semi-bankable American stars (Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis are replaced here by Rick Moranis and Barbara Hershey) and combine them into a frenetic crime-caper comedy with lots of double-crosses and racing around in various states of undress. Wanda worked. Splitting Heirs lands with a thud reminiscent of a sack of wet halibut. Part of the failure is just the film’s look. Wanda had a certain richness and depth of field. On the other end of the visual spectrum, there was a certain breed of film comedy in the late ’80s and early ’90s that was shot in such a flat and stale way it makes the whole thing look cramped and low-budget even if it wasn’t. I’m not enough of a cinematography expert to put my finger on what causes this particular quality, but it can be overcome with a funny enough script and/or charming performances (So I Married An Axe Murderer comes to mind), or it can cause the film to shrivel and die right on the screen if the writing is half-assed (anyone remember Brendan Fraser’s Airheads? — same look).
Splitting Heirs has that cheap, flat look in spades, and it certainly isn’t redeemed by its flailing performances which start at “grating” and dial it up to “shrill,” nor by Idle’s painfully unfunny script. (Sample line: “I’m bisexual. When I want sex, I have to bi it.”) The story, such as it is, tells of a crass American interloper (Moranis) claiming to be the long-lost “Bournemouth Baby,” heir to a massive fortune, and the true heir’s (Idle) attempts to stop him by increasingly desperate and unbelievable means. Stretching credulity to its breaking point is the fact the the Bournemouth Baby went missing as an infant in 1967, and thus would be all of 26 in 1993 when the film was made. It’s bad enough that 40-year-old Moranis is supposed to pass for 26, but Idle is 50, and looks it — his cheeky rebel persona of the early Python years is not enough to disguise his wispy hair and deeply lined face. Adding insult to injury, the beautiful Barbara Hershey (45), plays Lady Bournemouth, Idle’s mother. Maybe Idle was going for a certain ridiculousness with the casting, but it doesn’t pay off in any way, and based on the tone-deaf cluelessness of everything else in the project, I don’t think it was intentional. Cleese is wasted in a glorified cameo (his stock-in-trade in recent years) as a bloodthirsty shyster lawyer, who pops up every few scenes to remind us he’s in the movie, too. A very fetching and unknown young Catherine Zeta-Jones trying her best is the only reason to stop a moment if this comes up on a channel surf.
SHOULD PROBABLY AVOID: The Road to Mars: A Post-Modem Novel (1999). I’m sure Idle knew going into this project that the parallels to the late Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books are absolutely unavoidable, and I’m sure he tried his best to make it a very different animal from Adams’ work — but it doesn’t happen. As I slogged through Road to Mars back around the time it came out, I kept wishing I was re-reading Hitchhiker’s instead. Maybe Adams has forever ruined anyone else’s attempts at blending comedy & science fiction writing, but whoever breaks that mold is going to have to try harder than Idle does here. Idle’s idea of attempting to re-imagine the chemistry and tone of the old Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “road” movies as a sci-fi novel is a good one, but how many good one-line ideas don’t survive the translation into a finished, long-form project? Dozens of my own, that’s for damn sure. The best parts of the book deal with the science fiction world Idle has created — the comedy portion falls flat, has an odd bitterness, and digresses too often into ruminations on the nature of comedy and the motivations of comedians.
Oh, and skip The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch, which Idle put together in 2002 without the participation of Innes, and consists of clips and outtakes from the first movie and new celebrity interviews. It sat on the shelf for three years before finally being reluctantly shoved out on DVD. A colossal waste of time. (The 1996 collection of songs put out by Innes, Fataar, and Halsey as The Rutles: Archaeology, is worth at least a single listen, however.)
WORTH CHECKING OUT: Monty Python’s Spamalot
Opened on Broadway, March 2005.
The stage adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, despite having “Monty Python” in its title, isn’t really Monty Python, of course — none of them appear onstage, and the lyrics and book were written by Idle on his own — but it is damned entertaining. Just as Holy Grail parodied epic historical films (and historical documentaries), Spamalot targets the overblown ridiculousness of Broadway musicals — and proceeded to win a Tony Award for Best Broadway Musical for biting the hand that fed it. Typical Python, really. Try to upset people and end up getting honored. I don’t know how well it works without having seen (and passionately loved) the Holy Grail film as I can’t wrap my head around anyone who hasn’t seen (and passionately loved) the Holy Grail film.
(The other Pythons have somewhat mixed feelings about Spamalot. Gilliam calls it “Python-lite,” Jones says it’s “not Python, it’s very much Eric” and says he really doesn’t see the point of it, but they’ve all voiced their general support, got their tuxes out of mothballs to attend opening week, and cheerfully admit they don’t mind cashing the checks that have been rolling in since its debut.) I saw the touring version of the show at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater in April of 2012. Broadway’s Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, and David Hyde-Pierce were long gone from the leading roles, of course (I would have loved to have seen those guys perform it), but the touring cast was spot-on, I laughed and clapped at all the laughing and clapping parts, and as John Cleese said “I defy anyone to go and not have a really fun evening. It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever seen and I think Eric did a great job.” A third U.S. tour is said to be in the works.
Spamalot at the Orpheum, April 2012
And check out his online reading diary, which is something I would like to do if I weren’t so deeply ashamed of most of what I read (on the desk next to me is Whatever Happened To Pudding Pops?: The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the ’70s and ’80s.)
The Pythons, 2013
George Harrison performs “The Pirate Song” on the RWT Christmas Special, 1975