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Eric Idle: A Python In Winter

British comedian Eric Idle performs during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games in August.
Adrian Dennis
AFP/Getty Images
British comedian Eric Idle performs during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games in August.

At the beginning of What About Dick?, a stage performance released this week as a digital download, writer/performer Eric Idle announces that the audience will be witnessing "Aural Cinema." The story — a tangential, broadly comic yarn involving the decline of the British Empire and "the birth of a sex toy invented in Shagistan in 1898" — is to be performed in the style of a radio play, with the actors (Russell Brand, Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly, Tim Curry and Tracey Ullman, to name five) reading their parts from scripts into enormous microphones. To the side of the stage, a visible sound effects man provides exaggerated clanking and whistling, while Idle himself narrates.

Now: knowing that this is an Eric Idle-scripted show called What About Dick?, does "aural" make you think of "oral," thus bringing to mind you-know-what? No need to hang your head in shame. For the next five or ten minutes, Idle and Co. proceed with a near-uninterrupted torrent of double-entendres about Dick, a character played by Russell Brand. At age 69, the man who sang "The Penis Song" in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life proves that he can still break new ground in the noble art of penis jokes.

"I think it's certainly going to go in the Guinness Book of Records for that," says Idle in an interview. "We took a lot out, actually."

In fairness, the male organ recedes to the background after a while — Idle can sense how long the audience will listen until it pines for jokes about other body parts. He talks about comedy in mathematical terms. "I think it's posing an equation: you say A plus B equals C, and hopefully that will be the laugh. And then if you don't get the laugh you can tinker with that — you might have to add in another element at the front to make it clear the thought you're trying to just push through at the speed of light."

Idle has described What About Dick?, which first played for a couple of nights in Hollywood in 2007 before returning for the performances released this week, as "Oscar Wilde on acid." Coming in the midst of a lucrative late period, this motto could double as the niche for the Python who struggled longest to find one. When Monty Python disbanded after The Meaning of Life, Idle developed projects that rarely saw the light of day, while becoming a fixture in movies both mediocre and sub-mediocre (Burn Hollywood Burn, anyone?). "You're kind of dragged into those things," Idle says of his work-for-hire. "Somebody says, 'Will you do this?' You go, 'Oh, alright,' and then after a while you go, 'Wait a minute, what am I doing, this is not what I like to do.'" For Idle, the nadir came with a stint on the Brooke Shields sitcom Suddenly Susan in its final season. "I was being paid not to be funny. And I was being paid enormously."

A creative turning point came in 2000, when Idle embarked on a cross-country tour, disarmingly titled Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python. "I went out on the road to discover what I still liked doing, what I still enjoyed about performing. And it was really doing my stuff, or Python stuff, or my songs, and making people laugh live in a theater." If the shadow of Python loomed large, he embraced it by creating Spamalot, the Broadway musical that turned Monty Python into a Times Square blockbuster.

Spamalot garnered criticism from Python aficionados for diluting the group's irreverent sensibility into something safe for tourists, families and Tony voters. In truth, that full title — Monty Python's Spamalot — was a misnomer. Freed from the "Monty Python" brand and all its philosophical implications, What About Dick? crystallizes Idle's late-period, dog's-breakfast style of comedy. It has some of the silliness of Python, and some of the attitude of Wilde. In its lesser moments, it suggests the nude-nudge comedy of Benny Hill (one character is called an "ass-trologist" for her ability to ... well, never mind). In its better moments, it recalls the BBC '50s radio comedy The Goon Show, for its dense, complicated wordplay ("Once upon a time there were two sisters, who lived in a rambling old Victorian novel") performed by a cheeky, ad-libbing ensemble. It's the kind of anything-for-a-laugh show where Eddie Izzard will recite a convoluted monologue in an Indian accent, and then comment on his appalling accent.

It's hard not to admire Idle for his independent spirit and his eagerness to use his Spamalot riches to follow his muse. Instead of another musical, he followed Spamalot first with a comic oratorio called Not The Messiah (He's A Very Naughty Boy), based on Monty Python's Life Of Brian, and now a pseudo-radio play. Not everyone would follow his biggest hit with two dead art forms. "It's impossible to follow Spamalot," Idle says. "Everything worked. All that's left is for nothing to work."

I ask Idle if this is a frequent dilemma in the career of an ex-Python. "Not always, because most of the things I've done were not instant hits. Python was not an instant hit. The Rutles was number 76 on the television ratings for that week. It's still being played. The Holy Grail — hardly anybody saw it. The TV shows were watched by a tiny minority of people on a Sunday night in England. So, it seems to me that these things become in hindsight hugely successful, but at the time not particularly successful. They're only successful on their own terms of succeeding and being funny for the few people watching."

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Will Sloan

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