Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography
by Eric Idle
This is an autobiography of a very funny writer and performer. The book includes many stories of how Monty Python projects came to be. But it is also the story of friendships and the healing power of comedy.
Idle attended Pembroke College at Cambridge University where he joined a theatrical group called the Pembroke Players. “On my debut they gave me a piece to perform written by John Cleese. John wasn’t at Pembroke, but he dined there every night.” Cleese attended Downing College. “In my final year at Cambridge I became president of Footlights… I single-handedly altered the rules of this 1883 organization to permit women to join as members.”
It’s… “Monty Python itself was the result of a collision between Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last the 1948 Show, when the creators of the former (me, Mike Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam) rammed into the remnants of the latter (John Cleese and Graham Chapman).”
Writing. One thing that comes through in this book is that the Pythons were first and foremost writers.
“We became fairly good at editing our material. ‘That sketch was really funny until page three and then it just went on and on.’ Honesty from people you trust is very useful, and often we would swap sketches around and let someone else have a go at finishing a piece.”
“In those days executives seemed to feel that if you could lure one or two Pythons into a project, the audience would think it was a Python film. It never worked. What they failed to notice is that it’s the writing in Python that makes the difference, and it takes all of us.”
The Life of Brian. EMI backed out of a deal to make The Life of Brian. “The miracle of Brian is that it got made at all, which was entirely due to the generosity of George Harrison. Asked why he mortgaged his Henley home to pay for the entire $4.5 million budget of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, he said, ‘Because I wanted to see the movie.’”
“Comedy’s business is some kind of search for truth… Our movie became about the followers, the interpreters, the exploiters, and the profiteers, the people who seek to control those who wish to believe. A perfectly legitimate target for satire, and one appreciated by many people in the Church, who understood the joke is not about Christ, but about man.”
Tania. Idle met his wife Tania at a Saturday Night Live after-day at Dan Aykroyd’s loft. “We were married in May 1981 in Susan and Lorne Michael’s apartment in New York, with a party afterwards upstairs at Paul Simon’s.” Interesting trivia I learned from this book: Lorne Michaels was a writer on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In prior to becoming SNL executive producer.
Paul Simon. “I went in hospital for an emergency appendix removal. Ten days later, after a very jolly visit with George Harrison at Friar Park celebrating my new appendix-free life with champagne and curry, I was rushed back into intensive care green in the face… Paul Simon called me as I was recovering, and I told him I was like a big gas balloon waiting to explode. I said, ‘If only I could pass wind I might begin to come back to life.’”
“‘Helping people fart is a service I happen to provide,’ said Paul, and that did it… I laughed so hard I began to fart. It was loud, long, and deep, like a huge balloon emptying. It lasted for almost two minutes… When it was over I thanked Paul profusely.”
Graham Chapman. “Graham… had died with exquisite timing on October 4, 1989, the eve of Monty Python’s twentieth anniversary… On December 3, 1989, we all gathered in the packed Great Hall at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital for his memorial… Michael ended his eulogy by saying, ‘I’m not very sentimental, but as I look around at all these great people, I like to think that Graham is here with us all today. Well, not now… but in about twenty minutes.’ How ironic that Graham, who was always late, left so early.”
At the Aspen Comedy Festival in 1998, “we brought Graham’s ashes out onstage with us, in an urn, and placed them reverently on a low table, with a picture of Graham. We answered a few mild questions, and John was in the middle of a long reply, when Terry Gilliam crossed his legs and ‘accidentally’ knocked the urn off the table, scattering ashes all over the stage… We got up and did our best to clean up the mess, shoveling the ashes under the carpet, sweeping them into a tiny dustpan, and even bringing on a vacuum cleaner… It was certainly the longest laugh we ever got.”
George Harrison. Prior to being sent off to boarding school, Idle grew up in Wallasey, “across the River Mersey from Liverpool… I’d met a boy called George playing… on the sand dunes at New Brighton… Many years later, when I met George Harrison and we became close friends, I had a very strong feeling that we had met before, and I often wondered if he was the boy who bunked off with me that day.”
In his eulogy, Idle told this story about his best friend: “In the hospital, he asked the nurses to put fish and chips in his IV. The doctor, thinking he was delusional, said to his son, ‘Don’t worry, we have a medical name for this condition.’ ‘Yes,’ said Dhani, ‘humor.’”
Robin Williams. “I wrote ‘The Tale of the Frog and the Prince’ for Robin as the eponymous amphibian and Teri Garr as a petulant princess. One morning on set, I saw Robin in his frog mask with huge tears in his eyes, reading in Daily Variety that Mork & Mindy was being canceled after five years… He was very upset, and he gathered the crew around him and just let go on ABC. He was hilarious and brilliant, deeply hurt and dressed as a frog, and he just let it all out, trashing the network, lambasting the executives, naming the names and taking no prisoners. Ten minutes in which he killed us with his wit, scraped out every last scrap of resentment for our laughter, turned all the hurt inside-out with the truth exposed, so that at the end he was whole again and ready to work. What better example of the healing power of comedy?”
Sleeze. The book reveals several stories about the sleezy side of the entertainment business. A couple of them involve business manager Denis O’Brien. Another is about Universal Studios, which claimed it owed no royalties on The Meaning of Life because the film never made a profit. When Universal asked the Pythons for permission to release the movie on DVD, they refused since they’d never been paid. “Miraculously, the next day the movie was in profit.”
Random Funny Bits
“The beauty of ancient places is accidental; the ugliness of Vegas is planned.”
Steve Martin “was once prevailed upon to do a magic trick at a party at our house, which he did with great aplomb. A few days later one of Lily’s young friends said, ‘Hey, I saw your magician on TV.’”
David Begelman “was a top studio executive who had been an agent and was currently in the middle of a big scandal for forging his client Cliff Robertson’s signature on his paychecks. I approached his table with a pen. ‘Excuse me, Mr. Begelman,’ I said. ‘Big fan. May I have Cliff Robertson’s autograph?’”
Idle, Eric. Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: a Sortabiography. New York: Crown Archetype, 2018. Buy from Amazon.com
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