Eric Idle

Like many other successful British comedians, Eric Idle has had a widely variable career touching nearly every medium imaginable. He's been a scriptwriter for radio and television. He's written a science-fiction novel (The Road To Mars), a variety of comedic songs, and a play (Pass The Butler). He's performed in The Mikado. He's scripted, directed, and starred in a popular Beatles-parodying mockumentary, 1978's The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. (The 2002 sequel, Rutles 2: Can't Buy Me Lunch, has not yet been released.) He's scripted, scored, and recorded a children's album; done voices for video games, The Simpsons, and a variety of animated films (including The Transformers: The Movie and South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut); starred in such movies as Nuns On The Run and Splitting Heirs; and appeared as a regular on the NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan. But Idle's greatest comedic legacy still comes from his role in Monty Python. As a member of the legendary comedy troupe, he wrote and performed on the endearingly unpredictable TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus for five years in the late '60s and early '70s, appeared in and wrote songs for an assortment of spin-off movies, and performed the group's skits and songs live on stage. In recent years, Idle has embarked on a solo tour of America (where he has lived full-time for the past eight years), performing Python comedy sketches and songs in a revue he dubbed "Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python." Earlier this month, he released Rutland Isles, a comedy album full of short songs and sketches that serves as a purported travelogue of a fictional archipelago. Recently, Idle spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the album, the Python legacy, how he gets away with calling all the shots in his career, and why there's no point in complaining about his fans' Python fixation.

The Onion: Over the years, you've done a lot of projects with "Rutland" in the title, or with Rutland connections. Where did the Rutland idea come from?

Eric Idle: Rutland is the name of the smallest county in England–roughly 42 square miles. It's over a thousand years old. In the '70s, the Conservative government voted it out of existence and re-planned it into some other state. So in the '70s, I did a television program called Rutland Weekend Television, which purported to come from there, from the tiniest of all television stations. It's just a useful parody of the small and the large. But I'm happy to say that 10 years ago, it came back into existence. The Conservatives were forced to withdraw, and it came back into being as a separate county, so the story has a happy ending. Plus, it means "land of rut," which I like. It has strong sexual connotations.

O: You certainly play off that on your new album. There's some off-color material that...

EI: It's blue, not off-color.

O: What's the difference?

EI: [Laughs.] Well, it's filth.

O: Do you ever have problems with censorship these days?

EI: Well, yes! Constantly! I tried to do a direct-sell thing with this album, for television, and there was no title they'd even play, among the songs. When you list them as titles, like "Muff Diving" and "Gay Animal Song"... They wouldn't list them. It's a persistent bother, but that always amuses me. When you have the right-wing people in charge, that's what you get. John Ashcroft covering the bare breasts on the statue of Justice... I don't think you could get any better symbol than that.

O: Has there been any difference in...

EI: Oh, it's much worse, absolutely.

O: Even since the Python days?

EI: Absolutely! In America? I'm not really qualified to say about England, because I live in America. England, I think, went through another liberalization program, with the Blair government, about 10 years ago. This one is rather more open. Things swing, like a pendulum swings. It tends to represent the government in power, the sort of thinking in power. Some of them don't like freedom of speech. They hoard information because they don't trust people to make up their own minds. Now, when you say certain things aren't suitable for children, that's not censorship; that's sensible, although the kids will go straight there. But when you censor jokes but can have these rap songs on the radio, I think you hit the heights of absurdity.

O: Of course, rap on radio runs into censorship, as well.

EI: Yeah, I know. At least in America, you have freedom of speech, which is a good thing. It's just a question of whether you're allowed to use it on Fox News.

O: Did you have an audience in mind for the album?

EI: I never think in terms of target audience. I try to write what makes me laugh, so I'm the target audience. I guess I just hope there's another person in America like me.

O: Comedy albums in general aren't as popular as...

EI: They're dead. Utterly extinct. [Laughs.]

O: Why bring the form back?

EI: I'm drawn to things that aren't particularly popular at the time. I don't know why. It just seems to me that there's no particular reason comedy albums should be dead. There's a lot to laugh at. We have very funny people still. I wondered if there was a possibility of reinventing the form, or at least rediscovering it. What it is, really, is radio. My target is people driving. That's a good place to play an album like that–when you're stuck in a car, for a journey. Books on tape do very well, so why shouldn't one use its time to entertain people with comedy?

O: Is there any reason you feel attracted to things that aren't popular?

EI: For me, the great appeal to doing an album was that the medium is amenable–you can actually do it yourself. You can just take the lot and record it with a microphone in a garage. My friend John Duprez and I did all the music, just him and me. I play the guitar and he plays the keyboard, and then transmutes that into bagpipes and orchestras and anything that we want. It's all cleverly done in technology. So there's only two of us working on the album, though occasionally we get a girl or two to come in and do some singing.

O: Do you approach writing differently when you're writing something like Pass The Butler, where you're obviously not going to be the one performing all the roles?

EI: Each area that you work in has different rules, and has different things you can learn, and I like to do a new form each time in order to learn something different. If you're not learning anything, you're not really advancing. You're just staying safe. It's a wonderful thing to be able to write a play, because you have actors doing it onstage, and you can watch them do it. You can watch the audience laugh, and watch where they don't laugh, and the next night, you say, "Try this," and you get a bigger laugh there. That way, you can hone it and adjust it to the audience. With something like the album or a novel, you don't get a response, but you do have your own response. So what I tend to do is put it away for a couple of months, and I'll come back and play it, and it's sort of fresh again to me. I can see what I find amusing, and what is less funny. The secret is being ruthless with your own material.

O: Do you always follow that pattern? Writing something and then putting it aside for months?

EI: Absolutely. I've just finished another rewrite on a musical I'm doing for Broadway that I started this time last year. It's the thing we did on Python. Everything is much clearer when you put it away. And what you thought was great isn't necessarily so great when you re-read it, in hindsight, or when you've been working on something else. I don't think there's ever bad work–there's only unfinished work–and often, things are put out before they're ready. Often, if people don't want something, I just put it away and then come back and think, "Mmm. I see. They didn't like that bit. That's actually not working. Now, if I did this, that would improve it." Rewriting is the most important thing.

O: Isn't it fairly rare for a writer to have that kind of leeway?

EI: The reason is because I don't get paid. [Laughs.] This is the quid pro quo. You get final choice and can do exactly as you want. All you have to do is not receive any money for it.

O: You had that kind of lead time when you were writing for Monty Python?

EI: Python was very good at rewriting. And one of the advantages was that there were six people. So if someone wrote something out, you'd have another two or three brains saying "Hang on, that's good up to there, but it needs this," or "You should put that in there." You had, immediately, a committee of informed and intelligent readers, or listeners. And the other thing was, if you read it out loud to them, and they laughed, you didn't have to have any further discussion. If they didn't laugh, you couldn't argue that it was funny. We'd always read all Python material out loud, in order to get that very first response. Once, I picked up a [John] Cleese sketch and read it, and I thought, "This is really unfunny." Then I watched him do it about a week later, and I was distorted and convulsed with hysteria. It was entirely in the way he did it. Some people are funny enough to transcend their material, and can make you laugh just because they're funny. And then I think there's some funny material that, if you just do it, it will get laughs. You don't have to be that funny, as long as you just do it purely. I think a lot of Python material, strangely enough, as I found when I did my tour... The material was so funny that it didn't matter that there weren't other Pythons there. If you do it straight and in a Python way, you get the big laughs.

O: How was the "Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python" tour generally handled? You had other people taking on the roles of the other Pythons.

EI: Yes. My take was that comedy had become subsumed by stand-up comedy, which is a fine and wonderful form, but it had come to extremes–that's all that comedy was. It's one person out on stage. So I thought, "Aha, time to revive revue." So I went onstage with three girls, and a band, and some super guys. We did dancing, and singing, and costumes–I had like 22 costume changes–and we filled the stage with lumberjacks and nuns and bishops singing "Every Sperm Is Sacred." It was full-time, knockdown revue. Which is my background, which is what I like, which is where I come from.

O: Did you come up with the title?

EI: Yeah.

O: Were fans and promotions people comfortable with it?

EI: Oh, they thought it was hilarious. It disarms. I found for many years that I couldn't perform anything that I'd written, because it was Python, and I could never persuade the Pythons to get onstage and perform, so I was sort of banned from doing my own stuff. I couldn't sing my songs, because they were Python. This was a very good way of grasping the bull by the horns and saying, "Look, this is me doing my Python bits, playing things that I like." That was very liberating for me. It allowed me to do what I like doing most, which is performing live and making people laugh. For me, it was fun to see people come out from all over America who'd never had a chance to see Python live, who loved the stuff, knew the lumberjack song, wanted to be singing it... I think you could go on doing that show all the time, and people would never grow tired of seeing it. It's like seeing James Taylor: He's going to sing "Fire And Rain." It's like the Stones: We don't want the new stuff, we want the old stuff. There's something about the familiar that makes us very happy when we see it onstage: "Oh, I love this bit, I love this sketch." That was the response that you'd get, on my tour, certainly. No one had done any live Python performing since 1981.

O: Obviously, Python has opened up a lot of doors for you throughout your career. But at the same time, it's a hard standard to live up to. Do you ever get sick of talking about it?

EI: Well, I try and... My good friend was George Harrison, and he'd go, "Oh, here we go, the legend again." [Laughs.] I try to be as close to Ringo as I possibly can–he's the most Zen of the survivors of that group. He treats that time as a period he's proud of, and very glad to have been a part of. I can't leave my house without somebody saying "Python!" If you treat that as a source of irritation, you're just going to be irritated all day. But if you think about it, well, people genuinely like it, and all they're trying to say is that they enjoyed it, and "Thank you," in an odd way. You have to embrace that. Even if I decide I don't like it, what's going to happen? I'd just be cranky and run away and hide, and that's not an intelligent response.

O: What do you think people overlook about your career in the wake of Python? What would you prefer they focus on apart from the Python years?

EI: Well, I don't think I'm overlooked particularly. I'm a try-er. If you look at what I've produced–I've produced a novel, I'll go and do some opera, I'll go and write a musical–I like the challenge of something new and different. When I've finished a project, I like to think, "Hmm, now what am I going to turn myself into?" I have to have something to obsess about, and that occupies my intellectual quest for having something to worry about. [Laughs.]

O: What are you proudest of having done since Python?

EI: I thought The Rutles was the thing. I did another Rutles last year. I just got a camera and started to make a documentary. And I took my character that I'd been then, and thought, "What would he make now? He'd make another documentary." So I made Can't Buy Me Lunch. I went around to a series of celebrities and asked what influence The Rutles had had on their careers. I asked Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Salman Rushdie, James Taylor–hundreds of celebrities–for stories about The Rutles. And it was kind of liberating, and very interesting and inspiring, because it was like improvising with the famous, with the knowledge that they were also telling the truth. Quite frequently, they were close to revealing what they really thought about things that were going on, through the fiction of The Rutles, so you get some interesting responses. It gave them a license to tell the truth. I'm also proud of The Road To Mars, a book I published two or three years ago.

O: Is there any project you've worked on that you wish would fall into a pit and disappear?

EI: Well, there's quite a lot. I'm not very good when I get involved with big American projects, and I'm not particularly proud of what I do in those cases. My response to being on Suddenly Susan was wanting to get back on the road and do what I thought was funny. And that was trying to get back in touch with myself, and with the American public, saying "This is what I think is funny. Do you think this is funny?" And the response was very encouraging.

O: We've talked about writing for other people. What about performing things someone else has written? How do you respond to a script that you don't think is funny if you don't have the freedom to tinker with it?

EI: It varies. I haven't done an awful lot of that. Something on a sitcom, usually by the second or third take, they're happy to have any suggestion that you can make. But I don't do that much of other things, because I've gotten to an age where I'm dogmatic. I'd much rather do my own thing for no money. So I'm very difficult to represent. I'm the despair of the William Morris office. [Laughs.]

O: You've written for stage, TV, and film, and you've put out albums and books. Do you have one medium you prefer more than the others?

EI: I love songwriting. I'm a guitarist, and I love making up a song. I love it when I write a song with my partner, John Duprez, or even by myself, and we go into the studio and just make it happen. We go in with nothing, and by the end of the day, we've got it fully orchestrated, with backing and singing... It's lovely to come back with a CD that's done, and think, "That didn't exist this morning, and now look at it."

O: Have you ever wanted to get out of comedy and take on a serious leading-man kind of role?

EI: No, I'm too old to be a leading man. But I did play Alan Smithee in Burn Hollywood Burn. He's this sort of crazy director. That was kind of interesting and fun to do. Because [uncredited Burn Hollywood Burn director] Arthur Hiller, before he was removed from the film, did try... There were a lot of scenes that were cut, in which Smithee has a breakdown, and I had to scream and be in a mental asylum. And [screenwriter] Joe Eszterhas cut all that out, which was a pity, because it was the sort of humanizing side of the film, which it needed. Without it, it was just a series of sketches, which was unfortunate, to say the least. Acting is actually a lot easier than comedy, to be honest. Because with comedy, you have to generate a response, and if you don't get that response, you're failing. With acting, you don't have to do that each time. You just have to get to the truth of a scene.

O: You came straight out of school into TV writing, and you've had a lot of projects on your plate ever since. Has there ever been a point in your life where you were struggling for the next project and didn't know what you were going to do next?

EI: I never know what I'm doing next. I really don't. I don't know what I'm doing next now. I go and think, "Hmm, what do I want to do next? What would I like to write?" As I get older, I've gotten a little more greedy about not taking other people's paths, or taking what they offer you. I just try and keep to what I'd like to do, which is an artistic luxury.

O: Is there anywhere you feel you haven't been artistically that you still want to go?

EI: Well, how do you define what you haven't done? I'd like to perform on Broadway, but I have a daughter who's 12, and I'd like to see her go to college first. I'm not going to be an absentee father. I turn down things that would have me away for too long. I want to be a father. That's my best job. I love driving her to school. These are the things you can't replace. I tend to think life is much more important than show business. On the other hand, I do think it's interesting to come up with ideas and make things work, if you can get through to an audience and entertain them. For me, it's hard to get through to an audience. I mean, I did Can't Buy Me Lunch, and Warner has sat on that for about a year and a half. I did "Eric Idle Exploits..." as a TV show, so they have that, too. It's very hard to get these things out. I don't fit into any corporate pattern, which is good news and bad news. You can't have your own choices and determine how they'll be disseminated.

O: You have occasionally done Hollywood films, like Splitting Heirs or Nuns On the Run...

EI: Well, I wrote Splitting Heirs, and I produced it. I went to Hollywood and got the money for it, but went back to England and made it. That wasn't an easy thing to do, and they treated it with the correct amount of disdain that they should when you do such a thing for them. Nuns On The Run, again, that was something we sold through our own little company. Those were things we set up and sold. The corporate things I've done were things like Casper.

O: And what about Transformers: The Movie?

EI: Transformers: The Movie was a fabulous gig where they flew me on the Concorde to New York for a day's tape recording, and then flew me back. It was horrible whilst I was in there recording, because I didn't understand a word of what was going on. Lines like "Itchging ugh-gah bluhblah..." And they'd say, "No, no, the emphasis is on ITCH-ging." I'd be like, "What the hell are they talking about?" [Laughs.] I've never seen the movie. I make a practice of not watching myself, because I know I'd be disappointed.

O: Even your older work?

EI: Older stuff is fine. I was watching some Python the other night, and I thought it was quite amusing. I hadn't seen it for about 25 years, and that was kind of fun. But if I've just done something, and people say, "Oh, I saw you in that, and it was quite funny," I'll leave it at that. I won't go and check them, and think, "Oh, I don't agree with you. I thought it was crap."

O: When you do something like Casper, or Dudley Do-Right, or 102 Dalmatians, do they seek you out and say, "We have to have Eric Idle"? Do you actively try to get involved in other people's projects?

EI: Well, Casper was quite a while ago. I don't know what happened there. I think they ran me in to see Mr. Spielberg. Dudley Do-Right was with a very nice writer-director, Hugh Wilson, who called me and said, "Will you be in it?" I went up and did my bit, and I was writing The Road To Mars in a hotel room as it rained, as they shot in Vancouver. It was fabulous. I was holed up in the hotel, and every few days I'd go and do a bit of acting. But really, what I was working on was the novel. I've never seen the film.

O: Have you seen any of your major films?

EI: [Laughs.] Not recently. I'm in a lot of kids' stuff, so my daughter sees things and tells me what she thinks.

O: But you've seen Monty Python recently?

EI: Sometimes, when you're flipping through the BBC cable, waiting to see what's on, Python's on, and I'm, "Oh, look at that!" It's totally fresh to me now. I have no idea what's coming next, who's in it, who's doing what. I watched a whole episode the other day, and it was completely fresh to me. It was kind of fun. I thought, "Oh, this is what people go on about. This is very silly."

O: It must be strange to see your career from the outside that way.

EI: Well, it takes a long time, but that's the passage of time. These things were done 30 years ago and more. Memory being what it is and all, I've forgotten most of it.