Eric Idle is living legend.
Thank goodness for that. He started out as a TV comedian, he wrote in his wonderful book “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, a Sortabiography.” After that, he was a celebrity, then a star and eventually, he and the other brilliant comic writers and performers who formed Monty Python became icons. The next step was legend, and there he remains today.
He is in no hurry to advance to the next stage, he said. That is myth, which is only awarded after your death. Remain a legend, Eric.
At 76, Eric Idle rarely is. He continues to write, act and make appearances alone and with his fellow Python John Cleese, where they regale audiences with stories, skits and silliness. Several of their joint appearances — although I am not sure they still imbibe now — are on YouTube.
He also is active on Twitter, where he gave this fan a thrill by liking a pair of his comments. Having my words read, much less liked, by Eric Idle was better than any newspaper award I have jammed in a box somewhere.
I have been a fan for most of his career. Idle and the other Pythons did their BBC series, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” from 1969-74. It wasn’t shown in the United States until production had ceased, and it slowly became a hit, in many ways more popular here than in their native country.
I started watching it on South Dakota Public TV in 1976. Like millions of other young people, I was drawn to the irrelevant humor, the sharp satire and the pure silliness of it all. The occasional topless woman helped, too, I must admit.
In his book, Idle tells how he and Cleese and the other Pythons, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Terry Jones and Michael Palin, created this brilliant show. All but Gilliam were veterans of 1960s British TV and had started as writers and performers in university groups and touring companies. Gilliam was the lone American, an artist who added a strong visual sense to comics who were adept with verbal humor.
After the series ended, the Pythons made movies, either all together, in various combinations and on their own. “Life of Brian,” a biblical tale that was respectful to Jesus but mocked his followers to a hilarious degree, may be their best film. The movie ended with Idle singing his most-famous song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from a crucifix, as others nailed to a cross bobbed their heads and shuffled their feet.
The Pythons were never afraid to push the envelope, or even to tear it asunder and toss it to the winds.
In the book, Idle also reveals his fascinating personal life, as he found musicians and other comedians were major fans of Python humor. While he never met him, he learned Elvis loved their show and would imitate the high-pitched screeching of their characters. He was amazed and impressed, so he knows how fans like us feel about him.
He did befriend George Harrison and they became extremely close, brought together by a love of music — Idle is a talented songwriter and singer — and comedy. Harrison, dubbed “The Quiet Beatle,” was quite talkative, actually, and loved to share silly moments with Idle.
Monty Python was The Beatles of comedy, it’s often said. Both groups lasted a relatively short time in their original form, but their work is revered and repeated. People will love Beatles music and Python humor long after the men who created it have ceased to be, expired and gone to meet their maker, to quote the beloved Parrot Sketch.
Idle has enjoyed close friendships with Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Mick Jagger and numerous other stars who were drawn to the Python players. His personality obviously was a factor, as he comes across as ideal company in the book, up for a swim, a drink, laugh or cruise at a moment’s notice.
It wasn’t all laughs and parties, although both were in abundance. His father was killed in World War II and he spent most of his childhood in a boarding school, rarely seeing family. His first marriage collapsed, largely because of his wandering eye.
Finances were a concern at times, since the Pythons were paid modest amounts for their comedy-altering creations. The movies they did in their early years were underfunded and locations were often difficult and unpleasant, although Idle adapted to his surroundings and found fun around most corners.
Harrison, a treasured friend, died in 2001 following an attack from a crazed intruder who stabbed him repeatedly. Weakened, George died of cancer two years later, and Idle’s pain and sadness come through vividly in the book.
Chapman, who battled alcoholism, died of cancer in 1989. Williams committed suicide in 2014 and other dear friends have left the stage as well, their myths being launched.
But most of the Pythons remain, although they gave their final group performance in 2014 before adoring crowds in London, they vow. Jones is trapped in dementia and the others are slowed by age as well. But these legends laugh on, and for that, we remain grateful.
The pain and sadness are eclipsed by the wonderful humor they created. As Idle sang, the best option is to always look on the bright side of life, since life’s a laugh and death a mere joke. In fact, his song is now a popular tune at funerals, he reports in the book.
Here’s hoping it won’t be played at his for a long time. Keep doing that legendary stuff, Eric Idle.
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