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There’s plenty about the life of comic genius Eric Idle to feel bright about – decades of irreverent, mostly silly fun with Monty Python.
Eric and the rest of the Monty Python gang found our funny bones in the late 1960s. Just as British artists like the Beatles were taking music to new places, Monty Python came up with something completely different. They were comedic anarchists, poking fun at the institutions and attitudes that were quintessentially British.
“When Python started, people found it very offensive. The middle classes found it very offensive,” Eric Idle told Sunday Night’s Steve Pennells. “I think they hated us. We were saying and doing things – which at that time was 1969, 1970 – [which] were not acceptable to say.”
It was while Eric was at the prestigious Cambridge University – a breeding ground for generations of brilliant comics – that he learned the art of humour. While there, Eric met fellow Python John Cleese, who invited him to join the Footlights Dramatic Club.
“My life changed,” Idle explains. “We had this fabulous life, and then I learned from all these other people how to do comedy; you watch them doing it.”
Monty Python grew from a cult following into a BBC TV hit that ran for five years. Made up of Eric and John with Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman and Terry Jones, it quickly won fans around the world – including Australia – where the Pythons had more than a few laughs at our expense.
The Pythons hit stardom at a time when they shared hotels on Sunset Strip with the biggest and rowdiest stars. Idle remembers them staying at the infamous Riot House: “[The Who’s] Keith Moon, I think, drove a car into the pool. In those days, they’d throw televisions out of the window. Once, we just ripped a little piece out of a Gideon’s bible, just to show that we were part of the same generation.”
While Eric mightn’t have been tearing up hotel rooms, for a while he did live the rock ‘n’ roll life. His marriage to Australian actress Lyn Ashley was among the early casualties.
“You’re going around Canada and all these people are going crazy,” Idle reveals. “Was I not married, it would have been harmless, but I was and that was not great. [It] wasn’t good behaviour at all. It ended the marriage absolutely, and I said in my book I learned the valuable lesson: you should only disappoint one woman at a time.”
When their TV show ended in 1975, the team moved on to movies, and called on their rock star mates to invest in the first – Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Idle recalls how they managed to fund the film. “Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull. All of them put in 10,000 [pounds] each to make the budget, which was 200,000 pounds.”
Not long after releasing The Holy Grail, Eric met former model Tania Kosevich. 41 years later, they’re still together and have a daughter, Lily.
Around that time, Idle also met someone else who would change his life forever – George Harrison. “We talked all night,” Idle remembers their first interaction. “He just wanted to know all about Python, and of course I wanted to know all about the Beatles, and so we talked, talked, talked all night. He was very open. He was an extraordinary man.”
George and Eric became the best of mates – so close that when the backers for Monty Python’s most controversial film, The Life of Brian, got cold feet, George stepped in.
“He mortgaged his house and paid for the Life of Brian because he wanted to see the movie,” Idle reveals. “It’s still the most anybody has ever paid for a movie ticket.”
Life of Brian, which parodied the life of Jesus, would be Monty Python’s biggest hit – and the protests against its release across America only helped its publicity.
The film is now considered a comedy masterpiece, but at the time the Pythons struggled to write a suitable ending.
“We didn’t know how to end the film because all our characters were headed for crucifixion,” explains Idle. “So it was my idea, well let’s end with a song. I said, ‘Well we can have a cheery song on the cross, cheery, like a Disney song with a whistle and everything,’ so then I just went home and wrote it and I brought it back the next day and they hated it.”
But their fans loved it, and it took on a life of its own. Eric was even asked to sing it at the 2012 Olympics, and has become the most requested song at funerals in Britain. “Since 2004, it is, it replaced My Way,” Idle laughs. “I beat out Sinatra and Elvis. There’s no money in it, but you know. You need a laugh when you are grieving, and that delivers it.”
Eric Idle has just released a memoir he calls a sortabiography. It’s aptly called Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, and is available now.
Eric will also be touring Australia next month – head to www.ericidle.com for more details.
Reporter: Steve Pennells
Producer: Sandra Cleary