By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, March 10, 2005
THE GREEDY BASTARD DIARY
A Comic Tour of America
By Eric Idle
HarperEntertainment. 325 pp. $23.95
In the fall of 2003 Eric Idle set off on a greedy bastard tour, as defined by a friend: "It's a rock-and-roll term" for a tour in which the star eschews the money-losing "full band with a big crew and tons of buses and lots of lighting and fireworks," and tours by himself, keeping all the money for himself. For Idle--he's the Monty Python star best remembered as the leering conversationalist in the "Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink" skit--it was a challenge. He had just turned 60, and this was something completely different:
"I am going on a bus tour of North America. . . . It may seem a little odd at my age to be heading out on the road, but I have never done this and it seems to have a romantic gypsy feel to it. I like the idea of slipping offstage into a bed that takes me to the next gig, rather than having to line up to show strangers my socks at airports. As Kevin Nealon so brilliantly observed: How selfish and unthinking of the shoe bomber. Why couldn't he have been the bra bomber? Or the panty bomber? Kevin is a spectacularly funny man. Will I still be funny? Was I ever? These are the sort of anxious thoughts that fill my mind as I head for Canada."
Idle writes in the present tense because he kept an online diary of the tour, posted regularly on the Monty Python Web site ( www.pythonline.com ) and now issued, somewhat revised, in book form as "The Greedy Bastard Diary: A Comic Tour of America." If Idle really was worried about whether he'd lost the comic touch, he was wasting his time. He is a very funny man, and this is a very funny book. To wit, here is Idle preparing to fly east, to start the tour in Vermont:
"I passed through Toronto Airport, qualifying nicely for all the extra searches available. Stopped for the third time in ten yards by an Indian gentleman, I ask him politely if I am irresistible to all Asian men. . . . The only compensation is that my hand baggage is then searched by three of the most beautiful security women I have ever seen . . . I cannot resist telling them this, and they smile in that way women have when you compliment them on what they know already. Having passed through more steps than a recovering alcoholic I am, finally, safe to travel. It has become so complicated to fly these days that sometimes I believe only a terrorist could get through an airport without a search."
Idle flew east alone, but he didn't go onstage or travel alone. "This is supposed to be a greedy bastard tour but sadly I have already strayed miserably from the concept and brought along a large cast to help me onstage and off," running to nearly a dozen, in a bus with a stateroom for the star, a television set with 200 satellite channels and a Game Boy. The tour, he quickly discovered, really was "for me . . . about turning 60, about nostalgia, about remembering old friends, and getting out and seeing the world before it's too late." It was also, as his fellow performer Peter Crabbe suggested, about "reviving vaudeville," an entirely admirable objective.
The tour started in Vermont and worked its way west, on a zigzag pattern that led some members of the troupe to insist that the schedule had been set by throwing darts at a map. By its conclusion in Los Angeles, the tour had lasted 80 days, covered 15,750 miles and featured performances in 49 cities. For Idle it may have been something of a sentimental journey, but it was also very hard work--not just the travel, not just the separation from his wife and daughter, not just the constant pressure to keep the show fresh and meet audiences' expectations, but the endless promotional appearances he was expected to do:
"You can see why most people in showbiz are mad. They spend their lives doing interviews and promos every day. . . . Being interviewed is anti-therapy: all questions and no answers. It's just not healthy for a human being. Add . . . managers and agents on the gravy train telling them how marvelous they are, doctors offering them surgery to become flawless, photographers flashing pictures, and the public fawning over everything they say, well, you're breeding monsters, aren't you? No wonder we like to see them in trouble in the tabloids. I have thought of trying to leak my own sex life to the tabloids to gain a little publicity, but I think MAN WATCHES TELEVISION is just not going to fly."
Along the way Idle permits himself a bit of introspection, recalling his difficult youth in a British boarding school, to which his overburdened mother sent him after his father's death just at the end of World War II. The boys captive there "called it the Ophny, short for orphanage," and Idle sarcastically recalls "pure bliss in the longest dormitory in Europe." He "grew up as a boarding-school boy behaving well publicly, doing as you're told, and you learned all sorts of survival skills, how to surf life without being drowned, how to survive on a smile and a song and a bitter sense of humor." Eventually he found his way into show business, hooked up with John Cleese, and soon Monty Python was born.
Idle's attitude toward Python is a familiar one: the mixed feelings of someone who acquired a clear identity at a fairly early age, moved along to other things, but in the eyes of others remains the person he or she once was. Like a star athlete who's gone on to success in business but is always a running back in the public's view, Idle just can't shake Python. At one event a woman came up to him and said, "You look more like you do now than you did then," to which he says, "Being an ex-Python is weird. I suppose we are all mistaken for the people we once were, that's what the fossilization of fame is all about, but we're not really them, are we? Those young men are long since gone. We have to talk about them as though we still are them, but we're not, you know. They were smart, young, and terribly clever. We older, wider, and grayer men are their descendants. I used to be Eric Idle in Monty Python. But now I'm not."
Wise and thoughtful words, to be sure, but only part of the story. Not merely did the crowds that came out for the greedy bastard tour know about Idle through his Python days, but they also paid their money to get a Python nostalgia rush--and the people who put the tour together did so in the full expectation that Python was what would sell. However much it may rankle with him, Idle is Python and Python is Idle, and that will never change. Even John Cleese, the most successful of all the Pythonites in post-Python days ("His control, his timing, his deadpan made him easily the funniest man of his generation"), will always remain the silly walker in many minds, mine included.
But even as Idle chafes under the Python label, he rejoices in it: "I think it is high time Python was recognized as a religion. People say it changed their lives. It seems to give people hope. They gather together in groups to chant mass quotes. We have all spent three days on a cross. And it would give us a very decent tax break. . . . if Scientology can be rated a religion then Pythology ought to qualify under any decent tax system." Hear, hear.