When you have a tour guide as engaging as Eric Idle, you’ll gladly go wherever he takes you. The writer and comedian best known as a member of the British sketch troupe Monty Python has curated an intimate journey of what it was like to be a writer who suddenly found himself a massively famous actor.
Idle, who lives in Los Angeles, doesn’t just provide a detailed account of his days with John Cleese, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam; Idle’s relationships with celebrities such as Robin Williams, Mike Nichols and Steve Martin also give readers a nuanced look into talented Americans whose love of what they do enriched Idle’s path to stardom.
“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” begins with Idle introducing us to his easygoing British childhood and education at Cambridge, before he segues to how he met the future Python members during TV writing stints.
Their first BBC show, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” featured a structure as loose as you’d expect: “We tried discussing what it should be about, but failed hopelessly,” Idle writes. “So we just went ahead and wrote what we felt like and then came together at Jonesy’s house in Camberwell and read out our sketches.”
Idle touches on his love of comedy writing, which was priority No. 1 for the Pythons. Acting played second fiddle to the scripts they sweated over. This section could have benefited from deeper dives into how certain sketches came to be, although Idle does reveal the origin story behind the classic “wink wink nudge nudge say no more” bit.
The more inside-baseball sections pull us into the grimy filming experience that was “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” where the terrible weather and Chapman’s alcoholism marred the shoot. Python nerds learn which hilarious scenes were shot in one take and why they replaced a medieval soundtrack with “cliché music from a film library.”
The stories of how “Life of Brian” and “The Meaning of Life” came to be are just as enthralling, the former more so due to the decision by former Beatle George Harrison — a longtime friend of Idle’s — to bankroll the film.
The memoir’s title refers to the finale song during “Life of Brian,” which became Idle’s calling-card hit and ended up on the London Olympics stage. If you’ve ever wondered how Idle created such a cheery tune for a chorus of crucified characters, the reveal will be as entertaining as the lyrics. (“If life seems jolly rotten/ There’s something you’ve forgotten/ And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.”)
Between the long hours of prepping for films and his mockumentary “The Rutles,” which brilliantly satirized Beatlemania, Idle’s rock-star status had him befriending the likes of Mick Jagger and Robin Williams, whom Idle so vividly captures, you can practically smell the comedian’s sweat as he dervishes into routine after routine.
The Python road to fame might have looked smooth, but Idle writes on how painful it was to endure Chapman’s death in 1989. Ever the jokers, the troupe still found a way to poke fun at this grief in several gags too shocking to spoil here.
Then along came financial challenges when a “Holy Grail” producer sued the comedians after he saw the wild success Idle enjoyed with the Tony Award-winning musical “Spamalot.” You can feel the vitriol in Idle’s veins when he writes how this lawsuit forced the Pythons to reunite for several London shows. That anger gives way to a blueprint for how to direct a reunion show swirling with so many moving parts, it practically became its own flying circus.
You don’t need to know every line to the “Dead Parrot” sketch or “Every Sperm is Sacred to appreciate Idle’s hilarious memoir. His lessons on the craft go beyond Python sketches and extend into dissecting what makes a joke memorable. He also answers the question: What’s the turn you need to make that good character great?
Thanks to his many witticisms, acting as asides to more informative memories, “Always” is a breezy read. He’ll open a chapter with the kind of humor that just feels oh so Python: “I have met many people in my life and, sadly, many of them were not famous. I agree it’s not their fault, though they might have tried harder.”
It’s also the kind of book you’ll want to read twice — once when the genius of Python sketches are fresh in your memory, and once when those scenes have faded so you can be reminded how these comedy rebels shook up an art form that was due for a dose of surreal silliness.
David Silverberg is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and book critic who writes for BBC News, Vice, Ars Technica and NOW Magazine. Find him @SilverbergDave on Twitter.
By Eric Idle. 304 pp. $27.