It has been 20 years since “The Meaning of Life,” which the BBC calls “the true Python project.” Afterward, the group exploded like that film’s gluttonous Mr. Creosote, in a variety of interesting directions: Terry Gilliam is a visionary director; John Cleese appears in everything from commercials to continuing roles in the Harry Potter and James Bond franchises; Michael Palin makes award-winning travel documentaries; and Terry Jones works off-camera as a writer - director (with the exception of his Pythonesque appearance in medieval armor hosting his TV series “Crusades”). The death of the irreplaceable Graham Chapman from cancer in 1988 makes a full reunion impossible.
But their influence continues. Internet junk mail is named “spam” after one of their classic routines; “Kill Bill (part 1)” ends with what can be aptly described as a 20-minute expansion of the Black Knight scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Idle is the only member of the troupe to continue to perform live, and he answers endless questions about it while doing the press for his “Greedy Bastard” tour.
“It’s difficult to remain lively,” Idle confesses by phone. “Your mind goes into parrot mode, and you find yourself launching into PR spiels; it’s not human. Sometimes they are asking about specific things that happened 40 years ago, and you’ve forgotten the original event.”
The trials and tribulations of an 80-day, cross-county bus tour are documented in Idle’s online diary. As the trip has progressed, the writing has grown richer, blending vivid recollections with comedic crankiness, emulsified with elegiac and evocative prose inspired by the autumnal beauty of the landscape.
Idle launched his comedy career as a member of the Cambridge Footlight Players. He rose to the presidency of the Players, and after graduation quickly became a popular TV scriptwriter-performer. He worked in various permutations with the other future Pythons before they were assembled as a group in 1969.
The concept of the BBC’s “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was to bring together two young writing teams: Cleese/Chapman and Palin/Jones. When Idle was subsequently invited to join he was odd-man-out; he had to carve out his own creative space. Idle was responsible for many classic bits, including one in which a group of Yorkshiremen topped each other with tales of childhood deprivation: “There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of the road,” one says. “You were lucky,” counters the other. “We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank.”
The most assured musical performer of the lot, Idle led the cheery crucifixion-scene singalong in “The Life of Brian” as well as the “Meaning of Life” closing, “Galaxy Song.”
Idle’s highest-visibility, post-Python project was “Meet the Rutles,” a Beatlesque musical collaboration with Neil Innes, a key member of the ’60s rock/comedy Bonzo Dog Band. That project led to a lifelong friendship with former Beatle George Harrison, who financed several of the ex-Python’s most adventurous film projects.
Idle’s follow-up Rutles project, “Can’t Buy Me Cash,” is now languishing in the Warner Brothers vault. Finances for his once-greenlighted Merchant-Ivory satire, “The Remains of the Piano,” fell through, despite lining up an Academy Award-winning cast headed by Angelica Houston and Geoffrey Rush.
With his recent work in limbo, Idle is happy to revisit the classic Python material.
“I’ve not done it for years and years,” he says cheerfully. “I last performed some of [the skits] a few years ago, and before that it was the Hollywood Bowl [in 1980]. It’s like being Paul McCartney doing all the Beatles songs.”
“The Greedy Bastard Tour” will feature classic skits, as well as new material from troupe members John DuPrez, Jennifer Julian and comic ranter Peter Crabbe. In addition, Idle will be exploring the uncharted (for him) waters of stand-up.
“It’s a whole different end of comedy, performing from the sketches and songs,” Idle says. “I talk to the audience and they talk back. Actually, they make a kind of barking sound.”
The “Encore Bucket,” an Idle innovation that allows audience members to contribute to improve the show, provides a rich source of improvisatory material. It was conceived as a joke, and the players were surprised to find that people actually put things in it, and in a surprising number of cases, what they put in was money. (At the end of the tour the proceeds will be donated to charity.)
Belying his “Greedy” persona, Idle ends every show in the lobby, meeting fans and signing autographs. (In keeping with the persona, an assortment of signature-ready merchandise is thoughtfully provided.)
Richmond is the halfway point of the tour, which ends in Los Angeles — thousands of miles and 39 days away. “The bus is kind of fun, a bit Zen,” Idle confides. “You go to sleep in one car park, and wake up in another hundreds of miles away. We’re going west, but it’s not a covered wagon.”
Perhaps not, but it is living comedy history. S
Eric Idle performs at the Carpenter Center, 600 E. Grace St., Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $34.50-$37 and can be purchased through Ticketmaster by phone (262-8100), online (www.ticketmaster.com) or by visiting a Ticketmaster outlet (Hecht’s, Ukrop’s or Tower Records).,/i>
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