So, who’s up for a bit o’ science, Monty Python-style this Christmas? If you are, then Eric Idle’s Entire Universe will be the perfect PBS Christmas gift to unwrap this holiday season. International Man of Science, Professor Brian Cox, and the comedic greatness of Eric Idle will join forces in what appears to be, on the surface, a scientific lecture going weird, really weird. Cox’s lecture takes a sharp left turn early on and morphs into a major musical, Rutland-style. Weird or not, in a way, Eric Idle’s Entire Universe IS the ultimate definition of the mission of PBS. The ambitious program from the pen of Eric Idle not only informs but it both educates AND entertains the viewer all in the span of one hour. This is intelligent television for the masses.
Eric Idle, actor, writer, musician, one of the founding members of the Monty Python troupe and one who always looks on the bright side of life, is understandably over-the-top excited about the possibility of tackling ‘the entire universe’. We had the great good fortune to sit down recently with the delightfully brilliant Mr. Idle as he explains just how one crams 138 billion years of history into one hour…as a musical!
Tellyspotting: In some ways, The Entire Universe is bringing you full circle by it being on PBS.
Eric Idle: Definitely. I think it’s vital you have public television and public radio. I think there both places I watch and listen to, radio certainly. I listen all the time in the car. It’s a place that can’t be bought and isn’t owned by Rupert Murdoch and that becomes more and more vital every day. We need to get our news unpolluted by people’s greed and self-interest.
TS: With 41 years to plan since the last Rutland Weekend Television Christmas Special, you pulled out all the stops this time with the Muriel Tritt School of Dance and Music with choreography by former Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips, Harry Potter and Star Wars star, Warrick Davis, Game of Thrones star and the original ‘Lady of the Lake’ from Spamalot, Hannah Waddington, Noel Fielding who is fresh off his most recent gig on Channel 4’s Great British Bake Off and former international space station member, Tim Peake.
EI: Noel is fantastic. He’s so talented and we’ve become good friends. It was my daughter that suggested Noel, actually. He and Brian were so fun together.
TS: What I loved about the show was to see Brian eyes light up during Incredible Universe when talking about galaxy’s and the billions and billions of stars ‘out there’ and your eyes would light up at the comedy and the musical bits and the passion definitely came out
EI: Well, we’re friends. He came to a recording of ‘What About Dick?’ in LA which I did with a ridiculous cast. Eddie Izzard, Tim Curry, Billy Connolly and Tracey Ullman. Every major British comedian was in it. We did it for four nights. We met after that and we became very good friends. Having a professor as your pal is pretty special. It was an extraordinary thing to start rehearsals with Warrick Davis, Hannah (Waddington), Noel Fielding and John Du Prez while Brian sat and explained quantum theory for about 15 minutes. Not your average comedy show.
TS: And, explaining quantum theory in a way we could all understand it.
EI: He’s a very good teacher. In fact, that’s what he’s best at. Over dinner, if you ask him a question he begins to smile as he begins to explain. He likes enlightening people. It’s a gift. I’ve never had the patience.
TS: The Entire Universe is filled with musical numbers. A lot of your comedy has a musical backdrop. Where did the musical influences come from?
EI: I think very early on in the Footlights (Cambridge University Footlights Club) we used to do a lot of comedy songs. It was always part of that comic tradition and I could play the guitar. I was in the choir at school so I could read the dots which came in handy I finally did opera for the English National Opera, I did the Mikado for Jonathan Miller. I did the Edinburgh Festival where I got to all the roles that were mainly songs and they were funny songs with very good lyrics and then I just began to write my own after that. You can see it emerge in Python. I think the first was Michael (Palin) and Terry (Jones) who do the Lumberjack Song which we had the Fred Tomlinson Singers who did the tune. I did a couple of silly little song links. I think I did the Money Song quite early on which was out of a Mike and Terry panto and I re-wrote the lyrics for somebody else’s tune. Eventually, I think we had the ‘contractual obligation’ album where we ‘owed’ Clive Davis an album and we didn’t know we’d agreed to do that. The managers had done it and they said you have a contractual obligation to do an album. I said well then that’s the title for start. I asked everyone to write songs. I had John Du Prez with me. Michael wrote Finland, John wrote a thing about Oliver Cromwell set to the Chopin Polonaise and Terry Jones did some wonderful songs. Later on, I put together “Monty Python Sings” and I was struck by how many different types of songs there were throughout Python. It was our best selling album by at least 10 times.
TS: Watching the ‘Incredible Universe’, I was reminded of what might have been the ‘pitch’ to the BBC for Monty Python in the 60s.
EI: Well, it was easier, definitely, because Brian (Professor Brian Cox) is an enormous star on English television. He is Mr. Science and they were very thrilled to see him. And, bringing me in wasn’t dreadful for them. We just sort of said we want to do some science, comedy, panto kind of thing. As typically happens in this industry, the head of BBC2 moved on but we had enough momentum to persuade them. Honestly, they were very reluctant right up until the end. It only cost me about £30,000 quid to put it together. I had to book the good dancers, you know. I covered a lot of expenses that weren’t in the budget. It was very much a keep pushing, keep hoping you can get this on. Various parts of the BBC are like bits of the Black Night, they’re all scattered all over the battlefield. Trying to put the body together out of the bits was hard.
TS: Talk a bit about Python coming together in the early days at Cambridge and Oxford and just how special a time it was.
EI: We met up with most of the Oxford people through the Edinburgh Festival. We’d definitely done our 1000 hours and all that but sometimes happenstance is because everybody’s the right person. People were always putting Ringo down but I say the Beatles didn’t exist until Ringo came along. When Ringo came in, finally, the Beatles were the Beatles and he’s the reason they were popular in America. Suddenly, there was this funny guy with this funny nose who looked like everybody else but he was a pop star and the drummer of the Beatles. People only knew Ringo’s name when they came to America. Could others have been in Python, maybe, but Python was such a writing and performing community. It was much more of a self-selecting group in the end and if it hadn’t worked then Python wouldn’t have gone on.
TS: Being such a writing and performing group, did you find it difficult writing for yourself?
EI: We really didn’t write for any one individual. We wrote for the show. We never cast until it was all written. It was a writer’s commune is what it was. What makes it so strange and wonderful and the same time is the writer’s are never given that power because why would they need producers…a question I ask myself every day. We were actually executive-free comedy. When the BBC said ‘go away and do it’, that’s literally what they meant because we were on late at night on a Sunday and nobody cared. Essentially, they were opening up a new slot to go from 10:30p to about 11:30p. That slot normally, they actually turned off the BBC in those days and they still did after us. We were given the task of writing a show and that’s all we had to do. We took that very seriously. The sheer joy of creating is finding out what you want to do. If I had to ‘pitch’ a show today, I wouldn’t do it. You can’t summarize what you want to do by going into a room with a bunch of executives and pitching something. It’s not possible. It takes all the fun out of it and the exploration out of it.
TS: How has Monty Python endured for almost 50 years and had staying power with multiple generations:
ER: I think because of innovation and being able to create but also because we were actually quite good at what we did. We’d done our 1000 hours. We’d written for every comedy show. We’d been performing for 10 years. We were ready, much like the Beatles had done their Hamburg stuff. We were ready to have a show of our own. It wasn’t even our first show. We’d done a kids show, Do Not Adjust Your Set, and John and Graham had done At Last the 48 Show. It was ready to be something different and it was.
TS: Speaking of ‘the entire universe’, with NASA recently discovering a new solar system with 8 new planets, will there be a sequel to The Entire Universe?
EI: I think if they find one with six then they should name them after us.
TS: Well, that’s got to be the logical next step as you already have asteroids…
EI: We do! And they’re solar system asteroids so they’re annual which is brilliant.
TS: You probably get the question often as to what advice you’d give a young comedian coming up through the ranks. What would you say if you could pick up a phone and call a 17-year old Eric Idle today?
EI: I’m not quite sure. Not an easy question to ask yourself what to say to a 17-year old when your in your 70s as they wouldn’t be listening anyway. I had an agent when I was 23 who always said ‘be available’. I always liked that as a sort of motto. You’ve got to make a lot of mistakes in life before you get the hang of it. I think if you don’t make mistakes, how can you possibly learn. I don’t think you can warn people away from mistakes. They’re part of life. At each stage of life, you say ‘well, I’m not going to be that person again’.
TS: British comedy has brought us some of the most unlikable characters over the years such as Basil Fawlty and Edmund Blackadder. What is it about them that you find yourself still pulling for them?
EI: Well, you can say the same thing about Richard III, which is one of Shakespeare’s biggest comedy hits. Why do we like nasty buggers…because we’re laughing at them. Why is Hancock funny? Because he’s a bloody old curmudgeon and that makes us laugh. If it was done straight, we probably wouldn’t like them. They say funny things from within their character. It’s also good to remember to laugh at people. We got through a war laughing at Hitler. People impersonated him and laughed. The British have always ridiculed enemies. I think that’s kind of a healthy thing to do. Laughter and fear are closely connected as laughter and grief are. They’re like colors of the rainbow, they’re next to each other. I think that’s a healthy response to danger.
TS: With that in mind, how important today is it to be ‘silly’ in life?
EI: Not necessarily ‘silly’, but I think keeping a fresh view or keeping a slight distance so you can see things as silly is very important. I can laugh more about what’s going on today because I don’t get to vote. There’s nothing I can do except be funny and laugh at situations. I can’t do that all the time because it’s too serious. People take their news through comedy today and that’s different today here. It began to happen in England in 1963 with the David Frost show, That Was the Week That Was. They got that from Beyond the Fringe where Peter Cook ridiculed the current Prime Minister. I saw that show and I was shocked. You were not allowed to laugh at the Prime Minister or the Army or the Queen or God. Beyond the Fringe came in and took that right away. They were a post-war generation but they were adolescents and they brought their anger into comedy. For the first time, I remember being amazed that we were being invited to laugh at all that. Python followed the satire boom and we were determined to not do what everybody had just done. We wouldn’t be topical or rooted in the news. Python comedy tends to be silly because it’s character driven not dependent on the headlines.
TS: Given your wide ranging background, who would be your participants in a fantasy dinner?
EI: Brigitte Bardot (followed by laughter), Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, George Harrison. I do a lot of dinners and you want funny people, intelligent people and people playing guitar. We have comedians and guitarists over for dinner so afterward we all play. Mel Brooks would be another.
TS: Do you ever get a chance and think about the effect your work has had on millions of people?
EI: I don’t think of it quite that way. Only how unusual it is and was that it’s still be watched this long after it was written. It will be 50 years in 2019 which is completely unlikely. We were convinced early on it wouldn’t go in America. Thanks to Ron Devillier and Bob Wilson at KERA in Dallas for proving us wrong. We had no idea it would go in America. It wouldn’t have been in America if it weren’t for PBS, which we are all completely grateful. ABC tried and we sued them and won.
TS: I think we’re all thankful it made its way to PBS and Dallas first.
EI: Me too. We’re all very proud of that! Thank you.
Eric Idle’s Entire Universe airs on PBS stations nationwide, Friday, December 22 at 10pET/9pCT and throughout the holiday season! Check local listings.