NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
From the ingenious comic performer, founding member of Monty Python, and creator of Spamalot, comes an absurdly funny memoir of unparalleled wit and heartfelt candor
We know him best for his unforgettable roles on Monty Python—from the Flying Circus to The Meaning of Life. Now, Eric Idle reflects on the meaning of his own life in this entertaining memoir that takes us on a remarkable journey from his childhood in an austere boarding school through his successful career in comedy, television, theater, and film. Coming of age as a writer and comedian during the Sixties and Seventies, Eric stumbled into the crossroads of the cultural revolution and found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of George Harrison, David Bowie, and Robin Williams, all of whom became dear lifelong friends. With anecdotes sprinkled throughout involving other close friends and luminaries such as Mike Nichols, Mick Jagger, Steve Martin, Paul Simon, Lorne Michaels, and many more, as well as John Cleese and the Pythons themselves, Eric captures a time of tremendous creative output with equal parts hilarity and heart. In Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, named for the song he wrote for Life of Brian and which has since become the number one song played at funerals in the UK, he shares the highlights of his life and career with the kind of offbeat humor that has delighted audiences for five decades. The year 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Pythons, and Eric is marking the occasion with this hilarious memoir chock full of behind-the-scenes stories from a high-flying life featuring everyone from Princess Leia to Queen Elizabeth.
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About the Author
Eric Idle is a comedian, actor, author, and singer-songwriter who found immediate fame on television with the sketch-comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Following its success, they began making films that include Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983). Eric wrote, directed, and created The Rutles, the world's first-ever mockumentary, as well as the Tony Award-winning musical, Spamalot (2005). He lives in Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
It’s October 1978 and I’m being crucified. I’m thirty feet up on a cross in Tunisia singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Beneath me in a troglodyte courtyard, dug out another forty feet below ground level, an Arab woman sweeps her front yard. She never looks up. We’ve been here for three days. It’s the final scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the song I wrote echoes across the desert to the distant hills. John Cleese has the u. e rest of the Pythons seem fairly cheery. ere are twenty-three of us on crosses and only three ladders, so between takes if you need a pee there is a desperate wait. I suppose if that’s the only moan you have about being crucified, you are on the whole lucky . . .
There’s something a little chilling about turning up for work and finding a cross with your name on it. Oh sure, they weren’t using nails, and we had bicycle seats to perch on, but it makes you think, hanging up there for three days in your underpants, gazing out at the desert. Perhaps everyone should be crucified for a few days, because it does give you a good perspective on life. Especially if you are singing a song that references your own passing:
Just remember that the last laugh is on you . . .
And don’t think the irony escaped me. I have always known this last little giggle at my expense lies somewhere in the future. I only hope there’s a good turnout.
The song was supposed to be ironic, but it ended up being iconic. I mean, you can’t have much less of a future to be bright about than while being crucified. But people began to sing it in real wars and in real danger. It struck a chord somehow and now people sing it everywhere. Including football matches, and funerals. Especially funerals. As of this writing, it’s the number one song requested at British funerals.
So here I am, up on a cross in Tunisia singing it for the first time to Graham Chapman. How the hell did I get here?
A Scar Is Born
By an odd coincidence, I was born on my birthday. In the same place as my mother, Harton Hospital, South Shields, County Durham, though luckily not at the same time. I was born plain Eric Idle. We couldn’t a afford a second name. There was a war on. At the time of my birth, Hitler was trying to kill me, but fortunately he missed. The closest he got is one of my earliest memories: a shot-up U.S. Wellington bomber, limping home from Germany, crashing in flames in the field beside my nursery school.
“Nothing to worry about,” said the nurses, as they hustled us inside.
Surely the scariest words you can ever hear. en I learned the truth from my mum: “ e American pilot was looking for an emergency landing in the eld. He saw the kids playing and deliberately turned away, taking the plane down.”
I’ve always liked Americans. They’re brave buggers.
So, close, Adolf, but no cigar.
If one of the best ways to appreciate life is to have an unhappy childhood, I was very fortunate. Things began badly and got worse. Try this for irony: my father was killed hitchhiking home from World War II. He’d been in the RAF since 1941 in the most dangerous seat of a Wellington bomber, that of the rear gunner/wireless operator, from which he emerged unscathed, and yet seven months after the war in Europe was over, he was killed in a road accident hitching home for Christmas. All over England, servicemen were waiting to be demobbed, and as the trains were full for the holidays they were told to thumb for rides, since everyone stopped for the boys in uniform. My dad got a lift in the back of a lorry load of steel. Just outside Darlington a car swerved to avoid oncoming traffic, the truck veered off the road, the load of steel shifted and crushed him. He died in hospital on Christmas Eve, my mother by his bedside. I was almost three. You can see how Christmas was never much fun in our household. I wonder if that’s why I wrote the song “Fuck Christmas”?
After I was born my father was rarely home. Wars are like that. The Air Force maps they used had code words on them. I found the words Spam Exit in my dad’s tidy handwriting. I also found a few references to myself in his tiny RAF diary for 1945; the choking words for July 7: Eric’s first paddle & trip to the Beach.
My father’s grave is in an RAF cemetery. They are drawn up in neat lined slabs, forever at attention—name, rank, serial number, and date of death: December 24, 1945. Above, the Latin words of the RAF motto: Per Ardua ad Astra. “Through hard work to the stars.” It could be the watchword for mankind entering the Space Age. Or a young man entering show business.
My mother disappeared for a while into depression, and I was brought up by my Gran in Swinton, Lancashire. Her husband, a dentist who I called Pop, took me to the Belle Vue Circus in Manchester where, amazingly, it turned out we were circus royalty. My great-grandfather was Henry Bertrand, a famous ringmaster and circus manager in the 1880s. I still have his notepaper, with his imposing picture in white tie and tails, announcing he is the Advance Manager of Roby’s Midget Minstrels. Only afterward did I realize that I too ended up in a circus: and a Flying one at that.
When I did a little research into him recently I found out that, incredibly, he had begun life as a comedian. Isn’t that slightly too much coincidence? In my novel The Road to Mars I postulated that this was evidence of a comedy gene. I was joking, but now I’m not so sure. Anyway, as a child it was exciting to be taken backstage at Belle Vue Circus to meet the terrifying clowns, who were very respectful to Pop as a Bertrand and extremely friendly to me. Pop also took me to see various variety shows at the Manchester Hippodrome, where I saw the best of British Music Hall comedians: Morecambe and Wise, Robb Wilton, Jimmy Edwards, Arthur Askey, Norman Evans, Mrs. Shufflewick, Norman Wisdom, and the Crazy Gang. The most memorable thing about the variety shows were the tableaux vivants, where a stage full of beautiful girls stood or sat still, stark naked. This was the first time I ever saw a nude woman and suddenly there were twenty-four of them. It was called “A Scene from Winter” and fake snow fell while they posed with nothing on but discreetly placed drapery. The orchestra played and someone recited a daft little poem while the girls just sat there. They weren’t allowed to move. In those days, it was illegal to move around on stage naked. If they did they could be arrested, but as long as they didn’t move, it was alright and everyone applauded. I remember thinking, is is great, and ever since then I have always been very fond of nude ladies. So that’s my background in show business: circuses, clowns, comedians, and nude ladies.