Eric Idle is a very funny man, even on the phone. He's also unfailingly polite, which may surprise the legions of Monty Python fans who flock to see him dress in matronly frocks and sing rude songs. A stickler for truth in advertising, Idle has embarked on a 50-shows-in-80-days bus tour of North America that he proudly calls The Greedy Bastard Tour. It follows up on the success of his 2000 tour, which he called "Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python." By the time the tour bus pulls into Spokane this Sunday, Idle and his compatriots will have been on the road for more than two months, though the end of the tour is in sight. By now, he says, the tour routine is ticking along, even though each day is a new adventure.
"You never know what you're going to find," he says of arriving in a new city nearly every day. "Every theater venue is different. It never gets boring and it's always new."
On the tour, the group has played a number of older restored theaters, a trend that will continue here in Spokane at the Met. Idle clearly relishes the classic venues.
"We're more likely to be in old theaters," he says. "Some are old and nicely restored, and some are just old, but there's a heritage here. America has really saved its old theaters."
Old vaudeville houses provide an appropriate backdrop for the revue that Idle has put together with Peter Crabbe, Jennifer Julian and John Du Prez. "We're all involved," he says. "It's more like what you saw in the late '50s and early '60s, and now I think that style of show needs to come back. We've gone to the single stand-up in comedy, which is certainly more profitable, but I think the audience needs to hear different voices. I like our show being a revue. It gives me a change, and I think it's good for the audience to change the screen."
Comedians tend to emerge from less-than-idyllic backgrounds, and Idle's personal story follows this trend. Born in England in 1943, Idle spent his early years amid the chaos of war. In The Pythons: Autobiography by the Pythons, he notes that his first memory is the crash of a Royal Air Force bomber in the field next to his nursery school. His father served four years with the RAF and survived the vagaries of war only to be killed in a freak road accident while hitchhiking home for Christmas in 1945. Idle's mother sank into a deep depression after the accident, shipping young Eric off to live with a great-aunt and later leaving him at a dreary orphanage-turned-boarding-school in Wolverhampton.
"It was a physically abusive, bullying, harsh environment for a kid to grow up in, a boarding school where nobody had any fathers," he writes. "I got used to dealing with groups of boys and getting on with life in unpleasant circumstances and being smart, funny and subversive at the expense of authority. Perfect training for Python."
Although he rarely spoke about his early life before the book came out, Idle now uses his reminiscences as the structure for the second half of his stage show.
"I talk about periods of my life, and then I'm able to do sketches from that time," he says. "Since the autobiography, there's no secrets. We never talked about that stuff before, but now it's all over the bookshops, isn't it?"
Along the way, Idle pays tribute to Python's predecessor, Beyond the Fringe, the 1960s comedy group that he and the other Pythons credit with opening them up to the comic world of the absurd. He also brings back a sketch written by John Cleese from his university days. The show opens with Idle doing a stand-up routine - something new for him, he says - then segues into songs and what he calls "some classic Python bits." While the stand-up was stressful at first, he says he never tires of performing in front of an audience.
"I like it," he says. "No, I love it. It's hard not to do. When you're in the groove of touring, there's something wonderful about hearing the audience. It's not a bad thing. It's much more interesting than making a movie. Are you kidding? That's the most boring thing in the world, making movies. Except for accountancy. You know, it's all just those columns."
Idle has been documenting the tour with daily journal entries posted on the Web site www.pythonline.com, a fan site dedicated to all things Python. The entries are remarkably personal: Idle recalls his mother near the anniversary of her death, writes frankly about missing his wife, and offers a tender tribute to his friend Michael Kamen, who died suddenly in mid-November.
"I like the writing," he says. "I feel like I've done something with my day when I've written something. It's a very intimate form, the diary. And it's got to be extra special when you're doing something for nothing." Especially given the name of the tour? "Quite right," he agrees.
In this year of his 60th birthday, Idle says the tour is something of a journey of self-discovery, but he's also proving that he can learn new tricks along the way. "I'm learning stand-up on this tour each night, but by day I'm learning diary-writing," he says. "Everything is learning, I think. If you're not learning something new, you're wasting your life." Not bad words to live by, even from a Greedy Bastard.