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Eric Idle (born March 29, 1943) is an English comedian, actor, author and writer of comedic songs. He wrote and performed as a member of the internationally renowned British comedy group, Monty Python.

Early life[]

Idle was born in South Shields, Tyne and Wear (then County Durham) and lived at 11 North Avenue in Harton Village. His father had served in the Royal Air Force and survived World War II, only to be killed in a truck-crash shortly afterwards. His mother had difficulty coping with a full-time job and raising a child, so when he was seven, she enrolled him into the Royal Wolverhampton School as a boarder.

The school had begun life as a Victorian orphanage, and during Idle's time was a charitable foundation dedicated to the welfare of children who had lost one or both parents. Its pupils, who were mainly the children of dead English soldiers, still referred to it as the 'Ophney'.

Idle is quoted as saying: "It was a physically abusive, bullying, harsh environment for a kid to grow up in. I got used to dealing with groups of boys and getting on with life in unpleasant circumstances and being smart and funny and subversive at the expense of authority. Perfect training for Python."[1]

Idle stated that the two things that made his life bearable were listening to Radio Luxembourg under the bedclothes and watching the local football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Despite this, he disliked other sports and would sneak out of school every Thursday afternoon to the local cinema. He was eventually caught watching the X-rated BUtterfield 8 and stripped of his prefectship, even though by that time he was head boy. Idle had already refused to be senior boy in the school cadet force, as he supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and had participated in the yearly Aldermaston March.

Idle maintains that there was little to do at the school and boredom drove him to study hard. He consequentaly won a place at Cambridge.

Comedy career[]

University life and comedy[]

Idle attended Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge, where he studied English. At Pembroke, he was invited to join the prestigious Cambridge University Footlights Club by the President of the Footlights Club, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Footlights Club member Bill Oddie.

"I'd never heard of the Footlights when I got there, but we had a tradition of college smoking-concerts, and I sent in some sketches parodying a play that had just been done. Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie auditioned me for the Footlights smoker, and that led to me discovering about and getting into the Footlights, which was great."[2]

When Idle joined the Footlights Club, the other members included John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who were also attending the University of Cambridge.

Eric Idle became Footlights President in 1965.

Before Python[]

Eric Idle appeared in the childrens television comedy series Do Not Adjust Your Set with Terry Jones and Michael Palin (who were both former University of Oxford students). Terry Gilliam provided animations for the show. Other members of the cast were British comedic actors David Jason and Denise Coffey.

Monty Python[]

Unlike the other Pythons, who wrote in pairs (Cleese/Chapman and Palin/Jones), Idle wrote alone. His work was often closely associated with long, complex speeches or catchy one-liners. Among the many Python sketches written by Idle is "Nudge Nudge", the title of which has become a catchphrase.

In the 1970s, he also had the role of editor of the Monty Python 'boks' [sic]. He parlayed his experience forward in January 2003 when he released his contribution [ISBN 0-413-76010-3] as the fifth in the book series A Pocketful of Python, containing some of his favourite sketches from Monty Python's Flying Circus and some of his favourite passages from their books. The books in this series include sketches written by all the Pythons - including Idle.

Idle wrote the book and lyrics and co-wrote the music for Spamalot which opened on Broadway in 2005.

After Python[]

After Monty Python ceased to be a regularly active ensemble in the mid-1970s, all six members pursued solo projects. Idle's first solo work was his own BBC Radio One show, Radio Five (pre-dating the real Radio Five station by 18 years). This ran for two seasons from 1973 to 1974 and involved Idle performing sketches and links to records, with himself playing nearly all the multi-tracked parts.

On television, Idle gave the world Rutland Weekend Television (RWT), a sketch show on BBC2, written by Idle, with music by Neil Innes. RWT was 'Britain's smallest television network'. The name was a parody of London Weekend Television, the independent television franchise that provided Londoners with their ITV services at weekends; Rutland had been England's smallest county, but had recently been 'abolished' in an administrative shake-up. To make the joke complete, the programme went out on a weekday. Other regular performers were David Battley, Henry Woolf, Gwen Taylor and Terence Bayler, and George Harrison made a guest appearance on one episode.

A legacy of RWT was the creation, with Innes, of The Rutles, an affectionate parody of The Beatles. The band became a popular phenomenon, especially in the USA where Idle was appearing on Saturday Night Live - fans would send in Beatles LPs with their sleeves altered to show the Rutles. In 1978 the Rutles' mockumentary film All You Need Is Cash, a collaboration between Python members and Saturday Night Live, was aired on NBC television, as written by Idle, with music by Innes. Idle appeared in the film as "Dirk McQuickly" (the Paul McCartney character of the group), as well as the main commentator. Actors appearing in the film included Saturday Night Live's John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner), as well as George Harrison and Mick Jagger.

In 1986 he provided the voice of Wreck-Gar in Transformers: The Movie. In 1987 he took part in the English National Opera production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Mikado, in which he appeared in the role of the Lord High Executioner. In 1989 he appeared in the US comedy television series Nearly Departed about a ghost who haunts the family inhabiting his former home. The series lasted for six episodes as a summer replacement series.

Idle received good critical notices appearing in projects written and directed by others - such as Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), alongside Robbie Coltrane in Nuns on the Run (1990) and in Casper (1995). He also played Ratty in Terry Jones' version of the The Wind in the Willows (1996). However, his own creative projects - such as the movie Splitting Heirs (1993), a comedy he wrote, starred in and executive-produced - were mostly unsuccessful with critics and audiences.

In 1994, he appeared as Dr Nigel Channing, chairman of the Imagination Institute and host of an 'Inventor of the Year' awards show in the three-dimensional film Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, which has been an attraction at Walt Disney World's Epcot since 1995 and at Disneyland since 1998. The film also stars Rick Moranis and other members of the cast of the 1989 feature film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In 1999, he reprised the role in the second (and controversial) version of the Journey Into Imagination ride at Epcot, replacing Figment and Dreamfinder as the host. Due to an outcry from Disney fans, Figment was reinstated into the ride. Idle is also writer and star of the three-dimensional film Pirates - 4D for Busch Entertainment Corporation.

In 1995, he voiced Rincewind the "Wizzard" in a computer adventure game based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. In 1996, he reprised his role as Rincewind for the game's sequel, and composed and sang its theme song, "That's Death". In 1998, Idle appeared in the lead role in the poorly recieved film Burn Hollywood Burn (see Criticism). That same year, he also provided the voice of Devon, a dragon, in Warner Bros. Animated film Quest for Camelot.

In recent years, Idle has worked with people who regard him as a huge inspiration, such as Trey Parker and Matt Stone in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, in which he voiced Dr Vosknocker. He has also made three appearances on The Simpsons as famous documentarian Declan Desmond, so far the only appearance on the show by a Python. From 1999 to 2000, he played Ian Maxtone-Graham on the NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan. Idle has also acted as Narrator to the AudioNovel version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

Idle has recently provided his voice acting for Shrek the Third as "Merlin". The film reunites Idle with Python alumnus John Cleese. Idle was reported to have stormed out of its premiere and has said he may sue the producers of the film after seeing them directly copy a gag from his earlier film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The gag in question is banging coconuts together to imitate hoofbeats- a running gag throughout Monty Python and the Holy Grail.[3][4]

Other credits[]


Idle has written several books, both fiction and non-fiction. His novels are Hello Sailor and The Road to Mars. In 1976, he produced a spin-off book to Rutland Weekend Television, entitled The Rutland Dirty Weekend Book. In 1982, he wrote a west end farce Pass The Butler, starring Willie Rushton. During his Greedy Bastard Tour of 2003, he wrote the diaries that would be made into The Greedy Bastard Diary: A Comic Tour of America, published in February 2005.

He also wrote the book and co-wrote the music and lyrics for the musical, Monty Python's Spamalot, (based on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail). It premiered on January 9, 2005 in Chicago, before moving to Broadway, where it received the Tony Award for Best Musical of the 2004-05 season.

In a 2005 poll to find "The Comedian's Comedian" (UK), he was voted 21 in the top 50 greatest comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.

An example of Idle's idiosyncratic writing is "Ants In Their Pants" - a poem about the sex life of ants. It starts as follows:

'Where does an ant get its rocks off?
How does the ant get it on?
Do ants have it away, say three times a day,
Is it once a week sex, or p'raps none?'



Idle is an accomplished songwriter, having composed and performed many of the Pythons' most famous comic pieces, including "Eric The Half-A-Bee", "The Philosophers' Song", "Galaxy Song" (from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life) and, probably his most recognised hit, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", which was written for the closing scene of the film Monty Python's Life of Brian, and sung from the crosses during the mass crucifixion. The song has since been covered by Bruce Cockburn and Art Garfunkel. Idle, his fellow Pythons, and assorted family and friends performed the song at Graham Chapman's funeral.

In 1990, Idle sang and co-wrote the theme tune to the popular British sitcom One Foot In The Grave. The song was later released, but did poorly in the charts. However, when "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" was adopted as a football chant in the late 1980s, Idle's then neighbour Gary Lineker suggested Idle re-record and release the popular track. This led to a surprise hit, some 12 years after the song's original appearance in Monty Python's Life Of Brian, reaching number 3 in the UK charts and landing Idle a set on Top of the Pops in October 1991.

In 2004, Idle recorded a protest song of sorts, the "FCC Song" in which he lambasts the US Federal Communications Commission for fining him $5,000 for saying the word 'fuck' on national radio. Fittingly, the short song contains 14 uses of the said expletive. The song is [1] freely available for download. A video accompanying the song, created by Mountain Top CCT, can be viewed at YouTube [2]. In 2005, he received multiple Tony award nominations for his songwriting work on the Broadway musical Spamalot.

In June 2007, "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)", premiered at the inaugural Luminato arts festival in Toronto. Idle himself performed during this 50-minute oratorio, along with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. The composer, John Du Prez, was also present. Shannon Mercer, Jean Stilwell, Christopher Sieber, and Theodore Baerg sang the principle parts. The American Premier was at Caramoor (Westchester County, New York) on July 1, 2007. Soloists were the same as in the Toronto performance, but the accompanying chorus was made up of members of New York City's Collegiate Chorale.


An asteroid, 9620 Ericidle, is named in his honour.[5] Also the Integrated development environment for the Python (programming language) programming language is called IDLE.[6]


Idle in recent years has been criticized for commercializing and cheapening the legacy of Monty Python. In Slate, Sam Anderson wrote in the article "And Now For Something Completely Deficient" that though Idle "has earned a spot in Comedy Heaven for his Python days...his jokey "exposure" of his own exploitation (he has called tours "Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python" and "The Greedy Bastard Tour") is more irritating than funny." Of Spamalot, Anderson opined that "Python was formed in reaction to exactly the kind of lazy comedy represented by Spamalot — what Michael Palin once described as the 'easy, catch-phrase reaction' the members had all been forced to pander in their previous writing jobs.".[7]

Spamalot has had mixed reactions from the other Python members. Terry Jones described it as “utterly pointless and full of air”.[8][9] Cleese lent his support by voicing God in a recorded performance that was integrated into the musical. Palin observed: "It's a great show. It’s not ‘Python’ as we would have written it. But then, none of us would get together and write a ‘Python’ stage show." [10]

In 1998, Idle appeared in the lead role in the film Burn Hollywood Burn. The film was nominated as 'Worst Picture of the Decade' in the Golden Raspberry Awards (known as the Razzies) - and was awarded five Razzies including 'Worst Picture of the Year'.

In 2000 The Onion gave the album Eric Idle Sings Monty Python: Live In Concert the title of 'Least Essential Solo Album' of the year. It said "the year's true nadir came from an unexpected source, beloved Monty Pythoner Eric Idle, who preceded his depressingly low-rent, if honestly dubbed "Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python" tour with the equally unimpressive, if no less accurately titled Eric Idle Sings Monty Python: Live In Concert."[11]

There has also been criticism of Idle from the other Rutles, who reunited for the Archaeology album in the mid-1990s without him. On the Channel 4 programme What The Pythons Did Next, Rutles drummer John Halsey (aka Barry Wom), said that he had to switch off Idle's The Rutles 2: Can't Buy Me Lunch after 10 minutes. Innes was more diplomatic on the same show, saying "we used to think he had delusions of grandeur, now we know it's only grandeur".[12]

Idle describes himself as "the sixth nicest Python".[13]



  1. The Pythons' Autobiography By The Pythons, Bob McCabe (et al), Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2003.
  2. The Life Of Python, George Perry, Pavilion Books Ltd, 1994.
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External links[]

  • PythOnline
  • Eric Idle - BBC Guide to Comedy
  • Eric Idle - Comedy Zone
  • My Girl Herbert - the 1965 Cambridge Footlights Club revue during the time when Eric Idle was President of the Footlights, as well as being a member of the revue cast)
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