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British TV Comedies of the 1960s Brought Eric Idle With His ‘Monty Python’ Mates

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 50 years since the founding of the comedy troupe that gave us Silly Walks, Dead Parrots, Hell’s Grannies, the Argument Clinic and Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days, to name only a few of the classic Monty Python sketches, but as with other great comedy artists, from Laurel and Hardy to Chaplin, Keaton, Abbott and Costello and Lewis and Martin, there’s something timeless about the truly ridiculous in the hands of the truly brilliant.

One of the founders of the Python troupe, Eric Idle, aided and abetted his colleagues, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, in their wonderful five-year run on the BBC as well as in their classic films such as “Life of Brian,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Meaning of Life.”

Idle has also carved his own spectacularly funny way through the world of show business, by writing and performing in a wide array of films and TV programs and creating the Tony Award-winning musical “Spamalot” based on the “Holy Grail” film. And it should be noted that Idle may have invented the mockumentary film genre in 1978 with “The Rutles” saga, “All You Need is Cash.” He’s currently getting more laughs and raves with his just published autobiography (of sorts), “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography” (Random House).

Idle first came to the attention of Variety on Nov. 22, 1967, when a TV comedy program he co-created, “No — That’s Me Over Here!” debuted on British TV.

If you look closely, you can see the beginnings of Monty Python in several British TV programs.

Marty Feldman is the link. He wrote for “The Frost Report” before John Cleese joined the staff. Feldman quickly went from “But what about his looks” to becoming a breakout hit and having his own show, “Marty,” which Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin and Graham Chapman all worked on as writers.

London in the mid-’60s was a boomtown for TV comedy.

I worked on several different shows including a thrice-weekly gabfest, so there’s a bit of “Variety-speak” for you! I was working with the comedy writer Barry Cryer on “We Have Ways of Making You Laugh,” and he’d ring up and say to me, “I need an ad lib.” There was also a lot of excitement in radio: “I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again” came directly from the Cambridge University Footlights and was followed by Thames Television’s “Do Not Adjust Your Set.”

And there was no shortage of dynamic new comedic voices to power these shows.

Just look at John Cleese. He was in the Cambridge Footlights Revue in 1963 and a star in Edinburgh and the West End immediately. And he was on Broadway. From the beginning he was extraordinary, just amazing, with the full arsenal of comedy weapons at his disposal.

All this was happening in the middle of the Swinging London phenomenon, when British music was taking over the world.

While we weren’t really known at that time the same way as the Beatles and Stones, it felt like stardom. We were buying our suits on Carnaby Street. And music was a huge influence on us. It was the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band that really started us on the road to becoming more surreal, and then Terry Gilliam came along.

Your encounters with the Beatles were still down the road.

I didn’t meet George Harrison until 1975, because we had very different paths to becoming known. We were all at university, and the Beatles and other bands were out on the road and playing clubs. But we were all war babies. We grew up with gas masks and rationing and bombed-out houses. The London that had been blitzed was still very present, and we mocked all that. Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Beyond the Fringe set the stage.

And the music rocked.

But I think there’s a connection that often gets lost, and that’s the link between art school and rock. The art-school boys switched to rock instead of cinema. The best thing about that time was the feeling that it was all possible.

But it wasn’t all cheery.

The anger was there. Hearts were broken and [that] was acceptable. It was satire that brought down the conservative government. That’s anger. After “Python,” perhaps we were tired of all the anger and it was time for “Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

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