The Weekly Interview: English comedy legend Eric Idle

Nudge, nudge. Idle (left) and Cleese play two this weekend.
Jason Scavone

Monty Python said goodbye two years ago with a final show at the O2 Arena in London, but like a parrot nailed to a perch, “final” is open for debate.

Eric Idle and John Cleese, a full third of the Pythons, have split off in the past year to tour John Cleese and Eric Idle: Together Again at Last … for the Very First Time, which stops at the Venetian November 18 and 19. It’s fortuitous timing for Idle, who’ll have a variety of restaurants to choose from. “It’s my wife’s birthday on the second night, so I’ll have to buy her dinner or something,” he deadpans during our phone interview.

This is actually the third time you’ve gone on tour. Did you think about reworking the title? We did, actually, the second time, but John thought that might cause confusion. I quite liked Together Again … for the Very Third Time. I wanted to do it by hand, cross it out, but promoters don’t like to waste money.

Did you and John write much together in Python? We wrote very, very little together. John always wrote with Graham [Chapman]. I think I only wrote with John when Graham was away. Once memorably in Germany when we were both pissed we wrote a song called “Eric the Half a Bee,” which we do. There were two writing groups, Mike [Palin] and Terry [Jones], and John and Graham. I’m the independent sort of one.

How has this been as a newish collaboration, then? It’s been remarkably easy. It started off as a conversation when I was interviewing him for a book. We just did two hours without any preparation. When we went on the road it became slightly more structured. Now there’s a certain through line. which satisfies me as a playwright. There is a full story.

The O2 show was billed as the last hurrah for Python-related stuff. How did this tour come together? This is not a Python show. That was the farewell to all that material. This is John and I getting together after 53 years of knowing each other and talking about how odd it was where we met at Cambridge and in these various shows before Python. Then we go to do Python and what it was like to do Python, and then what it was like to not do Python. It’s a story of our lives that interweave right though to now, including O2. I like to think of it as a DNA read with a couple of strands.

We have great laughs, but it is not Python. It’s the last chance to see two of them alive, I suppose.

Did you spend much time in Las Vegas when Spamalot ran at the Wynn? More at the beginning when I was looking around to see what to do. I wanted to do it so different. When Steve Wynn very kindly flew me straight from New York to Vegas I went to see every show. I did my research. And I realized it has to change to be in Vegas. It has to be shorter, but I also thought it should change in a more spectacular way. I wanted to try and get Steve to put a hand up with a sword coming out of his lake to really theme it. The Broadway people were absolutely shocked and said no, we can’t do any of that. I said I think the ladies should be topless in the second show. They were like, who’s this cheap Englishman? But I think I was right. I think there’s room for a crazy Python show. I always wanted to do Cirque du Monty Python.

So does that mean you’re angling to add topless girls to the Venetian show? I’m hoping. I like the Venetian. I love shopping at the Venetian. It used to make me giggle watching Japanese tourists go by in gondolas. There’s something fundamentally silly about that on the second floor.

You were friends with George Harrison and still are with Keith Richards. Was there ever a point where you were looking at each other wondering, “How did we come to be legends?” The odd thing about it is they came around to us. George hunted us out. Keith is a huge Python fan. I can play guitar a bit, so I can have fun and play along with them, join in the drinking.

Can you keep up with Keith Richards? I never try to keep up with him in anything. But nobody thinks of themselves as legends, with the exception of Donald Trump, I think. You’ve got to be a major asshole to think of yourself as a legend.

How do you balance the nostalgic impulses in a retrospective with the need to create something new? There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia. You have to have lived long enough to have some. What are we nostalgic for? I think there’s some sort of faux nostalgia that goes on, like the Brexit vote. People want to go back to the old days. Like when we had rationing and we didn’t have enough to eat? You didn’t live through it. You’re nostalgic for something that never existed. That might happen in America, too. ‘Let’s go back to the good old days.’ When exactly? Tell me, when were the good old days? Everything’s gotten better, and people have gotten spoiled. I don’t think you really want to go back to the ’50s.

Do you ever watch the old sketches? I actually don’t. Sometimes I would catch a show late at night, and I wouldn’t remember half of it. It would make me giggle, because it was so naughty and it changed things around a lot. It always played with expectations. That’s what we try and do now on the stage. Let’s do something completely different.

John Cleese & Eric Idle November 18 & 19, 8 p.m., $50-$120. Venetian Theatre, 702-414-9000.

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