Good Time to Celebrate ‘Monty Python’ as Eric Idle Turns 80!

MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, circa Season 1, 1969-1974.
Everett Collection

Original interview by Karl J. Paloucek

If you haven’t seen them, chances are you’ve at least heard their sketches parroted by friends or bar patrons enough times that you likely have no trouble recognizing the humor of Monty Python. Well, by now you should — they’ve been around since 1969.

The British comedy troupe known as Monty Python includes Eric Idle (who turns 80 today, March 29), John Cleese (age 83), Terry Gilliam (age 82), Michael Palin (age 79), Terry Jones (who died at age 77 in 2020) and Graham Chapman (who died at age 48 in 1989).

In honor of Eric Idle, whose been active throughout the years, most recently on The Masked Singer (2022 season as the Hedgehog), we look back at a documentary series about the group’s brilliance. Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut) is a six-part series on the Pythons and their work, directed in part and coproduced by Bill Jones, son of Python Terry Jones, along with his collaborator and coproducer Ben Timlett. The series originally debuted on IFC around the group’s 40th anniversary in 2009. You can watch the docuseries now on Netflix. We caught up with the producers back in 2009 to discuss the film and what it was like to “grow up Python.”


Were the Pythons at all reluctant to have their story told in this way?

Ben Timlett: It wasn’t what we were trying to do — it’s just that they have talked a lot about Python. … And so it was initially difficult to sort of convince them that this would be in some way different from what they’ve done before.

Bill Jones: That’s the thing — every little thing that gets put out with them interviewed, they know about. … They get to see all of it, so they get sick of it.

They don’t often seem to take themselves seriously, but with six hours to fill, do we see much of that serious side?

Bill: I think it’s actually a mixture of both.

Ben: They are incredibly honest. They don’t really care about what they say about each other — which is quite amazing as a group, that they’ve sort of held together, even though part of it is that they’ll say horrible things about each other.

Bill: They all do it — they don’t get upset by it, because they’re all like, “Well, it’s probably a bit true.”

MONTY PYTHON:20 ODD YEARS, Eric idle, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, 1989 TV Special

The Pythons (pictured above in 1989 for their TV special Monty Python: 20 Odd Years) obviously have had an impact on this side of the Atlantic, but there’s still a distinctive divide between British and American humor that persists.

Ben: Some people just don’t like sketch comedy, I think. Essentially, that’s what it is. I think in terms of what the influence is on new comedians … I think the problem for new comedians, if they’re doing sketch-based stuff, is trying to do something that Python didn’t do. I mean, a lot of comedians that we spoke to said it’s very difficult — they would write a sketch and then go, “Oh, hang on — that’s sort of half a sketch. It’s actually a Python sketch.”

Bill: I think all new comedians take a bit of what they enjoy, and a good comedian will put a bit of themselves in it and make it funny in their own way. It’s not bad being influenced by anything and everything. Just before [Monty Python] were about to start shooting Flying Circus, in [the U.K.], a program called Q came out, which was done by this guy called Spike Milligan. He was part of a band who used to do comedy on radio, called The Goons. And the Pythons were all massive fans of The Goons. So when they came on television, you could have gone, “Well, the Pythons are just doing The Goons on television.” … But it’s quite interesting to see why Spike’s comedy is not remembered — his Q series isn’t really remembered — but the Pythons’ is.

The obvious question to you, Bill — what was it like growing up “Son of Python”?

Bill: I’ve got a silly line I tell people, that it is a bit strange growing up and going to school and knowing that everyone at school has seen your dad’s [bum].

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