Idle Worship: Eric Idle on “What About Dick?”
by Kyle Anderson on November 13, 2012
You don’t get closer to British comedy royalty than with a member of Monty Python. They’re like The Beatles to Benny Hill’s Herman’s Hermits. Eric Idle, surely the third tallest member of the group, is a writing and performing machine, creating Broadway megahit Spamalot as well as several other live stage spectaculars. He may have hit comedy paydirt again (the show-off) with his 1940s-style stand-up improv musical comedy radio play, What About Dick?, which played for four nights in April at LA’s Orpheum Theater and is now available to watch on digital download. For Dick?, Idle brings together a Traveling Wilburys of comedy with the likes of Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly, Russell Brand, Tracey Ullman, Tim Curry, Jane Leeves, Jim Piddock, and Sophie Winkleman for this wholly one-of-a-kind laugh riot. Eric was gracious enough to talk to us about the show, its origins, his writing process, and the beauty of the new distribution method of VOD. To say the least, he’s a delight.
Nerdist: If such a thing can be done, can you please describe What About Dick?
Eric Idle: What About Dick?… is a play… with comedians. It is ostensibly about the decline and fall of the British Empire seen through the eyes of a piano, the invention of the personal vibrator, and, uhh, British people learning to have emotions. How’s that?
N: That’s a wide array of topics.
EI: It’s a wide array of stuff.
N: You got an amazing cast for this show; how were you able to get them all together for four nights in a row?
EI: Well, you know, I have pictures of most of them in compromising positions. I have slept with all of them, and so they owe me sexual favors. Umm… Basically, I think they did it for me, I’m afraid I have to say that; they did it for me. And they did it many times for me because we did it once before. And they also turned up for the press day for me, so I’m a very lucky chap. They didn’t do it for money! They all got paid scale. We split the profits, if we have such ones, for downloads.
N: Had you worked with everyone previously? I know you’ve done stuff with Eddie Izzard in the past.
EI: We found Eddie Izzard in Aspen in 1998 and we roped him into being in a Python reunion, which was very lovely for him. Billy Connolly I’ve known since the ‘70s, and adored all over the world and we’re close friends. Tracey Ullman I got to know a little bit and now I know her much better; she’s just one I’ve admired for a long time. Tim Curry I’ve known for centuries; I even saw him live in Rocky Horror in the King’s Road in the ‘60s. I also know him personally and I like him very much. Jim Piddock is a pal of mine; we watch football together. Russell (Brand) was the new boy. From the last time we did the play to this time, I re-wrote it and made Dick far more prominent [laughs] if that’s okay to say. And Russell; I needed a young lead character and I thought Russell would be perfect in this role. By strange chance, our original Helena couldn’t do it because she’s doing Newsroom, so we were very fortunate that Jim Piddock was working with Sophie Winkleman on Two and a Half Men and suggested her. Jane Leeves I know and adore. I’ve used her in three productions at least and will use her in anything I ever do. She is just the most amazing and admirable person. AND, bizarrely, was one of the dancers in Meaning of Life.
EI: This is true. She’s one of the angels at the end, during “Christmas in Heaven.” That’s Jane Leeves; isn’t that superb?
N: That’s fantastic!
EI: You can say we’ve been working together since 1982. (laughs)
N: (laughs) The show has been described as being a mixture of play and stand-up and improvisation; was every performance completely different?
EI: Not so much as they had liberties at certain times, if they felt they had a better line, to try them out and do them or go off on a riff. It’s been written and written for many years, but one wasn’t cranky about it. Eddie – you can’t curtail Eddie; there’s no known way to do that. So I would just say to him every now and then, I’d say, “Eddie, if you run out of funny things to say, why not just try the text for a little.”
EI: (laughs) One of the things I love most is when he’s improvising, he’ll lean back and look and me and he’s got the naughty look on his face like a naughty schoolboy. He wants my reaction, and of course it was always hilarity.
N: Was he the hardest one to rope in?
EI: That’s not being hard, by the way.
N: No, no, of course.
EI: He’s also a really great performer; he gives a really solid performance inside of the madness as a sort of Anthony Hopkins figure. Because all of them are sort of other people, in a way. I mean, Anthony Hopkins is the lead figure; the two sisters, Emma for Emma Thompson, Helena, Helena Bonham Carter; Aunt Maggie is clearly Maggie Smith. You know what I mean? Reverend Whoopsie is kind of Simon Callow. There are many levels to the comedy going on, and there are some sly references to movies that you may or may not know or pick up on or recognize. They’re not important to enjoying it, but they’re kind of buried in there.
N: Like Easter eggs for the audience who are a little more media savvy.
EI: Yeah, well that’s almost like Python, in a way.
EI: There are many levels on which you could laugh; it doesn’t detract. If you don’t get one reference, it doesn’t detract from the show.
N: And What About Dick? certainly has the absurdity of Python; in particular, you playing a character who is a piano.
EI: I don’t think anyone’s ever played a piano before. I’m rather proud of that. Maybe Sparky the Magic Piano; wasn’t there that?
N: Yeah, I think so.
N: That should go on the poster: “Not since Sparky the Magic Piano.”
EI: Don’t you think?
N: Yes, I do.
EI: Yeah, they taunt me for playing a piano but I say, “Look, it’s my fucking play; I’ll play what I fucking want.”
N: How did you come up with the idea? You said you’d been writing it for a while; how did it come to you and what was the writing process for it like?
EI: It’s long, it’s involved. It started in about the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; took ages. When I was writing a Merchant-Ivory parody called The Remains of the Piano and it’s grown and changed over the years, and when that project fell through, I think 2003ish… I don’t know; I’m reluctant to let go of things. I don’t think things are bad, I just think they’re unfinished. So I picked it up and started to turn it into a radio play. I thought, “Wouldn’t this be fun to do as a radio play?” Because you can have all the sound effects; we have a sound effects guy throughout. They are ostensibly doing a radio play in the Orpheum Theater in 1941. They’re all in costume from the ‘40s, but nobody sort of notices because they’re all comedians anyway and they just think they’re in regular dress. (laughs) But that gives it a little consistency of a ‘40s recording studio that they’re in, recording What About Dick, which keeps the level of the innocence higher. Also, particularly, it’s the only way you can get these people together to do a play. In a radio play, you read into a mic and that’s what we see them do.
N: How did writing this compare to how you generally write things?
EI: Well, I’m a big rewriter. I mean, there were 17 drafts of Spamalot, three in the rehearsal room. I find, if I get a broad stroke of what I want to do, how I’m gonna do it, I’m drawn towards. So, I splash out a first draft and then I go in and start throwing things away. You know, I’m for putting things away, forgetting all about them, picking them up and going, “Oh, shit, this shouldn’t be here, now I can da-da-da-da-da.”
So my final draft of this last year when I went, “Shit, the plot needs to make sense.” And that’s bizarre, because people think it’s nonsense, but it’s not. It has to hold water. Because we’re always looking for flaws, you know; we’re looking how things work in our subconscious. So, I had to make it work and tell a story which is at least believable, which is Lord Darling finds a piano on the plains of Shagistan, is attacked by the Shagnastians, ends up being killed and he wants the piano to go back to his son, Lord Little Richard Darling. He asks the sergeant with him to take it back when he dies and the sergeant, in the horror of the massacre, loses his memory (that’s Jim Piddock), and so when he comes back to England, he doesn’t know anything. So the plot is sort of the unraveling of his memory about this event, and the piano turns up again, mysteriously, on the beach. So, the piano is at the center of the plot, and Inspector MacGuffin, and film buffs will know what that is, is the one who is essentially unraveling the MacGuffin, which is the piano. Are you familiar with the term?
N: Oh, yes; the Hitchcock idea.
EI: Yeah, the Hitchcock term about the thing that is used to get on to the plot. Well, the piano is the archetypal MacGuffin and Inspector MacGuffin follows the story.
N: That’s a fun idea, having the piano be the narrator and it is, itself, the plot point.
N: And of course it’s you, putting yourself in that role.
EI: (Laughs) I liked it. It made me laugh a lot. They say, “Well, what’s it gonna be? Les Mis told by the French horn? Are you gonna have Macbeth narrated by the bagpipes?” I like them giving me shit. So, the play is also about itself, you know… it’s got levels. The characters are all real people, or sort of real actors we’re familiar with from these movies, but they’re also archetypes of E.M. Forster, A Room with a View. There are references to various movies of Forster; other movies like The Remains of the Piano… Err, Remains of the Day.
N: You put music in just about everything you write; do you think musically, or do you come up with the ideas and then think of songs to go with the things that you write?
EI: Sometimes I think musically, but often the best thing to do is, if you laugh, sing some song so you can breathe again, and then you can have some more laughter. So I like the musical comedy format. I think it’s the most enjoyable for an audience. I certainly like it the most, because you never get bored. You know, it’s hard laughing; ten minutes, you’re exhausted. So, if you have a nice song, a silly song, it sort of changes your mind, it refreshes your palate and then you go on with the play. So, the nice thing about it being a play as opposed to being a comedy concert with nine great people is it’s about something; there’s a story you can follow, and we love stories. We’re absolutely hooked on narrative, which is why I had to make the narrative at least fascinating for people who are trying to follow the plot. You know what I mean? I couldn’t just dump them off in nonsense; it can go into nonsense, but it must return to have some sensible base to it.
N: Certainly, and looking at the Python films, they all have a plot that’s pretty easy to follow.
EI: Well, only two of them have a plot. I’ve adapted both of them into musical forms. One thing the group (Monty Python) does not do very well is create plot, and I’ve found in the 30 years since Python it’s the thing I’ve learned more and more about, story and narrative. You know, it was certainly true of the musicals. In Holy Grail there’s barely any plot and there’s 98 different characters, so to adapt it I needed to make sure it was telling story. It’s not Python; it has to hold a sense of theatre, and that’s the trick to it. Just having some sort of story arc.
N: You must have been very influenced by radio comedy for What About Dick, and just in general. That’s something we don’t really have in this country.
EI: Yep, all the Python generation grew up with radio comedy; there was no television when we grew up. We didn’t have television until we were 12, so that makes a tremendous difference. In radio, you can go anywhere. The Goons have a bit about setting the Thames on fire, you know? (laughs) The way you can accomplish these absurdities is to imagine it, to picture it. And that’s why radio is sort of the finest medium to write for because, you know, you’d suddenly picture a plane (makes airplane noise) and suddenly you’re there. Holy Grail actually opens with a radio joke, which is the coconuts, the traditional way of making horses. You just see the horizon and you hear (makes clip-clopping coconutty horse noise) and then up they come banging coconuts. That’s such a good joke and it could only be written by people who grew up in radio.
N: Definitely. (laughs)
EI: The thing I love about What About Dick is the sound effects guy steals the show pretty much, you know. He’s busy making doors opening and there’s something about showing the working out that brings the audience into the conspiracy of it. So the audience of the Orpheum was watching us record a radio play, so they’re part of the conspiracy, so that helped a lot, I think, for this particular play.
N: If you could tell the people who download What About Dick anything before they watch it, what would it be?
EI: If I could tell them anything?
N: Anything, yes.
EI: I’d tell them they’d have a very good chance of laughing their asses off. If they like laughter with the sort of people in it, then they’re not going to be disappointed. I mean, I watched people howl with laughter watching it.
N: And are you excited for it to be available digitally?
EI: It’s an interesting new way of distributing; that’s the other thing I’m most proud of. We’re breaking all molds here, you know. Nobody’s ever… Louis CK did it, but we’d already put this in motion by the time he did. This is absolutely, direct to the consumers, has not been touched by Hollywood hands. There are no accountants in there stealing the money. And the nice model is, everybody gets the same. It’s all split, you know, and I like that very much because so often, one guy on a movie gets $52 million and the rest of them get three bucks each. And it’s also available all around the world – England, Australia, Canada, and this is also new, so I think this is the new way of distributing things, this is how we will get all of our material eventually, soon. You just download it to your TV set. Well, this goes to your computer, although some TVs you can download directly, can’t you?
N: Some of them, now, you can.
EI: But that’s the future. Why would you have 2000 prints and a huge budget for advertising and try to get it into the theaters against the next vampire, teenage, shag-nasty story? (laughs) You don’t have to do that. By using the internet, someone with (a) massive (number of) followers like Russell and Eddie have, they can deal directly with the sort of people who are interested in this sort of thing. It’s far less wasteful than putting an ad on a bus, where 98 out of a hundred people are uninterested.
N: Yeah, you go direct to the consumer and they can consume it directly, and instantly.
EI: It’s also cost effective. You don’t have to spend a ton on advertising. So the price of the product is only $6. That’s so much better than paying tons on prints and advertising and not get your money back forever. I’m intrigued and excited by the newness of the delivery system. It was always in my mind that I wanted to make something that my daughter at college could just get. And if you don’t charge too much, then they won’t steal. Largely. If they can afford to, and they can get it easily, then they will usually not rip you off.
N: People are definitely willing to pay for things they want to see if they can.
EI: But it has to be easy to get. If it’s easier to rip it off, then they probably will. But if they can just go “dunulunuluh” and press the button and then you can have it.
N: It’s also greener. You don’t have to worry about printing DVDs and cases…
EI: Yes, the manufacturing costs you don’t have to worry about. It’s (whistles) direct.
N:The instantaneousness of it is definitely appealing—
EI: Yeah, that’s nice. I just like the not messing about with the distribution arm of Hollywood. It’s fabulous. Trying to pitch comedy to a group of executives is like trying to do a striptease in front of a group of nuns. They would not know what laughter was if they fell off their fucking Porsches.