When I first saw Monty Python’s Flying Circus, late at night on PBS and in degraded VHS videos borrowed from friends, I assumed the show’s concepts must have come out of bonkers improv sessions. But the troupe’s many statements since the show’s end, in the form of books, documentaries, interviews, etc., have told us in no uncertain terms that Monty Python’s creators always put writing first. “I’m not an actor at all,” says Eric Idle in the GQ video above. “I’m really a writer who just acts occasionally.”
Likewise, in the PBS series Monty Python’s Personal Best, Idle discusses the joy of writing for the show—and compares creating Monty Python to fishing, of all things: “You go to the riverbank every day, you don’t know what you’re going to catch.” This idyllic scene may be the last thing you’d associate with the Pythons, though you may recall their take on fishing in the second season sketch “Fish License,” in which John Cleese’s character, Eric, tries to buy a license for his pet halibut, Eric.
Idle’s protestations notwithstanding, none of the show’s writing would have worked as well as it did onscreen without the considerable acting talents of all five performers. (Idle modestly ascribes his own ability to being “lifted up” by the others.) Above, he talks about the most iconic characters he embodied on the show, beginning with the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean?” guy: a character, we learn, based on Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band crossed with a regular from Idle’s local pub named Monty, from whom the troupe took their first name.
We also learn that the character was so popular in the States that “Elvis called everybody ‘squire’ because of that f*cking sketch!” Presley’s’ penchant for doing Monty Python material while in bed with his girlfriend (“if only there was footage”) is but one of the many fascinating anecdotes Idle casually tosses off in his commentary on characters like the Australian Bruces, who went on to sing “The Philosopher’s Song”; Mr. Smoketoomuch, who delivers a ten-minute monologue written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman; and Idle’s characters in the non-Python mocumentary All You Need Is Cash, which he created and co-wrote, about a parody Beatles band called The Rutles.
Idle is steadfast in his description of himself as a competent “caricaturist,” and not a “comic actor.” But his song and dance routines, sly subtle wit and broad gestures, and forever funny turn as cowardly Sir Robin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail should leave his fans with little doubt about his skill in front of the camera.