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THE PYTHON PRINCE
"When people say it's undergraduate humor I think they're wrong," Jones says of the Python style. "It's postgraduate humor." (Like MP&HG, which grew out of Jones' study of Chaucer.) Yet the adolescence factor can't be dismissed. Squint a little, and you could see the Pythons as British versions of the American college jocks who reached their apex of glory and achievement as young men, then went into real estate, coasting on their lingering allure. It's true, anyway, if we see the TV show and Holy Grail as an extension of the glamorous days Jones and Palin spent at Oxford, and Cleese, Chapman and Idle at Cambridge.
Cleese is the elder statesman of the group, Gilliam the member who carved the most distinctive post-Python career, and Chapman the figure of poignancy the homosexual alcoholic who was dead at 48. His demise touched all the survivors, but it didn't stanch their biting wit. In fact, now that he's dead, they make fun of Graham a lot. On the BBC2 show 30 Years of Monty Python, Cleese intones: "And I'd just like to say for the whole gang, except for the dead one of course, how pleased we are..." And in a 1998 reunion at Aspen, the gang sits in chairs behind what they say are Chapman's ashes; then Idle gets up to hold the urn and trips, dropping it.
But I want to concentrate on Idle, whose chameleonic nature and gift of easy musicality made him a natural to make a hit Broadway show out of MP&HG. I only want to look at the early lives and Idle and the others, since by the time they left their universities they somehow seemed fully formed and Python-ready.
Idle might have been born to showbiz. His grandfather, Henry Bertrand, had been manager of a circus called Robey's Flying Midgets. "I ended up in a circus too, and a flying one at that." In fact, his childhood was more Dickensian-poignant than Python-comic. In 1945, when Eric was two, his father died when coming home from the Army for Christmas; the car he'd hitched a ride in was hit by a truck. The family had few resources, so for a dozen years, from age seven, Eric was raised at the Royal Orphanage in Wolverhampton, an institution he describes as "bleakly Victorian." The school was bleak and chilly. "I was cold until I was nineteen," Idle recalled, conjuring up the deprivations George Orwell wrote in an essay-memoir of his own educational incarceration, "Such, Such Were the Joys."
"We were lower-middle-class oiks," Idle says of himself and most of the other Pythons, noting that only Cleese and Palin had gone to posh public (private) schools. Yet however scraped his circumstances or mean his surroundings, young Eric was not a pouter; he always looked on the bright side of life. And he developed an early facility with language. "I think I was always interested in words because in such a sterile environment you have to create your own entertainment, and explore your own brain.... I was more well read than most teenagers because at boarding school there was nothing else to do in the evenings. I didn't have a fucking youth!"
Well, now he's had one for the 40-plus years of his Python fame. Idle remains the most boyish of the group, with a sense of humor unabashedly adolescent, both pleasing and easy to please. His love of verbal play is so intense it seems like a bright boy's first passion at discovering the worlds in words the alternate, funhouse universes that language could create. Sometimes that ardor lasts a lifetime; it did for Joyce and Nabokov. Not that Idle is at their rarefied level, but his word-joy was from the beginning, and remains, infectious.
Why, in the Pythons' youth, did a really bright schoolboy aim for Oxford or Cambridge? The reason at least to those of us who know more about the Brit entertainment scene than any other aspect of U.K. society was to perform in the university drama societies and meet people who could get you into the theater or on TV.
Until the late '50s, popular British humor came from the working class. Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, the Goons whose wild radio comedy enthralled all classes (Prince Charles was a particular fan), had never gone near a university. That changed with Beyond the Fringe, a comedy revue written by and starring four recent graduates from Cambridge (Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller) and Oxford (Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore). Quite a few shapers of the national smile over the next decade or so were Oxonians, like the creators of the influential satirical magazine Private Eye, who had first convened at at Shrewsbury, Palin's private school. And Palin was at Oxford with Terry Jones.