'Monty Python' vet Idle: Not standing idly by
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From Bill Tush
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Members of the now-defunct but much-loved British comedy troupe Monty Python are celebrating the group's 30th anniversary this weekend with a special program on the BBC. But one of the group's original members, Eric Idle, won't be attending any of the planned festivities -- he's too busy juggling other projects.
For example, he's currently got a part on NBC's "Suddenly Susan." Idle plays Brooke Shields' nasty boss Ian Maxtone-Graham, a former publishing wizard who buys her magazine, "The Gate." ("Suddenly Susan" airs on Monday nights at 8 p.m. ET.)
The work is a bit different from his days in the "Flying Circus."
"You know, you can't be extreme," he says of the part. "You can't be groundbreaking, and you can't mock the people with whom you're doing it."
In addition, he says, you have to pace yourself differently. "It's only 22 minutes and 'Python' was a half-hour. It's quite a different vehicle."
"Monty Python's Flying Circus," the ensemble's most enduring vehicle, was produced between 1969 and 1974 for the BBC. It wasn't broadcast in the United States until 1974. But those 45 shows produced by Ian MacNaughton created an endlessly rerun bank of sketch comedy, still a mainstay of PBS programming in the States, sometimes packaged with other British comedies like "To the Manor Born," "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin" and "Are You Being Served?"
Idle was joined by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and sometimes by Terry Gilliam, the group's only American, in the original show. Members of the group went on to produce several films -- "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," (1975); "Life of Brian" (1979); and "Monty Python's the Meaning of Life" (1983).
After the release of "The Meaning of Life," the Python group disbanded, several of its original members -- Cleese, Palin and Idle particularly -- going on to independent projects.
Cleese has just ordered some train-wreck footage edited out of the weekend special, in light of Tuesday's railway collision near Paddington Station in West London. At least 30 people are known to have died in the crash, and the death toll is expected to rise.
Cleese, whose most notable work after the "Flying Circus" may have been in the series "Fawlty Towers" with Prunella Scales, says that Monty Python humor "always specialized in bad taste, but there are some jokes you could never do."
Not just on TV
Meanwhile, Idle has just seen his book, "The Road to Mars: A Post-Modem Novel," released in September. Described by the publisher, Pantheon Books, as "Douglas Adams meets Kurt Vonnegut meets Isaac Asimov," the novel is set in the 24th century, and narrated by a micropaleontologist -- a scientist who studies the evolutionary impact of very brief periods of time, say, 10 minutes. He's investigating the works of a little-known robot comic.
"I wrote 70 pages," Idle says, "and I sent it off to an agent and said, 'This is what I'm writing, do you think anybody would be interested?' He called me back in two weeks and said, 'I sold it!' So then I had to finish it."
Although he says he panicked initially, "It was good. It focused me very much, and I said, 'Well, now I can really concentrate on this.' And I spent two or three years writing it."
The robot at the center of the story captures the works of two space-age comics who perform on an interplanetary cruise ship, the Princess Di, patronized mostly by old ladies.
"It was based on my mother," Idle says. "She said, 'I'm going on a cruise again, I'm going around the Earth, I wish there was somewhere else to go. Maybe there will be cruises around Saturn and Venus; it will take three years, but it'll be great.'"
New work aside, Idle says, when you make the comedic impact that "Monty Python's Flying Circus" did when it first came to British television 30 years ago, and then follow it up with comedy classics like "Life of Brian" and "The Holy Grail," people inevitably ask if the troupe will reunite.
"We tried to get a tour of America together last year," he says. "We were offered $10 million for six weeks' work and Michael Palin said no. It's like, 'Michael!'
"We're not even smart enough to take the money. What can I tell you?"
That sounds like a "no."
Something familiar: Monday night fall TV
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