Chapter One. The Greedy Bastard Tour.
In 2003 I left my home in California for a three month, 15,000 mile comedy road-trip round North America on a rock and roll bus, with a snapped tendon and a boot. It is a delicious irony that I’m setting off again on a comedy road trip with another torn tendon and a surgical boot.
This time of course the boot is on the other foot.
And when I say delicious I do mean painful. Two or three times a day it unexpectedly delivers withering cramps which leave me writhing on the ground shouting obscenities in French. It should look very impressive on stage. Something between a silly walk and an attack of Turrettes. So if you’re coming to the show look out for this.
“ Ooh look he’s doing his Silly Fall.”
And please do laugh. Nothing is worse than having pain and not getting a decent laugh. That’s the great thing about Comedy: if it hurts it’s funny.
It’s like Sex in that respect.*
(*No it isn’t. Ed.)
Odd that, and I shall discuss it later, as I think I will make it a great footnote. Since reading a lot of David Foster Wallace my footnotes have become much longer recently and had he lived, I am convinced he would have written one of the greatest footnotes ever. He might even have ended up writing a footnote which was longer than his book.
Now the foot note is on the other boot.
This new one is customised, an open-toed, lace-up, black leather kinky-boot, built and fitted at enormous expense in the bowels of Beverly Hills, where plasterers and technicians labour to clamp expensive orthotics on the unwary. It’s mainly for travel, but then there is to be a lot of travel. This time it’s a kangaroo tour of Australia and New Zealand. I shall be hopping round the antipodes.
My companion is the legendary John Cleese, a man who has been making me laugh hysterically for 53 years.
I suppose most of you can’t even imagine what fifty years looks like. It’s hard for us to imagine time. Only the mirror tells its relentless tale. But yes, more than half a century ago, in February 1963, John Cleese walked into my life and, although I didn’t know it at the time, my life changed. Not immediately, but irrevocably.
Even odder, I was performing his material when he first saw me. I had no idea who he was, or that, at 23, he was a senior member of The Footlights, for I was just a 19 year old freshman at Cambridge University and I had been chosen at the start of my second term to be in the Pembroke “Smoker.” A Smoking Concert is a College revue, in this case held annually in the Old Hall, and the only reason that John wasn’t on stage was that though he wined and dined nightly in Pembroke and everyone assumed he was at Pembroke, he wasn’t actually a member of the College. Pembroke had a great comedy tradition and it was not long since the great Peter Cook had reduced everyone to giggling heaps.
So, February 1963. This is even pre- Beatles! They are still getting hammered in Hamburg and we have never heard of them. Indeed we are only into “cool” jazz, Miles Davis, John Coltrane that sort of groove. Imagine, then, a not particularly large room, an ex-19th Century Library, with gabled windows and leaded glass, packed with tables and candles, undergraduates and their dates dressed to the nines, a lot of wine and a great deal of smoke. A small raised platform in one corner was the stage and on it performed the cast, led by Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie (later to become The Goodies). There was one very funny girl (Carol), Jonathan Lynn, a pianist and one fresh faced young newcomer: me. One of the sketches was an Old Testament Newsreader played by Bill, called BBC BC.
“Good even. Here beginneth the first verse of the News.
I played the Biblical Weather Forecaster.
“Good even. Well it’s been a pretty rough week in the Holy Land hasn’t it? Anyway let’s just take a quick look at the scroll. We’ve got a plague of locusts moving in here from the NW they’re going to be in the Tyre and Sidon area by about lunchtime tomorrow. Scattered outbreaks of fire and brimstone up here in Tarsus and down here in Hebron oh and possibly some mild thunderbolts force two to three in Gath. Down in the south, well Egypt has had a pretty nasty spell of it recently 17 or 18 days ago it was frogs followed by lice, flies: a murrain on the beasts, and last Tuesday locusts and now moving in from the SSE – boils. Further outlook for Egypt well two or three days of thick darkness lying over the face of the land – And then death of all the first born.
Sorry about that Egypt.
I didn’t know it at the time but that part was written by John Cleese for himself and afterwards in the euphoria a very tall thin man in a thick tweed suit with dark hair and piercing eyes was introduced to me by Humphrey Barclay. He was very kind and complimentary, and indeed encouraging, for both of them urged me to come along and audition for The Footlights at their next Smoker. I had never heard of The Footlights, A University Revue Club founded in 1883, but it seemed like a fun thing to do and a month later Jonathan Lynn and I were voted in by the Committee, after having faced the ordeal of performing live to a packed crowd of comedy buffs on the slightly more glamorous Footlights stage, in the private Footlights Club Room, above fishy-smelling MacFisheries. I remember the sketch played surprisingly well, and one strange detail: in the front row, lounging on a sofa laughing rather drunkenly with some Senior Fellows was Kingsley Amis.
I soon adapted to Footlights Club life. We had our own private bar which opened at ten at night and stayed open as long as we wanted. (Pubs closed at 10.30) Lunches were provided inexpensively on the premises and twice a term there were Smoking Concerts where one could try out new material. I soon learned a very valuable lesson in performing, for one day I picked up a headmaster sketch by John and read it and didn’t find it very amusing. That night he performed it and killed. Brought the place to a standstill. So much is confidence, and how you do it. That was the most valuable thing about The Footlights: learning the art of writer/performing by watching and doing. That year’s Annual Revue, which ran for two weeks during May Week at The Arts Theatre, was the funniest thing I had seen since Beyond The Fringe. It was called A Clump of Plinths, a very Cleese kind of title, and John stood out head and shoulders amongst a great cast. The thing was that, unlike the others, he never let on that he was being funny. He was always deadly serious, the deadest of deadpans. I watched in amazement and sheer joy. The show toured the UK and then was picked up by Michael White and put into the West End under the title Cambridge Circus. By then the gangly pipe-smoking Graham Chapman had joined the cast and they would take the same show to Broadway, and then run off Broadway for several months.
Last year when his autobiography So, Anyway came out John asked me to interview him on stage at The Alex in Glendale, so we just chatted impromptu for two hours, and it was easy and fun. It gained a surprising attention on U Tube. (The U boat of entertainment.) So last year out of the blue John asked me if I’d like to tour Florida with him and I thought “Why not?” I’d never been there, and the prospect of spending some nice time with him on the road appealed to me. We even had a rock and roll bus. We called it:
John Cleese and Eric Idle, Together Again at Last for the Very First Time.
It was very successful, 22 shows in 15 cities in 31 days, and we both really enjoyed it. I said to John “the important thing is not that they liked us, but that we liked us.”
One of the most challenging things for John and I on Tour is standing up. We originally asked to be pulled on stage in Rickshaws, but it proved difficult to find Rickshaws in Florida, (I imagine Uber will be on it soon) and so we decided we would actually do our own walking, and if I may say so, we’re getting very good at it. As soon as we hear the opening announcement:
Welcome to an evening without Michael Palin
…we walk right on stage.
Of course we sit down almost immediately, but don’t underestimate the skill it takes to walk out like that on stage, just using our own feet. In fact we do sit down a lot, but the audience are seated, and who’s more important? They can sit there all evening but if we don’t walk on, then there’s no show. You don’t get insights into Showbiz like this anywhere else.*
So yes, it’s Sit Down Comedy, and sadly there are no Silly Walks, and no dancing.
My dancing days are of course done, although a couple of years ago I was offered Dancing with the Stars, and while the chance to clutch at semi-naked Russian women has always been a powerful incentive for me (my wife is half Russian and half Italian) and she is a delightful dancer,as I explained to her as she banged my head affectionately against the wall, “I was a dirty young man so it is entirely appropriate I should now be a dirty old man.”
Of course logic and reason can go out of the window at these moments, and in fact I was in no danger of accepting. At a certain age you get tired of disappointing females, fun though it is.
“I never saw anything wrong with premature ejaculation. It gets it over with quick and still leaves plenty of time to get to the Cinema.” Pass the Butler. 1983
So The World Tour of Florida was very successful. We achieved our goal of finding audiences even older than we were. We had a lot of laughs, visited a lot of places, and no two shows were ever the same. So this year when John suggested Australia I said yes at once. We have decided we will tour anywhere there are crocodiles. So we’re off in a couple of weeks. And this time I do intend to write my Tour Blog like I did in 2003. That last Tour diary turned into The Greedy Bastard Diary, still the closest I have ever written about myself. By turns grumpy, horny, bitchy, nasty, and occasionally funny it was a report card from the road of my life. Now it seems my sub conscious, whom I call Derek, is once again knocking on my door demanding I bash out his bitchy little voice.
John Cleese/Eric Idle Tour of Australia/New Zealand
2/25: Gold Coast, AUS – Jupiters Theatre
2/27: Brisbane, AUS – Convention Centre
2/28: Brisbane, AUS – Convention Centre
3/1: Adelaide, AUS – AEC Theatre
3/2: Adelaide, AUS – AEC Theatre
3/5: Canberra, AUS – Royal Theatre
3/9: Perth, AUS – Riverside Theatre
3/10: Perth, AUS – Riverside Theatre
3/14: Sydney, AUS – State Theatre
3/15: Sydney, AUS – State Theatre
3/16: Sydney, AUS – State Theatre
3/18: Melbourne, AUS – Hamer Hall
3/19: Melbourne, AUS – Hamer Hall
3/20: Melbourne, AUS – Hamer Hall
3/23: Auckland, NZ – Civic Theatre
3/24: Auckland, NZ – Civic Theatre
3/28: Wellington, NZ – Michael Fowler Centre