'No, I wouldn't say that," Eric Idle retorts. "It's not sexist to talk about your penis." He looks at me with watery blue eyes, serious yet mirthful, allowing a pause to interrupt our banter. "Not if you have one."
I had asked the Monty Python alumnus whether he would consider his brand of British humour sexist. It wasn't a serious, feminist line of questioning or anything. It just seemed natural to ask it. There's the famous Penis Song, after all. Sample: "Isn't it frightfully good to have a dong?/ It's swell to have a stiffy/ It's divine to own a dick." There's Sit on My Face, an anthem to oral sex. Part of my preparation before talking to him involved listening to these songs and more on his CD, Eric Idle Sings Monty Python, released in 2000 to capitalize on his successful one-man tour, Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python.
"I don't think anything is taboo. Nothing should be forbidden. It's sexist if you demean people because of their sex or gender." A smile cracks his serious mien. "A penis is funny," he laughs, before turning erudite again. "If you look at a jester, the very thing that they used to flap people with was a penis. Penis and balls."
He sits back thoughtfully, his mouth now pursed, his expression as philosophical as an anthropology professor who has just illuminated a great cultural truth. "Comedy," he opines, "has very much to do with the penis. I'm sorry to have to tell you this. But it's true." He follows this with another giggling laugh, shaking his head a little as he bends forward.
Idle likes to offer serious opinions. He is a very smart man, Cambridge-educated, an author, playwright ( Pass the Butler), producer and director. The premise of his best-selling sci-fi novel, The Road to Mars, published in 1999, was an investigation of the nature of comedy. He wrote a novel in 1975, Hello Sailor, about a gay prime minister ("A scurrilous book," he says, eyebrows dancing. "Worth quite a bit on the Internet, I hear") and a children's book, The Quite Remarkable Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat.
His comedic sensibility, best exemplified in Monty Python's Flying Circus, of which Idle was one of six troupe members (along with John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and the late Graham Chapman), is timeless. With its absurdist humour, clever wordplay, satiric sketches and compulsory drag gigs, the series is in endless reruns (one-hour versions of it premiere June 17 on the Comedy Network) as it continues to amuse audiences more than 30 years after it first appeared on the BBC in the fall of 1969.
But for all his accomplishments and philosophical bent, Idle doesn't take himself seriously. And frankly, dressed as he is, ghoulishly, in the costume of a ghost of a British soldier from the American War of Independence, it's a little hard to.
We're talking on the set of Soul Patrol, a Disney movie being shot in Toronto, in which Idle plays Coffin Ed, one of three ghosts who help two teenage siblings thwart an evil spirit that won't allow their recently deceased grandfather to rest in peace. On his thin frame, he wears a soiled uniform. His fingernails are painted blue. He wears a ratty greying wig over his curly hair and his teeth are coated with an acrylic-like substance that makes them yellow and black.
But he is oblivious to his appearance, to how ridiculous he looks. Maybe he views his look as just one more layer, of which he has many. It's hard to know how to read Idle at first. He swings from one mood to another, at turns mocking, erudite, cheeky and self-deprecating, inhabiting different personas it seems, leaping from one thought to the next, as though all of his brain activity has been pent up, waiting for an outlet, which happens to be this interview. Talking to Idle is a wild ride.
"We're very funny when we're having sex," he continues, as a corollary to the subject of penises. "God laughs." He remains still, completely unabashed, looking at me, bug-eyed.
There's nothing to do but join him on his train of thought. Because of the positions? I venture. "Yeah, because you're so into it. There's no awareness of anything else going on. That's funny. Lack of awareness is funny. We are reduced to our bodies. It's our bodies in charge when we're having sex. It isn't our brain. We're virtually brain dead."
Ah, but for women, I tell him, thinking I could score a point for females everywhere, it all happens in the brain. That's the problem.
"And in the male, too," he counters. "It happens in the brain. There are physical sensations but the overwhelming things happen in the brain." He pauses again, then pronounces loudly to an imaginary audience. "Orgasm happens in the brain."
He loves women, he tells me later, as though to further prove the non-sexist theory. It was love at first sight in 1977 when he met his wife of 25 years, Tania Kosevich, a former Playboy model, at a Saturday Night Live party in New York, when he was 33 and she, 27. "She asked me to dance, and that was it. I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. And I told her that," he admits. They live in Los Angeles with their 12-year-old daughter, Lily. With his first wife, Australian actress Lynne Ashley, Idle has a son, who is 29 years old, a Buddhist and shiatsu-massage therapist.
But now, Idle adds, at 59, he finds women more interesting. "Because I can talk to them," he says. "When you're young, you feel obliged to jump on them all. It's a bit of a relief, really," he deadpans.
Idle has no mental sieve. Throughout our exchange, he blurts out what he thinks. When asked where the comedic impulse begins, he reveals more than you'd think he might want to. "I grew up in a bleak environment. It was nasty and hard. I was sent to a boarding school from the age of 7 until 19. My father was killed in the Second World War, so I was in an orphanage for children who had lost a father in the RAF [Royal Air Force.]It was horrible. I was beaten. And in that bleak world, one way to get revenge is to make people laugh. It's a way to get some viewpoint. You're in control.
"Mother abandonment makes comedians," he proclaims, leaning back again, dispassionate and coolly intellectual. "My mother became distraught over my father's death," he says. "She ceased to function." Idle was an only child.
It was at Cambridge, where Idle went to study English literature, that he met Cleese and Chapman. Jones, Palin and Gilliam were at Oxford University. "I guess people sought each other out," he says. They began doing comedy in university "because we liked writing things and making people laugh."
After graduation, they separately worked on various television shows -- Palin, Jones, Gilliam and Idle wrote some children's programs together while Chapman and Cleese had another comedy series. "Then we all meshed together," he says. Did they know they were creating something so groundbreaking? "No," Idle says. "It's like George Harrison said to me once, 'If we'd known we were the Beatles, we would have tried harder.'
"Our comedy was only ever done to please ourselves," he continues. "It's a very instinctive thing. It has to be what's close to you. And we were lucky," he says. For one thing, their timing was good. "It was the sixties. People had been at war. The fifties were horrible. Great gloom and depression. And along came this [comedy]show, Beyond the Fringe. It was so funny. They attacked the Queen, the prime minister, the army and the church. They mocked what had been sacrosanct up until that point.
"And because they'd done all the prime-minister jokes, our thing, when we came along, was more silly, more obtuse, more generalized, which meant that it was able to play and still remain relevant. It's not like seeing Saturday Night Live and a Jimmy Carter joke. That may be funny the day after. But 20 years later, you have to remind yourself of what the context was. With Python, there was very little of that."
They were also fortunate because colour television had just been introduced. "If the shows were in black and white, it would look like the Stone Age," Idle says. BBC executives also left them alone, he adds. "We made all the decisions. It was unique in that we were pushing our own boundaries. Nobody had that kind of freedom. We knew what we liked. We understood the language and grammar of television. It was really challenging. We wanted to offend as many people as we could."
The last half-hour episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus aired in 1974, just after Cleese left to work on his own series, Fawlty Towers. The Pythons last appeared on stage in 1981 for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. They last worked together on the 1983 movie, The Meaning of Life. In 1999, there was talk of a reunion, but nothing came of it.
Idle sees himself as a writer first, more than as an actor or even as a member of Monty Python. He is a "huge reader," he says, who goes through four or five books a week. Last year, he completed writing The Rutles: Can't Buy Me Lunch, a spoof of the Beatles, which was a sequel to The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. He is working on a new book and a Broadway musical, which he cannot discuss. "Writing is difficult but challenging," he says, adding that he begins work each day in the "30- to 40-minute window in the morning when things are clear."
Idle is motivated by more than his comedic sensibility or a cynicism about the world. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's his love of life that keeps him engaged.
"It's so very interesting being human," he says, tugging at his soldier's uniform. "It's probably the best thing in the universe. People don't really realize just how great it is to be in this form, on this planet, at this time."
He is completely earnest, in this, what he calls his "cosmic" frame of mind, as he smooths a strand of his wig across the top of his pale, ghostly forehead and offers me a big yellow smile.