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Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle (Crown Archetype, $36)

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“So much has been written about Monty Python. There have been memoirs, diaries, books about the Pythons, books by the Pythons about other Pythons, articles about the books about the Pythons, countless interviews, autobiographies, documentaries…so many documentaries. I honestly think there are more hours of documentary about Python then there are hours of Python.”

-Eric Idle (from Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, page 39)

A while back a friend of mine asked me to assist him with his plans for a surprise trip to New York for his 10th wedding anniversary. (I often get asked for similar advice, even though I don’t really go anywhere anymore; I think I missed my calling as a travel agent.) We worked on an itinerary for him and his wife: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Natural History; the usual. Then I suggested they take in a Broadway show. And insisted they see Spamalot, the latest musical sensation to burn up the Big Apple. By then the original cast, which consisted of David Hyde Pierce, Hank Azaria and Tim Curry, had left the production, and the role of King Arthur was being played by Harry Groener, (known to Star Trek fans as Tam Elbrun in the Next Generation episode Tin Man).

“Spamalot!?!” he said, confused. “What the hell is that? A musical homage to canned meat?”

I told him it was based on Monty Python & the Holy Grail, as well as several of their other works. It won a Tony Award for Best musical, and was the hottest ticket in town. He became convinced. When they returned, all they talked about was the play, and they kept whistling the song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, like an annoying couple of newlyweds. Serves me bloody right for trying to help.

Monty Python’s Eric Idle, the composer of that now ubiquitous tune, is the author of the new “Sortabiography” smartly titled Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Like the above quote so eloquently and directly states, there have already been innumerable books, articles, essays and documentaries about Monty Python. (In fact, I believe this is the third Python-related book I have reviewed for Curtains Up! Fourth, if you count the story of Handmade Films, Very Naughty Boys.)*sigh* So when I saw that a new book was coming out by Eric Idle, I balked at the idea of reading it, letting alone writing a review. What could he have to say that I didn’t already know? Years ago I had read The Greedy Bastard Diary, a fun and informative book based on a blog Idle wrote during a solo tour of North America in 2003, which had autobiographical elements within, so I was worried the new book would be repetitive. But in the end I needed a Python fix, and such things are becoming increasingly rare. And like stories about The Beatles, I just can’t get enough!

Idle hits the ground running and swings from one anecdote involving famous actors, musicians and comedians to another the way a gibbon swings from branches. Most of them were interesting, some fell a little flat. Along the way the author drops more names than a skydiving phone book (to be fair Idle is quite aware of this, and even discusses it at the beginning of Chapter 20). There are amazing candid photos of the other Pythons, and some of his best friends like David Bowie and George Harrison, both in colour in the middle of the book, as well as black and white shots dispersed throughout. The recurring theme, and the tie that binds the effort together, is of course the title song.

Reading Always Look on the Bright Side of Life my fears were justified. There were numerous repetitions from the aforementioned titles; at least half of the book was nothing new to me. But that didn’t tarnish the other half, which was more original to my eyes. (I had no idea Elvis was a huge Monty Python fan (pages 116-117). And I mean the Elvis, not Declan MacManus, whose love of Python would of course come as no surprise to anyone.) My favorite chapter dealt with the making of The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, the first ever mock rock documentary (Chapter 11). I have not seen that film in over 15 years, but it cracked me up just thinking about it as I read the pages, and inspired me to watch it again. Still hilarious.

Otherwise there are no great revelations, like Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist (also reviewed on Curtains Up!) where she opens up about her affair with Harrison Ford. And Idle doesn’t discuss his recurring character Declan Desmond on The Simpsons. (Yes, I did reference the name “Declan” twice in one review!)

All of this begs the question: Who is this book for? To fans of Monty Python it will seem like old hat, although I think they will still enjoy a majority of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography, but it will be of limited interest to anyone who is not.

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