MONTY PYTHON'S SPAMALOT by Eric Idle and John Du Prez, based on the screenplay Monty Python And The Holy Grail, directed by Mike Nichols, with Michael Siberry. Presented by David & Ed Mirvish, JAM Theatricals and TGA Entertainment at the Canon Theatre (244 Victoria). In previews from Wednesday (July 12), opens July 16 (at 7 pm) and runs to September 10, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $26-$110. 416-872-1212. Rating: NNNNN
Eric Idle greets me with a boisterous "Another lovely lady! Toronto is just full of lovely ladies!" I'm flattered - Mr. Nudge thinks I'm lovely! - and a bit freaked out.
I expect him to be a lot of things, but never so nice to a writer eight hours into a press junket. This is the guy who hung shirtless on a cross at the end of Life Of Brian, leading a chorus in a field of crucifixions with fellow Python Graham Chapman .
More recently, in 2004, the FCC fined him $5,000 for saying "fuck" on the radio. He'll always be Mr. Nudge - sly and dangerously smart.
Articulate and kind, Idle looks me straight in the eye when he answers my questions and remains attentive and pleasant when I'm speaking. He reminds me of my dad, if my dad and his co-workers liked to dress in drag and sing songs about their penises.
Idle still rocks the drag, but these days he's often working behind the scenes, revelling in the buzz surrounding Spamalot, his Tony Award-winning musical based on Monty Python And The Holy Grail.
While Toronto audiences aren't much for hobbits, they do like their Python, and they love their Spamalot, lining up in costume last May to reserve their tickets and singing Python songs to commuters on Yonge.
The script and songs of his musical read like a Best Of Python. Idle works in everything from Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life (from Life Of Brian) to Monty Python's signature big, squishy, illustrated foot. Though the show's been criticized for lacking The Holy Grail's subversive, postmodern element, other Pythons, Idle tells me emphatically, supported his project to retool the film for the stage.
"They went along with it. They were very encouraging. And they all get large cheques now," he says, grinning.
Spamalot is hardly Idle's first rodeo. Fellow Pythons Michael Palin and John Cleese enjoy high-profile post-Python careers - Palin as an erudite TV traveller and Cleese in everything from Fawlty Towers to A Fish Called Wanda - while Idle remains tied to the stage.
His roles have included Ko-Ko in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado and touring a mish-mash of Python sketches and his own tunes.
And - because he's just like my dad - he likes being comfortable, quiet, but with plenty of work, spending most of his time at home in California with his wife, Tania, and their teenage daughter.
"It's nice to be in that position now," he remarks, squeezing a bit of lemon into his tea.
His 2004 encounter with the FCC wasn't his first conflict with America's broadcast regulator. PBS was poised to broadcast Idle's compilation concert Eric Idle's Personal Best when it received a warning from the FCC that Idle's songs were too obscene for public TV.
"I felt pissed off," he says. "I had the opportunity to withdraw the whole thing. But then I remembered that Python exists in America by the courtesy of PBS. It's not their fault the FCC stepped in. They didn't do it, and they get fined if they make a mistake. If I insist and they do get fined, they lose a lot of money that they could spend on shows. So I'll choose something else and they can have it on the DVD."
He's politically astute enough to be suspicious of the FCC's tactics under the Bush administration.
"I think PBS is being prosecuted and persecuted by the FCC, and deliberately so," says Idle. "They would like to take PBS away and leave us with all Fox. You can't have everything in the world owned by Rupert Murdoch. That would be awful. And we must fight that," he says, reinforcing the timeless adage that comedy is resistance.
Judging from the cast recording, Spamalot isn't all that subversive. It looks too fluffy and maybe there's too much money at stake. But it chooses its battles, just as Idle chooses his: today for defending show tunes and tomorrow for fucking the FCC.