Monty Python is like a legendary rock band whose individual members have embarrassed themselves with a series of vain attempts to regain and/or cash in on past glories. Every once in a while, John Cleese might pop his head into this or that film, and the old faithful perk up, but the sad fact remains that the best days of these gifted comedians lie far behind them. Sadder still is their inability to come to grips with it. Terry Gilliam is the singular exception to this rule, but Eric Idle is the very embodiment of it. After scoring an artistic hit with the Rutles (although not a commercial one—the TV special that introduced the world to this Beatles parody scored one of the lowest ratings in network history), Idle has spent the many years since trading in on his twin peaks. Now, banking on the second of his successes, he has released The Rutland Isles.
Despite the title, The Rutland Isles has nothing specifically to do with the Rutles, and the contents lead one to believe that this may be intentionally misleading. How else could he get someone to tune in for this? His name has long since slipped from the A-list of comedy, and the concept of the record is hardly the biggest draw in town. Sending up BBC documentaries (and just in time!), The Rutland Isles presents itself as a sampler from host Nigel Spasm’s 168-part documentary on the titular islands, here surveying the country of Paranoia and the Over Friendly Isles. As might be expected, wackiness ensues, Idle-style. For instance, in Paranoia, the natives are known to say, “Look out behind you”, but probably not so often or so expectantly as Idle, who seems to fancy this a truly inspired gag. Also presented for your pleasure is the song, “Killing for God”, a song that finally breaks comedy’s long silence on the hypocrisy of religion. What that or any of the other multitudinous songs collected on The Rutland Isles have to do with much of anything is left to listeners to discern, but their sheer inanity ensures that few will bother trying.
Idle, like many of his Python pals, seems to have been abandoned by his muse, but that doesn’t stop him from continuing on even if it means being as irritating as he is here. As Steve Martin once said, comedy isn’t pretty, and when it isn’t good, it’s just sad. Few things, then, could be sadder than watching a decaying legend like Idle run through spoken or sung tracks with names like “Penis Fish”, “Gay Animal Song”, “Muff Diving”, and “Homo Semi-Erectus”. If these teach us anything, it’s that after the long, arduous climb out of juvenile humor, comedians will begin an inevitable devolution back to it when their inspiration departs.
That’s what so painful about listening to The Rutland Isles. It’s still Idle’s voice, very recognizable as the same one that reeled off so many immortal lines in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And he’s still employing the same subtly frenzied pace that he put to such good use in The Rutles: All You Need is Cash. The glaring problem is that there’s simply no material here that couldn’t have been thought up by a precocious high schooler. The setups feel the same, but the punch lines endlessly disappoint, just as it would if you climbed Jacob’s Ladder to find nothing at the top but a Stop ‘n’ Shop. Stop ‘n’ Shops may have their merits, as might The Rutland Isles, but the latter’s failure is the inevitable price to pay for early and collaborative genius.