[12 April 2005]
I am going on a bus tour of North America. Three months, and almost 50 gigs across the entire continent. It may seem a little odd at my age to be heading out on the road, but I have never done this and it seems to have a romantic gypsy feel to it.
—Eric Idle, The Greedy Bastard Diary
Travelogues are an enigmatic niche in the nonfiction movement. They purport to document an existential field trip, of sorts, but they quickly devolve into an autobiographical trip through the author’s—usually—sordid history. While some authors—Chuck Palahniuk—masterfully intertwine memoir with adventure, others fall flat on their faces, tipping the balance so crudely that their travelogues provide an awkward platform, and an equally strained structure, through which they delineate their own lives.
Enter Eric Idle, one time Monty Python member, and current overseer of Spamalot, a Broadway play “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” In 2003 he toured North America performing a comedy revue—entitled “The Greedy Bastard Tour”—sprinkled with Python classics, such as “Nudge Nudge” and “Sit On My Face And Tell Me That You Love Me,” and new, introspective sketches and monologues. The Greedy Bastard Tour, as it was called, visited 49 cities in 80 days. Covering over 15,000 miles in tour buses, Idle set out to record his day-to-day routines and adventures via daily weblogs; it is those blogs that served as the source material for The Greedy Bastard Diary: A Comic Tour of America.
Idle isn’t the first ex-Python to venture into travelogues; Michael Palin has become a reputable world-traveler, penning books—Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001)—and hosting television travel shows—Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, and Sahara. While their writings share breezy, friendly tones, it is Idle’s chummy banter that sets him apart; his daily entries read like literary equivalents of an extended conversation; he is warm and funny and he never overstays his welcome.
The self-proclaimed “sixth nicest member of Python” is no stranger to comedy tours. He began touring with Monty Python and continued on his own—in such shows as “Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python.” He is also equally familiar with writing, having published four novels—including The Road To Mars (Vintage, 2001)—and a children’s book—The Quite Remarkable Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat (Audio Literature, 1996.)
The Greedy Bastard Diary is simple in concept and execution: each short chapter serves as a literary day-in-the-life. Snappy one-liners and generally humorous observations are occasionally scrawled across the margins, adding a nice comic punch to the already-overflowing prose. But his humanity, ultimately, saves this book from becoming a run-of-the-mill title that usually clogs the humor section at your local bookstore.
Throughout the course of his diaries, he segues from his manic touring schedule to beautiful snapshots of the many cities that he visited to quiet, and sometimes laugh out loud funny, reminiscences.
He has reserved a unique place for himself in the hierarchy of 20th century popular culture, and along the way he has befriended and witnessed many landmark movers and culture phenomena. He befriended George Harrison, for example, who served as executive producer on The Life of Brian (1979), and remained lifelong friends with the ex-Beatle. The two friends often showered each other with gifts—Harrison once sent Idle a Jukebox fully loaded with classic rock ‘n’ roll records, while Idle often delivered Rutles memorabilia to Harrison. But it was their respective humanity that ultimately solidified their friendship, and Idle repays his debts to Harrison by painting a portrait of a deeply intelligent and spiritual man who never lost his sense of humor. His ruminations are at once energized and bittersweet, and they take an unexpected, poignant turn when he reflects on Harrison’s death.
I’m not going to lecture you about laughter and tears, but when George lay dead and we were all sitting there very gloomy consuming Kleenex, his son, Dahni, said “Come on, Dad wouldn’t have wanted this.” And I said, “Yeah, he wasn’t all he was cracked up to be,” and we all laughed, because it was one of George’s favorite lines from Python. Laughter can be such a wonderful release. Saying the unsayable at these moments can work really well.
Comedy in its purest form is a defense mechanism employed to overcome pain, and Idle, when discussing his late mother and father, George Harrison and Graham Chapman, proves himself a master comic who hasn’t yet reached his zenith. His humor alternates between tasteless and introspective, and it this comic schizophrenia that has kept him relevant throughout the years.
Although a shockingly good—and quick—read, the book’s few weaknesses lie in its concept. While Idle exploits the diary form, often better than authors who previously tread literary diary territory, he fails to gel his past and present into a coherent story. His reminiscences are typically stream-of-consciousness, having been sparked by a place or an object in the present; he goes shopping and reminisces about George Harrison; he arrives at an airport and considers Monty Python’s first day on their first comedy tour.
But we’re nitpicking here. The Greedy Bastard Diary is one of the most entertaining and laugh out loud funny non-fiction books published in the past two years and, for all its shortcomings, it proves that a comic icon can stay relevant after more than four decades by simply remaining funny despite the circumstances. And it is that tidbit that remains the book’s, and Idle’s, greatest accomplishment.