Friday, July 01, 2005

IDLE SPECULATION: Can one ever truly know one's cousins across the pond?

A review of Eric Idle's The Greedy Bastard Tour and J.R. Daeschner's "True Brits: A Tour of Great Britain in All Its Bog-Snorkeling, Shin-Kicking, and Cheese-Rolling Glory"

When a 29-year-old Charles Dickens arrived in the United States for the first time in 1842, he was so popular that a crowd greeted him off the boat in Boston and tore away patches of his fur coat to take as souvenirs. Dickens later complained about the adulation, writing, "I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude." The author came to America to lobby Congress for an international copyright law to prevent upstart American publishers from pirating his work He was losing money and wanted it to stop.

Dickens made a second trip in 1867, prompted by promises of huge profits to be made on a reading tour. He stayed for five months, gave 76 performances and made 19,000 (the equivalent of $2 million today).

Money is a great motivator.

British comedian Eric Idle doesn't try to hide his desire to make some cash by exploiting old material from his days in Monty Python. In late 2003, he embarked on an 80-day bus trip to perform 50 shows throughout the United States and Canada (but none in Texas). He called it "The Greedy Bastard Tour." A diary from that trip has just been published to coincide with the opening of "Spamalot," Idle's theatrical rehashing of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which opens on Broadway at the end of the month.

Full disclosure: I'm not much of a Monty Python fan. Sure, I thought the show and movies were funny the first time I saw them back in the '80s, but the effect has since worn off. Nevertheless, I still have a dozen friends who will repeat Python lines at the drop of a top hat. I suppose I'm just over it.

Most of the original Pythons have moved on, too. John Cleese has made a name for himself as a seriocomic actor. Michael Palin has become an intrepid traveler writer and documentarian. Terry Gilliam is a respected movie director. Terry Jones can now call himself a serious medieval historian (his book "Who Murdered Chaucer?" was also recently published here). Graham Chapman died in 1989.

The man most responsible for keeping the old Python's shtick alive is Idle, who wrote many of the songs that made the Python movies such a gas, including the whistle-worthy "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," from the closing scene of "Life of Brian."

Though he promises that "this diary is a lapdance across America with a laptop," the day-to-day chronicle, most of which was previously posted to the PythOnline Web site, never rises to that level of excitement. As an artifact of the trip, it's perfectly adequate. Idle is dutiful in recounting meals, people met, the growth of a pain in his leg (he thinks it's gout, but it's actually a snapped tendon) and logistical issues with the show. Like Dickens, he complains, though not of the adoring crowds, which Idle craves, but of the need to make publicity calls to radio and television stations.

The one redeeming quality is that these dull passages are interspersed with reprints of bits from Idle's classic Python's sketches and interesting anecdotes about their origins. Still, this may not be enough for anyone other than die-hard fans. The expectation prompted by the book's subtitle -- that Idle, being a Brit, has a fresh take on America -- is never met. He's lived here off and on for more than 30 years and, having surrendered so completely to the American dream, is one of us now.

A Yank's take on Brit humor

Which raises the question: Is Idle's English eccentricity an act put on for the amusement of others, or does it have genuine origins?

American writer J.R. Daeschner believes that British oddball behavior is "a national treasure" and "a manifestation of their national identity." A transplant to London, where he works as a journalist, his book, "True Brits: A Tour of Great Britain in All Its Bog-Snorkeling, Shin-Kicking, and Cheese-Rolling Glory," documents his experiences participating in some of the most bizarre, outlandish cultural traditions -- many masquerading as sports -- that the U.K. has to offer.

Some date back hundreds of years. Shin-kicking, for example, can be traced to the "Cotswold Olympicks" of 1612, where in addition to sack races and hay bale hurling, citizens participated in a brutal game in which two people lock arms Greco-Roman wrestling style and kick at each other's legs until one topples over into a pile of manure. The modern incarnation is equally painful, as Daeschner discovers first-hand.

To, errr, kick things off, Daeschner takes part in The Sway, a slow-motion riot that resembles a giant rugby scrum, with a hundred or more men from opposing towns fighting over a short leather tube at the center. The goal is to move the tube, called The Hood, to either of two pubs on opposite sides of a field. Daescher, a 6-foot-4-inch redheaded Yank, throws himself into the fray, where he runs the risk of being crushed to death.

While his willingness to take personal risks for his reportage is impressive -- he often tries events more than once -- what's even more satisfying is Daeschner's commitment to explaining some basic elements of mainstream British culture alongside all the weirdness.

For example, during a discussion of bog snorkeling, in which people race 120 meters through freezing, murky water, he serves up a lengthy explanation of the phenomenon of the Page 3 Girl, the topless photo that often runs in most British tabloid newspapers. When describing Gurning, a form of clowning to produce the ugliest facial expression, he embeds the history of the Sellafield nuclear reactor, home to the second worst nuclear power plant accident in history. Another time, he combines a thorough explanation of Protestant anti-Catholicism and the conflict in Northern Ireland, with a description of "pope burning." (Only the book can do it justice.)

Daeschner's fine travelogue confirms that British comedic culture, whether embodied by Eddie Izzard or "The Office," is fed from wellsprings of oddball tradition. It also prompts the reader to hope that someday Eric Idle finds the time to write a proper memoir that attempts to explain whence his own offbeat sense of humor springs. That's a book Python fans -- on either side of the Atlantic -- would surely embrace.

This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman

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