Book review: ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography’

Michael Hill
The Associated Press
This cover image released by Crown Archetype shows "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography," by Eric Idle. (Crown Archetype via AP)
AP | Crown Archetype

Eric Idle has been funny for a very long time.

He gained fame almost 50 years ago playing pompous TV hosts and leering idiots as a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. While the original BBC TV show ran for only four seasons, it spawned a bunch of live shows and several movies, including “Life of Brian,” which ended with Idle on a crucifix singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

He reprised the tune at the 2012 London Olympics and featured it in his Broadway hit “Spamalot.”

There are a few laughs in this book, billed as a “sortabiography,” but it mostly reads like a casual memoir of someone who still can’t quite believe his good fortune.

Idle is one of those funny people who had a miserable childhood. His father survived World War II in the Royal Air Force only to die in a traffic accident as he was coming home for Christmas in 1945. The boy was eventually packed off by his overwhelmed mother to an orphanage, or “Ophny” as residents called it.

He made it into Cambridge University and — more significantly — into its performing Footlights club, which was a springboard to British stage and TV shows.

In 1969, the BBC rounded up some other bright young performers for a sketch show so undefined it didn’t even have a name. Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam toyed with names like “Toad Elevating Moment” and “Whither Canada?” before settling on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

“We didn’t know what we were doing and insisted on doing it,” Idle writes. The show — a mix of absurdity, whimsy and high-brow humor — had evolved from British comedy before it, but it was a revelation when it crossed to the United States.

Readers looking for firsthand insights into the inner workings of that landmark show will be disappointed. They might even wonder if some of the book’s pages stuck together, since Idle barely touches on how the group of outsized personalities managed to create so much lasting comedy.

A lot of the book is consumed with the many famous and fabulous people he hung out with, among them George Harrison and David Bowie. And a lot of pages are devoted to recounting his high-profile performances of “Bright Side.” It gets repetitious.

But Idle can be insightful. His chapter about his relationship with the late comedian Robin Williams is especially poignant. But the chapter highlights how the book is most interesting when Idle writes about what he noticed instead of listing what he did.