February 15, 2005 A.D.
Eleven o’clock P.M.
Famous Restaurant in the Theater District
The Wry King is played by Mike Nichols
The Cheeky King is played by Eric Idle
And so they had bravely fled, the wry king and the cheeky knight, amid the thick and merry exodus of celebrants. Past the second-night johnnies camped at the portals, past the giddy purchasers of commemorative coconut halves (instructions for use included), they had galloped not so much as strode briskly down the block and over a little, to seat themselves at their Square Four-Top—a table Round not at all, any way you look at it—in a dim corner of Orso, where their salads now arrived.
The king quizzically regarded the knight’s garnish.
“White anchovies,” the knight explained.
“I see them,” said the king. “They’re lovely.”
“Would you like one?”
“No, thank you,” said the king. “I just like looking at them. They’re very much like what they bring you in Tokyo for breakfast. They brought us this terrifying fish and they prostrate themselves. Fuck that.”
“Oh, I like it,” said the knight, happily. “The prostration’s good over there! You know, we went to No. 1 in Japan at one stage back in the eighties. We were called ‘Gay Dragon Boys.’ ”
The king inquired, “Who made that decision?”
“That’s how it was translated into Japanese.”
“It’s such a nightmare,” the king groused, empathically. “In France, they tried calling Closer ‘Between Consenting Adults.’ I called them up, and I beat the shit out of them.”
“I saw that film!” said the knight. “It’s on our porno channel back at the hotel! Between Consenting Adults.”
The king continued, pointedly: “My favorite film title of all time is Fear Eats the Soul. They ought to call most movies that.”Whereupon dark, knowing laughter burbled between them, as though they understood all too well how fear eats souls, be it in life or in film or during late supper on the second night of Broadway previews for an $11 million grand storied caprice ultimately all their own, featuring human decapitation, deadly cows, serial incontinence, and happy songs. In fact, it is more than certain that fear had been eating their souls right then and there, at the Square Table of Orso—just feasting and gorging away, most probably. And as fear ate their souls, this king and knight ate rigatoni and mussels, and waiters couldn’t replenish the breadbasket often enough, and there was rice pudding and biscotti to follow, so it really was quite the banquet, all in all. And I remember thinking: These guys can eat Fear under the Table! And so it was.
Meet Arthur, if you will, king of the Britons, alone in the snowy wood, answering the rhetorical concern of his people, who fancy him ever buoyant and chipper: “Well, I’ll tell you what the king is doing tonight! He’s scared. Oh, he’s scared!”
Such was Richard Burton, suffused in song by Lerner and Loewe, as Arthur of the Majestic Theater, circa 1960–63, in Scene One of the seismic musical production Camelot, a Broadway landmark that bears no significance here in the least, other than to suggest Arthur has changed little in 45 years, and also that it’s sort of funny the way Camelot rhymes with Spamalot—known in full possessive as Monty Python’s Spamalot, or roughly translated to Japanese as Gay Dragon Boys’ Spamalot. Much more than an abundance of pressed pork meat, Spamalot is what pressed pork meat has forever dreamed of becoming: a riotous, tuneful, splendidly crafted stage-sprawl, based on (or, per proper subtitle, “lovingly ripped off from”) the cheaply made 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, whose sold-out previews began Valentine’s Day at the Shubert Theater after weathering its exultant holiday-season tryout in Chicago, the city from whence sprang The Producers four years ago. (“I have seen the next Producers, and its name is Spamalot,” trumpeted Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times on January 13, thus unleashing eastbound thunder.) Opening on St. Patrick’s night—“Everyone will be drunk and sleeping,” predicts producer Bill Haber—the show arrives gloriously spawned of Comic Pedigree so rarefied and swell that its shininess all but blinds, sort of like a Grail. Certainly, it is the Comedy Event of this particular Year in Christ, A.D.
To wit: As with the commingling of Pork and Ham, Minced, Spiced, Canned, there is strange heady hybrid at play here, whereupon the legendary imported genius that is Monty Python’s Flying Circus meets the legendary domestic genius that is Mike Nichols, and together they make babies (and kill many of them as they go, but we’ll get to that), while scalpers ask $500 a seat from anyone desperate to behold the miracle.
The Pythons, of course, simply remain the Beatles of comedy. They banded together in May 1969 at the British Broadcasting Corporation to create 45 renegade Surrealist half-hour programmes through 1974. That same year, select American PBS stations began televising episodes late Sunday nights, forever impressing upon a fresh continent of acolytes the madness of “The Lumberjack Song” and “The Dead Parrot Sketch” and the Ministry of Silly Walks et al. Know What I Mean, Nudge-Nudge? Bright adolescent boys, please note, were especially affected by the phenomenon: “You didn’t want to be around me on Mondays,” says the Queens-bred Hank Azaria, who is Spamalot’s Sir Lancelot. “Me and my middle-school friends would come in and repeat all the lines.”
Even as American entertainment fell sway to this foreign infection (Saturday Night Live debuted, under deep influence, in 1975), the Pythons themselves—five Brits, who were Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, and one Minnesotan, Terry Gilliam—had quit television as a whole, shifting group focus to the very occasional film. Of the five they made, Holy Grail was the first of any consequence, shot over five weeks on a £200,000 budget around grim Scottish castles. “It was just cold and wet and miserable,” Idle would recall. “It was fucking awful. It was no fun at all. I don’t think there was any fun.”
Seized with the fond memory, Idle burned to relive the magic. As chief flame-keeper among the Pythons—all of them somewhat crotchety, except for Chapman, fifteen years dead and less crotchety—he had long seen much merit in adapting for the musical stage the tale of stoic Arthur, his nincompoop Knights of the Very, Very Round Table, and their oft-detoured anticlimactic search for the Holy Grail, which ended onscreen with multiple arrests for the murder of an impaled narrator. In his newly published memoir, The Greedy Bastard Diary, Idle cites the timeless allure of the film: “It’s endearingly silly. It has a freshness and a simplicity which is rare. I think it has some of the same charm as A Hard Day’s Night: young men ignorant of what they are doing but supremely confident about doing it.” Plus, there were already three songs in the movie, and, he also realized, “several points which seem almost to demand a song: ‘I’m not dead yet!’ ‘Run away!’ ‘I fart in your general direction!’ Well, a Python song, anyway.” (Incidentally, each of these immortal utterances from the film turned play is emblazoned on souvenir buttons presently on sale in the Shubert lobby. Collect them all!)
And so, during the first eight weeks of 2002, after years of vague noodling, he and veteran Python composer John Du Prez whipped up the first-draft book and a demo disc of the score for Spamalot—which, in case you wondered, takes its name from the knights’ preferred dietary supplement: “We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot!” Producing impresario Haber leaped forth with initial backing—“within 24 hours of getting the package!” he says, stunned at his own soft touch. “You know how astounding that is?” Soon thereafter, a director was required, and Idle had only one in mind, and he was an old friend, and there was no real hope he would wish to withstand the madcap toil of building a daft Broadway blockbuster. “Forget it,” Haber told Idle, “he doesn’t want to work this hard.” Nevertheless, Idle said, “What the hell, might as well give it a try.”
He sent it to me and I said, ‘Oh, shit!’ ” recalls Mike Nichols, half-century sovereign of American Comedy (among other things), and wielder of much gilded hardware by Oscar and Tony and Emmy and Grammy. “Because I didn’t want to do a musical. But I got it and said, ‘I’m screwed. I have to do this.’ It’s going back to beginnings for me. It’s what I did when I started.” When he started, he started in Chicago (like Spamalot; hello, symmetry!), as a founding member of the Compass Players, first renegades of improvisational comedy, progenitors of the Second City, in whose number was Elaine May, with whom he would become very famous for being dangerously funny. (Upon their first meeting on the University of Chicago campus in early 1954, she regarded him only with a defiant syllable—“Ha!”—and then walked away, begetting a historic partnership of celebrated complexity, and something like lifelong love.) Together, they toured, made record albums and TV appearances, and generally intimidated with brilliance. In late 1960, An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May began thrilling Broadway cognoscenti and humans alike nightly, at the same time that Burton and Camelot debuted down the street. But when neuroses tore the pair asunder, his performing life ceased and, in 1963, he directed Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, earning his first of four Tony awards for helming Simon’s work. (Others came as producer of Annie in 1977 and as director of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing in 1984.) Meanwhile, his filmmaking career had begun at zenith with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate (1966 and 1967, respectively, the latter winning him a directorial Oscar), continuing apace ever since with Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood, Working Girl, Regarding Henry, Wolf, The Birdcage, Primary Colors, and last year’s Closer, among the 22 in his canon, including the recent HBO events Wit and Angels in America, both of which brought forth Emmys. Only once, however, had he dared to direct a Broadway musical comedy, a nice-enough folly called The Apple Tree, by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, starring Alan Alda and Barbara Harris, which opened in October 1966 at the Shubert—which is precisely where he has now returned nearly 40 years hence with Knights Who Say Ni and French Taunters and a Killer Rabbit. And even he cannot fathom this. “For a director,” he says, “a musical is a special kind of hell.”
“Taste is the enemy of art,” says Nichols. “Of life and vitality of all kinds, and sex—all the funny things.”
Here, then, is King Mike, wise and jolly, on a chill afternoon, dressed darkly per usual, one week before the start of previews, folded warmly into the back of a West Side recording studio where the quite insane and soaring cast album is being captured for eternity. (This, of course, telegraphs boldest confidence in product, to record full shebang five weeks before any national Spamalot review has been written. “It really is like Hubris City!” confirms the sturdy Tim Curry, who is merely King Arthur.) Nichols, brightly 73, is sanguine, regally so—pinkened laugh-cheeks ever at the ready—and mostly silent in deference to Idle and composer Du Prez, who fuss near the mixing boards, as full orchestra and ensemble make music behind glass. He sits with feet planted in soft-soled comfort, a bit of a pasha belly bouncing at any sudden comic nuance, whereupon his bespectacled eyes will widen with glee; his blonde bride of seventeen years, Diane Sawyer, has on occasion called him “His Royal Cuteness,” which seems about right. His voice rumbles always with peerage, and did long before earning it. Of Nichols’s earliest acting roles in Chicago, Compass forefather Paul Sills told The New Yorker, “He wasn’t the working-class man and couldn’t come close to it.” Die thus cast, nothing much changed. Marvels Curry, “I don’t think anyone has said no to Mike since about 1957.” As such, reverence follows him around, if cheerily. “It’s a bit like having Lenny Bruce in the room,” says Du Prez. “It’s fantastic. We call him Our Leader.” Says Azaria, who gave Nichols his unforgettable Birdcage turn as mincing man-maid Agador Spartacus, “His track record is intimidating, but he’s not.”
He is, in fact, kind of a fun king. He seems to whirl in measured antic air, and demonstrates this by leading me away from the studio—“Let’s sneak off, shall we?”—while the show’s breakout diva-discovery Sara Ramirez (The Lady of the Lake) and Christopher Sieber (the dopily strident Sir Galahad) lay stirring voice to a glorious Andrew Lloyd Webber parody anthem, “The Song That Goes Like This.” “They waited for me,” he confesses, once we are sequestered in a tiny room down the hall. “They waited a year, because I couldn’t stop Closer, since the four people in the movie were never going to be free at the same time again. So they waited, which must have been annoying and screwed up everybody’s schedule and all.”
But, in truth, the prolific Idle refused to sit, well, idle and kept rewriting his dream show, largely in search of a fluid plot, a trifling burden ignored in the film version, in which no Grail was ever found. “Every time Eric and I would have a conversation, he would do a new draft,” says Nichols. “Over and over. More and more drafts. We had to have at least the pretense of a plot. Not an elaborate plot, just a plot. One of the things that I love about this show is that you’re saying to the audience: This is just a gesture of a plot. And they say, ‘But we love it. We need it.’ Because, all together, them and us, we’re all admitting and celebrating why we’re there: Tell me a story. And, if possible, if you have a Grail, you have to find it. That’s the challenge.” Ingeniously, Idle finally deduced a way to make this happen, as ridiculously as can be imagined, with no small assist from the nightly patrons. “To make them part of this discovery and mission ritual,” Nichols says, flush with mirth, “has turned out much more exciting than could have been predicted!”
Indeed, Pythonia is his joy to reign, the purity of intellect transposed with sheer lunacy, the adroit bawd of it all. “I really understood certain aspects of Python and the forever unspoken things that are underneath,” he will say of this epic convergence, having known Idle and John Cleese socially for many years. (“Eric is a philosopher,” he told the Chicago Tribune, admiringly. “He writes as low as fart jokes and as high as Heisenberg. He covers the spectrum.”) That he finds himself charged with executing sublime shitting-of-pants theatrics, he suggests, has only refreshed his psyche. “Eric said the most wonderful thing. Because people are starting to say, ‘How do you feel about being told that this show is politically incorrect and in questionable taste?’ And Eric said, ‘Proud and a little aroused.’ Taste is the enemy of art altogether. I’ve thought about this a lot. People with good taste are constantly worrying about what other people will think. Don’t put that couch over there! It’s the wrong thing to be thinking about, because it squashes expression. Of life and vitality of all kinds, and sex—all the funny things! Did you see Team America? It’s hilarious—the puppet blow job in it. One goes down on the other one in the shot, and you’re just looking at the strings bouncing! It’s so expressive, it’s brilliant!”
And so rain would drench the city on the day and night of St. Valentine, just like Scotland in 1974 when wet Pythons first sought the Grail. Finally, the Shubert preview curtain would part on all that which Idle and Du Prez had begun three years earlier, and had moved from Chicago three weeks before. Still, whatever it had thus far become was owed entirely to that most sullen of drupaceous fruit—the lowly coconut—without which Monty Python and the Holy Grail would have never existed. Utter truth! “The coconut gag was the original gag that sparked the whole thing off,” said Terry Jones of the film, in the massive coffee-table Rashomon that is The Pythons Autobiography by the Pythons, published in 2003. “We did talk about having horses at one point, and then we quickly dismissed it, because we thought it would be funnier not to and because we couldn’t afford horses anyway.” Such was the bounty of budgetary constraint! Armored knights without horses, prancing forth on foot, trailed by servants clattering empty coconut shells, so as to idiotically simulate hoofbeats! Sight gag nonpareil! Cinema comedy history! This unrelenting image of noble impotence, in fact, was their only reason for bothering to make the film. “Thank God for coconuts,” Idle writes in his Greedy Bastard memoir, pondering the logistics of loosing his movie knights upon Broadway. “That means most of the scenes can be fairly easily reconstructed onstage.”
Tim Hatley’s fanciful set and costume design, based in part on Terry Gilliam’s original graphics from Holy Grail, keep the mock heroic quest jauntily apace amid castles and coots and Very Expensive Forests (as wooded tableaux are referred to onstage). Camelot itself appears as a florid, splashy Las Vegas hotel—à la, perhaps, Excalibur by the animation department at Warner Bros. Indeed, nearly all the original silly business, rudimentary to begin with, translated to the theater with newfound wit and vibrancy. The beloved bit, for instance, where Idle carted bodies through a blighted village and hollered “Bring out your dead!” is now so much the peppier with querulous dancing corpses performing the crowd-pleaser “I Am Not Dead Yet.” Said Nichols not long ago, “A friend asked me to explain how we were adapting the movie for the stage, and I thought about it and said, ‘Okay, you know how, in the movie, there’s a cow that flies out of a castle and lands on a page? Well, in the musical, the cow has a singing part.”
Alas, that is no longer true, for the cow (as sexily played in the manner of Marlene Dietrich by Sara Ramirez) was silenced in Chicago—although listen for “The Cow Song” as a cast-album bonus track. Nichols, who happened to adore this number, applied his scalpel nonetheless. “It broke the most important rule—she wasn’t a cow,” he says patiently. “If you’re going to catapult a cow toward the audience, then a hot lady dressed in a black-and-white thing is not the same as an actual cow that lands on a guy.” (A cow, by the way, still lands on a guy, just not a hot cow.) An elaborately choreographed witch-hunt sequence—“Burn Her!”—was similarly, and summarily, excised from the first act after much futile tinkering. “There was something about it that never quite worked,” says David Hyde Pierce, who bravely plays Idle’s original role of Bravely Bold Sir Robin. “Maybe that it was a song that was supposed to be funny about burning somebody at the stake?” But, according to all involved, the most rigorous cuts by Nichols are tiny and elegant and expertly peel away hambone artifice, the smallest hint of actor’s excess. “It’s what Mike calls ‘dead babies,’ ” says Curry, happily chastened. “He says every performance has babies—your favorite bit that you think is so funny but actually stops being true, and you do it anyway because you can’t bear to miss the laugh. Mike’s great note all the way through has just been: ‘That’s very funny. Now make it true.’ He says, ‘I want to see some dead babies.’ So when we left Chicago, I went off on sort of a rampage of serial infanticide.”
Herewith, the comic mind-meld of Nichols-Python meshes ever consistent. Hyde Pierce, whose teen years were also corrupted by Python Love abiding, professes, “They were maybe the biggest influence on my development as an actor. What I responded to in them was that combination of absurdity played with utmost sincerity.” Idle himself thoroughly approves of the symbiosis at hand. “What’s interesting for these guys is they’ve got this show going on, which is very silly; they are instinctive people doing very silly things,” he says. “And then you’ve got Mike talking to them about proper acting, even to the chorus people. He’s always pulling it back, which is really nice. It’s easy to go after a big laugh and make it bigger and bigger. But you’ve then got mugging very, very quickly.”
“Comedy is brutal,” says Nichols, all but spattered with its cherry blood. “It’s powerful, though. And the wonderful thing is—the thing I had forgotten about—pure comedy is so simple: If it’s funny, it stays; if it’s not, it goes. You have to be very careful of things you particularly love. It’s the killing-babies thing.” Idle, who has been listening to this, virtually beams: “He’s the biggest baby killer of all time!” he crows, as only he might. “Mr. Nichols the Baby Killer, they call him on Broadway!”
Did I say that it poured violent rain Valentine’s night? Because it did, and the 44th Street edifice of the sodden Shubert had been reconfigured as a turreted castle with five enormous windows, inside of which were likenesses of a sword-wielding knight, a foolish cow, a blonde maiden, a bloodied Killer Rabbit, and a headless sentry clutching his armored helmet containing the smiling face of Nichols. (“It was an idea of Haber’s,” says the director, shrugging. “He took me there and presented it to me. I said, ‘It’s cute. It’s all right with me.’ It seemed like the glasses were straight.”) Anyway, damp first-night previewers bustled inside for such token merchandise as officially sanctioned coconut halves (designated Right and Left), YOU’VE GOT GRAIL! T-shirts, plush fanged-rabbit puppets, toy farm-animal catapults, and collector’s-edition cans of Hormel Golden Honey Grail Spam (“It’s Crusade-a-licious!”). Expectation fluttered merrily, and there was Steve Martin and also Burt Reynolds (no one knew why) and also Tony Danza and Carol Kane, and Idle and his lovely wife, Tania, took their usual aisle seats three rows behind Nichols, legal pad and bottled water in his lap, and things went pretty joyously, and eager recognition applause welcomed familiar nonsense from the film (though it was fascinating to watch Steve Martin giggle especially at the most nuanced bits of stagecraft). But then there came abject hysteria once Hyde Pierce embarked on the second-act showstopping number, a bravura bombast called “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (If You Don’t Have Any Jews)”—sample lyric: “There’s a very small percentile who enjoy a dancing Gentile!”—whose transcendent incorrectness soars defiant amid neighboring houses playing Fiddler on the Roof, Jackie Mason’s Freshly Squeezed, and Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays. (Hyde Pierce had told me coyly a few days earlier, “Hopefully, it will strike a chord.”) It is, doubtless, the stuff of nascent Broadway Legend, replete with Yiddish chorus line in chain mail. Anyway, when all was done and confetti flew, ovations were long and standing and longstanding, even as Nichols and Idle threaded backstage, slightly harried of expression, smugness not yet their option.
Afterward, a quiet euphoria hovered in the wings, where principals accepted notable visitors, and Martin was so overcome that he had lost all sense of bearings (“What way is 44th Street? Is it this way? No, that way? Which way?”), and Danza and Kane grinned and milled luminously, and Idle had lost his wife completely, and Curry, descended stairs, his eyes shot red, and fell into the bear hug of Nichols, who said, “Tim, one note: When you come on in the second act, just come on,” the meaning of which would belong to them alone. Hyde Pierce, meanwhile, also shambled into the stairwell, posture limp, his eyes flashing, dizzied still by the reception for “the Jew song,” as it’s known in company rank. “After the first setup,” he said, “I knew they were with me. Amazing!” And Nichols wandered about, cautiously withstanding platitudes, and muttered only this in my direction: “Seems to work, seems to work. Strange, though, if you take one thing out and think it’s going to be better, and then you miss it… . Now we just get to keep working on it.” There would, after all, be another month to hunt down babies.
We’re fighting in the Daily News,” Idle said delightedly the next night. “I love that! We must maintain it!” He referred to a column item of Sunday, February 13, wherein a Chicago “backstage blabbermouth” averred, “Before they started previews, Mike Nichols and Eric Idle were not talking at all,” and that “Eric would come to rehearsals with new pages of script that would be given out to the cast before Nichols had even seen it.” Thus, ice had allegedly formed between them. Nichols countered this within the same item, via his publicist: “Working with Eric, and the relationship I have with Eric, is what brothers should be but rarely manage.” There is, in fact, per naked eye, only easy warmth in their togetherness, the winking bond of clever boy-men who know they’ve gotten away with much in life but weren’t supposed to. “The whole process of this play has been one of laughter,” Idle will say endlessly, as does his director. Nichols, however, told me, “We did start to argue before we went into rehearsal, and it scared the shit out of me. I was cavalier and would run over things, and he’d say, ‘Wait a minute! Wait a minute! There’s a thing here. Pay attention to this. You’re not looking at that.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, no, this is going to be difficult.’ But the second we started to work together [in rehearsals], we agreed on everything! It’s a fucking miracle.” The entrenchment, he adds, only pointed up their existential parallels: “We discovered what I never knew, that we had similar—not technically similar—very miserable growing-up times. He was in boarding school, I was in boarding school; we hated it thoroughly. In many ways, we are more similar than I ever realized.”
“I realized,” says Idle, “that Mike is—no matter what else he does—a comic, first and foremost.”
Further parallels: Both were born not here—Nichols in Berlin; Idle in South Shields, England. At 7, Nichols (né Michael Igor Peschkowsky) moved to New York, without his mother; Idle shipped off to boarding school (“a semi-orphanage”). Both lost fathers when they were boys: Nichols was 12; Idle was 2. Both were bookish loners, saved by theater at college (University of Chicago and Cambridge, respectively), and not long thereafter took over the universe, with and because of partners. They met each other nearly three decades ago at a party at Paul Simon’s apartment; Idle, a fan, didn’t recognize Nichols, a fan right back—“We were both very funny with each other,” Idle says—until someone told him afterward that his new acquaintance was Mike Nichols. Their family vacations in Barbados have since coincided more than once; Richard Avedon took snapshots.
Also, their former comedy partners are never terribly far from their ongoing professional lives: Elaine May wrote the screenplay for The Birdcage and Primary Colors, and will do the same for Nichols’s next film, based on Carl Hiaasen’s novel Skinny Dip. And Idle could not have created Spamalot, legally or spiritually, without full Python agreement—that is, the unresisting assent of Cleese, Gilliam, Jones, and Palin, who have not much been like-minded in the past twenty years. “The history of post-Python projects,” according to Idle, “has been like middle-age courtship, fraught with frustration, Byzantine negotiations, hot flashes, disappointing flurries of enthusiasm usually ending in stalemate, and droopy disappointment.” Until now, the rare exception was their notorious panel reunion at the 1998 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, during which Gilliam “accidentally” kicked over an urn believed to contain the cremains of Graham Chapman, spraying dust clouds everywhere, and inciting profane mayhem.
“Four minutes’ laughter!” Idle was now recalling, amid his mussels at the Square Table of Orso, where he and Nichols had brought their fear-eaten souls, along with the glamorous Mrs. Idle, Python wife of 24 years. “It was the biggest laugh we ever had! I was proud of us, because we actually bothered to set up a gag. Instead of just saying ‘Oh, it’s just a bloody interview!’ we set up a great gag.”
“A great gag,” said Nichols, chuckling. “A shocking gag.”
“Shocking because it’s mocking the dead,” said Idle. “It’s a fuck-you to death!”
“That’s what is so maddening about all this correctness superimposed on comedy,” said Nichols, grandly spearing theme like rigatoni, which he also speared, but not as grandly. “You must have heard about Bill Murray’s speech at Gilda’s memorial. Gilda Radner was dead, of cancer. Everybody loved her. It was impossible not to love her. We’re in NBC Studio 8H—where they did Saturday Night Live. Everybody makes speeches. Bill Murray—I never liked him … I still don’t really like him, but there’s no way not to admire him … He’s a remarkably gifted guy. He stood up and said, ‘8H—I remember when we worked here, I was in love with Gilda, and at the time I thought I was the only one she was sleeping with.’ Stuff like that for a while, then he went on to say, ‘And then this guy came and he married her. And he took her to California, and then he killed her.’ He wasn’t there, of course—Gene Wilder. But it was ten seconds of stunned silence, and then certainly the biggest laugh I’ve ever heard. We were hysterical. Hysterical because that’s what everybody felt. It was Gene! Gene, he killed her! It was everybody’s secret rage, completely unfounded, at having lost Gilda. But who wants the burden to say it at the memorial? But it’s the gall to do it. And the ashes and the urn were even more shocking.”
And now, I reminded them, audiences down the street can behold dead people singing and dancing. Both men brightened at mention of the spectacle.
“They love that number!” said Idle.
“They love it,” echoed Nichols.
“It’s really shocking,” said Idle. “They never see it coming!”
God’s voice, no less, imbues Arthur and knights with their theatrical quest (because they require one), and since that Divine Voice (on tape) belongs to John Cleese, no less, greater poetics are at obvious work. “Actually, I ad-libbed a bit,” Cleese offers from his California home. “When Arthur says, ‘Good idea, God!,’ I ad-libbed the line, ‘Of course it’s a good idea! I’m fucking God!’ ” He adds, “I don’t think it survived.”
Blessedly, for Idle’s sake, all surviving Pythons consider Spamalot a very good idea, and supplied helpful notes along the way, though none has yet seen the show. Cleese, who has magnanimously sublet his New York apartment to Tim Curry for the run, plans to attend opening night (or, per marquee, OPENING KNIGHT). Last fall, he briefly visited rehearsals and watched the gaudy Camelot number take shape. “It was already hilarious in a silly kind of way that I couldn’t remember anything else being silly, comparably,” he says. “Just full of joy and silly nonsense. Everybody came out of it with sort of mindless grins, looking vaguely pink and healthy.” Michael Palin, meanwhile, contributed to the Playbill a set of meticulously absurd mock-program notes for an imaginary production—Bin Faaarkrekkion’s New Moosical: Dik Od Triaanenen Fol (Finns Ain’t What They Used to Be). This gesture from Palin, who has in recent years become a BBC travelogue purveyor, warmed Idle no end. “I can see him being wistful for comedy, hankering,” Idle said of his old mate, at dinner. “Because you don’t lose that thing where you want that laugh. I keep trying to nudge him. He’s got more to give.”
“Fear of comedy is all so much about who you do it with,” Nichols now said, recognizing intimately the bittersweet in Idle’s comments. “A terrifying amount of it is. I couldn’t do it at all at first, and then I could only do it with Elaine. Then I could do it with certain other people, but like only 20 percent of what I could do with Elaine. There’s nothing like two or three or four people finding something that is like love—or whatever the hell it is—and having things happen that surprise them all. Therefore, who you’re with is everything. It’s very lonely and scary and awful to do it alone.” In afterthought, he also said, “Elaine and I had a long phone conversation today, because she saw the show yesterday, and she was so nice about it.”
Elaine May had, in fact, attended the private afternoon “gypsy” performance of Spamalot—a customary pre-preview unveiling for show folk and friends only—and brought with her Stanley Donen, the legendary director of Singin’ in the Rain (“The best movie musical of all time,” according to Nichols, and history). Afterward, Donen told Idle “all this flattering stuff—he’s seen everything since the thirties, and he said, ‘It’s the best musical in ages.’ He loved the fact that the music kept commenting on what was going on … I was lapping it up, like the cherry on the cappuccino!” Also customary before a gypsy preview is an introductory speech delivered by the show’s director, the stark prospect of which had given Nichols great pause. One night later, at the Square Table, Idle provided illustration. “I realized,” he said, “that Mike is basically—still, no matter what he does—a comic, first and foremost. For about 24 hours he obsessed with it. Then he said, ‘You’ve got to do this with me!’ Yesterday morning, he calls me first thing and says, ‘Now, about our bit … ’ Not a concern in the world about the play. Just the bit—it’s about the bit!”
“But you felt the same about it,” said Nichols, very bemused. “It’s our bit, for God’s sake.” “Utterly! Of course!” said Idle. “We were like kids backstage, panicking. All the cast is going by, and we’re not even reassuring them. They’re doing a first show, a first performance!”
“It had nothing to do with them,” Nichols protested.
“They don’t realize that we have to go do a speech!” said Idle.
“Then Mike said, ‘You have to stand on this side of me, on the right side, because that’s where Elaine stood.’ I thought, Oh, I’m being Elaine for a day!”
“It’s really true,” confirmed Nichols. “It’s really strange. I can only turn that way. It’s like your side of the bed!”
“So,” said Idle, cheeky as he will ever be, “we’ve been on Broadway together for one night only! Isn’t that great? Yeah, we did it.”