One of the most remarkable aspects of Monty Python was how quickly each member establishes their persona from the very beginning. Graham Chapman excelled at portraying authority figures who were in over their heads, while John Cleese was a phenomenal blithering yet imposing figure. Michael Palin was good-natured and goofy, Terry Jones was surreal and absurd, and Terry Gilliam was a visual visionary. But every great troupe needs a song-and-dance man, and for Monty Python, that was Eric Idle.
The only traditional comedian in the group who wrote on his own – given that Gilliam’s focus on animation and directing made him a solitary figure by necessity – Idle was often prone to flights of fancy that usually manifested in silly songs and over the top musical numbers. Combining a clear musician’s ear with the brain of a stand-up, Idle delighted in intricate wordplay, unexpected punchlines, and lyrical jokes that had their own rhythm and melody to them.
All you have to do is look at Idle’s work outside of Python to understand just how much music means to him. He created The Rutles, the gonzo piss-take of The Beatles that became one of the first pop culture parody acts. Idle is also responsible for Spamalot, the widely popular musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. From oratorios centred around The Life of Brian to symphonies performed at the 2012 London Olympics, Idle’s focus on music is almost as strong as his focus on comedy.
But Idle always seemed to be at his best when he was writing within the wacky world of Monty Python. Today, we’ve assembled some of his most memorable musical moments that elevated Python beyond a surreal sketch comedy troupe. These are the songs and skits that paired a killer punchline with an unforgettable earworm. Here are some of Eric Idle’s greatest musical moments in Monty Python.
Eric Idle’s best musical moments in Monty Python:
‘Bruces’ Philosophers Song’
Perhaps the ultimate example of Monty Python’s unmatched ability to combine high-brow intelligence with ludicrous stupidity, ‘Bruces’ Philosophers Song’ somehow manages to offend some of the greatest thinkers of all time and the entire country of Australia in just about one minute.
Taking on the exaggerated accents of Australian ockers, Idle brings a signature jaunty lilt to this summation of why some of the smartest and most thoughtful men were actually just degenerate drunks. While not exactly historically accurate, ‘Bruces’ Philosophers Song’ is a short, shape shock of silliness that put the musical spotlight firmly on Idle.
‘The Galaxy Song’
After the disturbing grotesqueness of the ‘Live Organ Donor’ sketch from The Meaning of Life, a bit of necessary levity was required. Of course, leave it to Idle to take vast existential notions and compartmentalise them into an excuse to steal someone’s liver.
This being Monty Python, it comes as no surprise that most of the scientific references are relatively accurate. The punchline, that ‘The Galaxy Song’ is one long setup for the meaninglessness of life, somehow is able to undercut both the song and the movie in a hilariously blithe style that only Idle could pull off.
‘The Penis Song’
As a troupe, Monty Python seemed determined to demolish the line between good and bad taste. A collection of some of the brightest young men to emerge from esteemed schools like Cambridge and Oxford, Python loved to subvert their own intelligence with silly walks, sex jokes, and off-colour commentary.
Another brief and delightfully carnal tune from Idle, ‘The Penis Song’ is just an excuse for Idle to conjure up as many euphemisms and synonyms for the titular organ as he can in under a minute. The dignified piano man persona is the perfect contradiction to the inane and profane subject matter, and ‘The Penis Song’ is one of the shortest and most memorable tunes in Idle’s arsenal.
‘Sit On My Face’
Eric Idle was at his best when he prioritised speed and precision in his writing. Always happy to keep things simple, all Idle ever needed was a memorable melody and a wildly inappropriate central subject matter to bring an all-time classic to life. Although he didn’t perform it, Idle was responsible for one of Python’s best “so wrong it’s right” songs.
‘Sit on My Face’ is all gleeful salaciousness, referencing some of the least decorous sexual acts anyone could think of while whistling along to the tune of ‘Sing As We Go’. The nude reveal at the end of the Hollywood Bowl performance is just the icing on top of the hilariously improper cake.
‘I Like Chinese’
Could a song like ‘I Like Chinese’, with its broad generalisations and potentially offensive stereotypes, ever be written today. Could Eric Idle get away with this level of wacky insulting behaviour? Probably not, but for a potential landmine of a song, ‘I Like Chinese’ is just too dopey and screwy to ever really come across as mean-spirited or derogatory.
That’s because the joke isn’t on Chinese people, but rather on the central silliness of the song itself. As is Idle’s signature style, a wonderfully happy and catchy tune is undercut with a classic blend of intelligent thought and pure stupidity. How else can you explain the lyrics that praise both the I Ching and well-mannered Chinese waiters in the same breath?
Like all great English writers of his generation, Idle had a profound influence taken from music hall, the jaunty and uptempo style of song that proliferated around the UK that began to fade after the end of World War II. Bring the precursor to most modern English culture, music hall provided Idle with an avenue to take on the legendarily gruff Henry Kissinger.
Just like most of Python’s work, it’s hard to tell why exactly Idle decided to pay cutting tribute to the German-American politico in the form of an old-school love song. But once again, it’s the silliness of the premise that does the heavy lifting here. It’s hard to tell what’s a better line: “You’ve got better legs than Hitler” or the follow up that he’s “got bigger tits than Cher”.
‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’
Idle’s signature song, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ was initially born out of necessity. The Life of Brian had no ending: Brian was on the cross, but after that, the members were stumped. Idle hatched the idea of singing an happy, whistle-heavy tune to play off the oncoming death and doom, perfectly undercutting the solemn end of the film in signature Python style.
After the film’s release, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ took on a life of its own, becoming a fixture in pop culture and even being used to analyse the morals of British people as a whole. Not bad for a silly little song about greeting death with a smith and a happy song.