Talking to Eric Idle About the Absurd World of ‘What About Dick?’
Picture a cast of actors, reading from scripts on a stage — dressed in vintage gowns and dapper suits, some are settled into plush velvet chairs, while others stand in pairs, emoting earnestly in front of oversized chrome microphones. A narrator, all British charm, nudges in between brief musical numbers and bursts of smart, anthropological humor that trusts the audience to catch up with its mile-a-minute wit. Sound like something straight out of an old-fashioned radio play? Now, add some of the most brilliant comic minds in the world, throw in a heaping dose of satire, and you’ve got Eric Idle’s latest project, an 80-minute experimental play titled What About Dick?
Writer and performer Idle — known for his work on Monty Python, and for co-creating the musical comedy Spamalot — translates the classic feel of a radio serial to the screen with this show, originally a live production that’s been recorded and released online directly through Idle’s own site. This past April, the comic treated Los Angeles audiences to an absurd live show starring some of the UK’s (and the world’s) brightest comic minds; the former Rutle shared the stage with Russell Brand, Billy Connolly, Tim Curry, Eric Idle, Eddie Izzard, Jane Leeves, Jim Piddock, Tracey Ullman, and Sophie Winkleman for Dick’s four night run, each show uniquely different from the next thanks to improvised additions and unexpected riffs.
Dick has literally everything, from an all-star cast to a completely indescribable plot that’s been summed up by Idle himself in strings of comparisons including “Oscar Wilde on acid,” “Downton Abbey, only funnier,” and “an Emotion Picture for Radio.” The script is full of meandering metaphors and veiled meanings, rife with staples of British humor like bawdy innuendo, politely biting political commentary, and a heaping dose of absurdity — the whole thing’s narrated by a piano, for example. While the finer points of the play’s class humor might be lost on those with less than a working knowledge of the noble hierarchy, the script is peppered with cross-cultural, au courant political jabs (like a dismissive reference to Sarah Palin, or slanging “taking a Donald Trump” for “taking a dump”) and pop culture critiques (RE. the Kardashians: “Is that some kind of disease?” “Yes.”)
So, what exactly is Dick about? Plot-wise, it’s kind of impossible to describe; the official synopsis says it:
…begins with the birth of a sex toy invented in Shagistan in 1898 by Deepak Obi Ben Kingsley, tells the story of the decline of the British Empire as seen through the eyes of a Piano and the story of young Dick, his two cousins and their dipsomaniac Aunt Maggie, who all live together in Kensington in a large, rambling, Edwardian novel. And there too are the Reverend Whoopsie, the incomprehensible Scottish Inspector McGuffin and Sergeant Ken Russell and the case of the Houndsditch Mutilator.
Still can’t quite picture it? You’ll have to download the show to see what it’s all about – What About Dick? is available now for $6 from whataboutdick.com.
We learned more about Dick from Idle himself; read on for details about planning and releasing the show.
Was the stage show programmed with the intention of eventually releasing the play online?
Sure, that was part of it. The first time I did it, I only recorded audio and it was very funny — I edited it down, and I was gonna release it on the web — but then something held me back. I don’t know what it was. Then I was thinking about it two years later, and was thinking to myself, “Well, wait a minute. Let’s get the same people, but this time let’s put HD cameras in there and start filming it and do it as a live performance.” Because it’s at it’s best, when it’s live. So that’s what we did, and now we get to see whether we did the right cuts, whether we got it right, and all of that.
What made you choose Los Angeles?
I live here, and most of these comedians are based here, too. I love the Orpheum Theater — it’s downtown, it was built in the 1920s, and it’s been fully restored. I saw the Flight of The Conchords there and fell in love with it, so I tried to get it for Spamalot, but it wasn’t quite big enough. So I just wanted to do something on that stage; it’s a great old Vaudeville stage, the Marx Brothers played there, some of the greatest comedians in the world have played there, so it was kind of a lovely thing to be doing with this bunch of comedians.
What was the process of editing such a free-form show like?
My co-director’s very obsessed with the look of things, where I’m obsessed with what’s in it. So I could tell him things like, take this line out and cut that out, drop that, lose that. There were a lot of selections to be made, we had four nights of very funny stuff. Some nights people riffing, some nights people were going off book, some nights things were going wrong, so we had lots of decisions to make; I think we’ve come up with a nice, tight 78-minute program.
I was in France [during the editing], so it was quite interesting, because I would get cuts on the internet and then review it online. And, in fact, I had the premiere in France — we downloaded it and got 15 or 20 people in to watch it.
Direct digital release is an ideal format for comedy; what made you choose online over a DVD, or a network special?
We raised the money privately to put this on and everybody did it to scale, so I wanted everybody to get the same fee in return; this way, everybody shares in the profits. And if we can turn a profit then we’ll have completed the business aspect of it. So, everybody will get their money the same time — which is unheard of in show business — and they all share equally.
What was the rehearsal process like? Was the cast familiar with the script before they went in?
The rehearsal process was almost non-existent. We had one morning or afternoon where we read the play with the sound effects, and then we did it with the microphone, so we all had to stand up and move, we had to keep getting up and moving positions. And the next day we were on stage at 2 p.m., and I think we did a dress rehearsal that night for about 300 people, and then we were on. I think Russell came down from London and he had hardly any rehearsal, but they’re so good, they’re so fast and so quick, that they’re efficient.
Is a lot of the material in the final recording improvised, or did the actors tend to stick to the script?
Eddie was the most improvisational, so there’s definitely things that he said that weren’t in the text. But in the end, you pull that back because [ultimately] you’re trying to tell a story, you need to have that story told.
Is What About Dick? the kind of story that might inspire a sequel?
Well, you know, we want to see how these things go. And the great thing about show business is that you do all this activity, you put in all this thought, and it can still go stiff. You just don’t know until the end. So I never decide where I’m going to go next until I’m finished with what I’m currently doing — I haven’t yet learned what I need to know to get to the next step. I rarely do things again, if it works once. I like to do things once and get it right. But if it hasn’t worked then you might say, “Well, I should’ve done this.” At least you’ve learned a lesson.
What’s keeping you busy these days?
I’ve been promoting this, and I’ve been writing articles and things. The only other work I’ve done is a song with Professor Brian Cox, for his Wonders of Life television program. But as a writer, I need to wait and see what happens next, and I won’t know until the audience hears it. I know what happened in the theater — now what happens when people download it? Are they having fun? Did they like it? That’s what you need to focus on.
You recently joined Twitter; can we expect to hear more from you there?
Yes — my producers asked me to do that to promote the show, and I’ve kind of been enjoying it. I come up with [a lot of] one-liners, and it’s nice to have a place for that. I have a blog, which I do write on from time to time, wherever I feel like. But I also like a one-liner, so it’s nice to be able to release a good joke — Twitter is very good for that.