by Justin Ware
At the beginning of
modern sketch comedy came Monty Python. This band of Brits
with a nonsensical name took television and twisted it to their
own skewed sense of silliness, redefining comedy and setting
the stage for a thousand copycat acts. It should come as no
surprise, then, that the Web would fall prey to Python humor
faster than an African swallow: It is, after all, the next great
frontier, and Python has already left its mark on every other
entertainment genre. Now it's their turn to take that silliness to
the Web through PythOnline (www.pyth
online.com). Though the site was the brainchild of Eric Idle, all
of the remaining Pythons (John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry
Jones and Terry Gilliam) are contributing with a fervor you might
not expect from a group that's now scattered across the globe.
And it's not that the troupe lacks things to do -- all by his
lonesome, Idle, not only heads up the Web site, but he devotes
an enormous amount of time to Python's plentiful CD-ROMs.
He also recently wrapped a role in a film directed by Jones for
Disney and finished a children's book due out this fall. IU
caught up with Idle to ask how he and his compatriots plan to
Pythonize the Web.
Where did the initiative for
PythOnline come from?
It came from me, and it came about 18 months ago
when I was scanning the 'net and did a search for Monty
Python. I stopped when I got 1,034 replies -- I was completely
bowled over and amazed. So I went and looked around some
of the sites. I thought they were very good and very interesting,
but I thought, you know what would be really great? To have a
real Python site, rather than a fanzine-type-based one, which is
just trying to be serious about this. It would be great to have a
non-fanzine-type-site which is pure Python, more like the
books. I began to envision sort of an interactive
book/magazine-type site, and I came up with the name
PythOnline. I figured it would be great to link to all these other
Python sites, so they could just all have a central base where
we were sort of available, or they could get real serious
questions answered that they wanted to ask, or we could just
put up silly stuff. I'd always in the back of my mind wanted to
be with 7th Level, because I was doing the Holy Grail CD-ROM
at the same time, and I love them all there -- they're so silly
and loony, it's one of the nicest silly companies I've ever
So, assuming they're the ones doing the programming,
what's your role been with it?
I run around and give them ideas and material. I'm acting
as sort of an editor or Webmaster
or something. I provide them with the material and all the
ideas, and they back me up with artists and programmers and
the know-how. We're playing with a new thing called Top Gun,
which 7th Level has developed, which enables us to actually
have live games on the site, one of which is Drop the Cow,
from the new Grail (CD-ROM). You have to avoid the
cow landing on your head.
So was there a similar
beginning behind the CD-ROMs? The Pythons always
seem to be on the cutting edge of technology.
Absolutely. And what's great about it is the people in that
new technology, they're all Python fans. It makes a natural
Why do you think that is?
Why do you think that technology
people are so attracted to
I think because it's bright, and yet it's silly. I don't know --
what really amazed me was that almost everybody with a
computer was a Python fan. It's like the Rolling Stones and
Monty Python. The very phrase "spamming" the net comes
from Python. I don't know why that is -- I'm not a psychologist
but I just observed that it is true, and that means that it's worth
doing -- entertaining with silly things -- because a lot of people
are out there waiting for it.
Are the other Pythons
Very much so. I've badgered them and bullied them and e-mailed them constantly. We have a lot of new art from Terry
Gilliam, because he's scrawling all the time, and he's very
much set the tone of the look of the Web site, which is very
much black and white, because everyone else is using massive
color, so we'll avoid that. He's done these wonderful line
drawings, and I've gotten a lot of material from Terry Jones,
lectures from Cleese -- some very silly stuff from him. Michael
Palin's at the moment halfway around China, and will be
coming through in July, and we'll grab him then. He's been
going around the Pacific Rim.
Exactly. So we'll grab him and he'll provide some stuff too.
What do they think of the technology? Are they as
computer literate as you are, or are you kind of ahead of
Two of them are. I mean, Jones is very computer literate.
He sent me some photographs (over the
computer) the other day, which I thought was very impressive.
Gilliam is in England, and it's always frustrating in England,
because it's there, but it doesn't really work properly. That's
why I love living here, in the States, because the toys are all
here, and you can get them sooner, and they're not closed for
the weekend, or the month of July, like they are in Europe. But
Cleese is not very technologically inclined and Michael sort of
seems to be against it.
Even using a pencil. But I'd like to send him off on a
worldwide trek on the 'net. I'd like to see him go online and I've
been trying to persuade him to do that. He's a bit frightened of
it, but we'll get him there.
You mentioned a little bit of what the site is going to
be about. Can you go into how you're going to keep it
Well, we're going to use animation a lot, and if you
download Top Gun you'll get into a much more active site. I'd
like to explore ways of making people laugh, really, and see
how much you can involve them. In many ways we've taken the
attitude that "Look, there's not much out there to laugh at."
What I would like to do is play a lot of gags on people as they
log on, and we're getting into that. Still, the technology is just
lagging behind. It's painful for me sometimes that it takes so
long to get the gag up -- I want to hit 'em on the head now. So
half the time I'm just trying to get it faster from 7th Level's
Headquarters. But I really like making up the form of the
material as well as the content. In other words, when we have
the Queen online, you feel she's in the chatroom, that she's
actually there. Now that's a new joke -- nobody's done that sort
of a joke before and I love that.
It seems that with the Web, there's no set way to be
But that's exciting. Nobody's done it before. You have this
whole blank sheet of paper. It's sort of equivalent to when we
got into television -- we could just play with the toys. And that's
where we are now. I'm hopeful that we'll get the Pythons
contributing from wherever they are, which is the other great
thing -- no matter where you are in the world, you can play
along. Once we have the site up and running, they can log in
and do whatever they want.
What kind of challenges and difficulties do you see
with the site, and trying to do comedy this way?
I think that it's all a challenge, but none of it's difficult
because it's all never been done before, and that makes it
exciting. Every day we make up new stuff. We say, what shall
we do? Well, how about if we do this? How can we amuse
them, tease them, please them. I really like it -- it's the most
fun I've had since we first went into television.
So how long have you been on the 'net and how did
initially get involved with it?
A friend of mine, Stephen Fry, has a page which he was
very keen on showing me about a year and a half ago. But
what's nice for me is working with a high-tech company, so
instead of having just a homemade Web page, you have all the
real big toys. You can say "give me some challenges. What can
I really do?" And that's the great fun of working with 7th Level
on this. Plus the other great advantage of the Web is that we
have a lot of Python shit, like Grail calendars, and datebooks,
and very nice, cool T-shirts and Spam mugs and it's a great
way to show people. Whenever they come to our houses or see
us, they're like "Where'd you get that? I want that!" And it's
very hard to get that all to work, because some of it's made in
Australia, and some of it's in Germany. But with the Web, you
can say, "Well look, you can just click and order, and we'll send
it to you."
So have you surfed around much and seen anything
I've been so busy, I haven't. I basically use the Web to tell
me when soccer's on American television. Unfortunately there's
no cricket on American television, but I'm hopeful. I use it to
find out the cricket scores in England. And I use my computer a
lot as a writing tool -- I have for four or five years. But the fun
I'm having now is actually pulling up Gilliam animation stuff and
playing with it. You know, going into Paintshop and putting text
on it...just generally creating. It's the same as when I was
editor of the Python books. Basically you took the Python stuff
and you'd say, how would it work in book form? Now, it's really
a matter of taking all this stuff that people don't know about,
that's obscure and weird and still funny, and putting it into this
new form to see if we can entertain them and make them
But you have been using e-mail for a while.
I love e-mail. It's the only mail I like. I hate post offices. I
have a fear of post offices, and it isn't just American post
offices where you can get killed by disgruntled former
employees -- I think there's something about people that work
in post offices that daunts the customer. They're not customer
friendly. I love writing letters and I've always loved writing
letters, and what's great is to be able to write things, hit send,
and "bang!" It's gone.
So did you actually e-mail people at any of these
I only did that once and it's not a good idea. Although we
will have a site, I think, where people can ask questions as
long as it doesn't go nuts.
I'd imagine, with the number of Monty Python fans on
the 'net, that that's probably a floodgate that you
wouldn't want to open.
We had 160,000 hits before we opened. My instinct that
they were out there and wanted it is being borne out. They do
want entertainment, and they do want to laugh and nobody's
playing with this toy. I love being there at the beginning.
So you have seen the fan sites?
Oh yeah, I've gone to the fan sites. Not all of them, cause
there are over a thousand of them, but we'll link to the best
ones. We give them mention so fans can come through us and
go on to these sites. But we're not really into the fan stuff
quite as much as the fans are -- I mean, we don't say how cute
we all are. We go the other way.
What's your reaction to the fact that there's still this
much devotion to Monty Python?
I think it's amazement and then gratitude. Of course, if you
all sent a penny we could all have a golden retirement. We'll
see if we can make it pay -- that's the challenge.
It certainly hasn't been figured out yet.
No. But again -- that's a day-by-day thing. We're making it
up as we go along.
Have you seen the site "Eric Idle Drove My Car?"
Somebody showed it to me the other day. It was hysterical.
We chose it as our site of the week, and it's just wonderful.
When we told him we were going to feature it, he said he was
going to make another site called "Eric Idle Visited My Web
Site." It would just be disappearing into infinity. But I like that --
we're encouraging people to come and nominate silly sites,
and things they've found. There will be message boards, a
Swedish Message Board and all that sort of thing, plus humor.
Humor, information -- anything to keep people exchanging on a