Eric goes from Python to Dick

Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly and Russell Brand in Eric Idle's What About Dick
Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly and Russell Brand in Eric Idle's What About Dick

Tuesday was D-Day - that's Dick Day - for Eric Idle, former Python, comedy musical writer and now entertainment entrepreneur. Dick Day celebrates the release of What About Dick, a video of a performance of a play about the staging of a radio play – with songs, stand up and improvisation – that is available online. That might sound like a theatrical mutt, but it is a purebred example of a new breed of straight-to-online entertainment business model.

“It's a conspiracy to be funny; it's a play for comedians,” says Idle, who wrote the play and has been trying to get it made since the late '80s. “It's taking place in 1941 and they're doing a live radio broadcast of What About Dick. There's a sound effects guy too, he's hilarious. It's sort of partly derived from E.M. Forster, and party from the British films where people wear costumes and go to Italy to experience feelings.”

The best part about staging a radio play is that it lets the performers hold scripts. “It's a clever way of getting people to be able to come and perform without having to rehearse for four weeks.”

That wouldn't normally prove so hard, but in this case the “people” include Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly, Russell Brand, Tracey Ullman and Idle himself who plays the role of a piano. “I act a piano, I don't play a piano,” Idle unsuccessfully clarifies. “It's the first time any major drama has starred a musical instrument as far as I can remember.”

The inspiration for online distribution came from Idle's frustration at having unique access to such a good cast – he describes Connolly and Izzard as the two best conversational comedians of our age – yet no capacity to put on a show. “I kept banging my head on the thought that I can't get these people together and take it to Broadway because you can't get them for that long. The only way I could deal with it was to make a movie of the experience. So that's what I set out to do, got them all involved and interested, then I raised the money privately.

“Now we all own it, and we share it evenly, all the actors, because they invested their time and ability too. So we all get our money back at the same time. We own it. It's a completely new business model.”

In fact it is the oldest theatrical business model made global, for this may be the highest profile amateur theatrical co-op of all time. “I think it's a very professional co-op!” Idle quibbles with a laugh. “It's definitely a co-operative venture, which you probably shouldn't say in America because they think that reeks of socialism. You'll be run out of town for not giving somebody all the money and letting everybody else have nothing.”

Having almost lost his Los Angeles press day when all the press were initially off at the junket for the new Twilight film, Idle is comfortable casting himself as David to Hollywood's Goliath. “They've got the high ground,” he explains. “We're the subversive underground people who will remove their ability to carry on doing that. In a way we're counterculture here. Not to Twilight itself but that method. If you want a big movie picture you go to a big studio. But this is not that. This is actually for your computer or even your iPhone. This is a giggle.”

Of course for Idle, the real joy came in the performing. “It was nice because we were all on stage at the same time. I'm the sort of ringmaster as it were – somewhere between ringmaster and headmaster – and they all look across at me. Eddie will look up and I see his little eyes twinkling and I know he's going to throw me a new line.”

Still, four nights of world-class improvisation created a bit of a headache in the edit suite. “What I wanted to keep was the spirit of the event, while still telling the story or the tale that's in the play. So that was the compromise we made and there are some moments of hilarity which will be in the out-takes and the documentary and things that will follow it.”

The live audience, sourced entirely from the cast's Twitter followers, proved key in those editing decisions. “It was a rock concert! And that's how Python shows were always too, that same sort of buzz, expectant shouting and laughing. They were really ready for it.”

Idle was surprised at social media's capacity to fill the theatre without taking a single ad. “Hopefully we'll be doing a similar thing with the download,” he says, “which is why this is such a new and fascinating business model. Because these people have their own followers and if only their own followers buy it, you've already got your money back and going home.”

So will Australia get to see a live performance? “I don't think it's out of the question, but I need to know what happens to this.” Idle is confident though, not just because of his cast's millions of Twitter followers but because he has seen the final product. “I'm relieved to find that it makes me giggle still,” he says. “There's fine moments of acting and then there's wonderful moments of hilarity ... and very rude songs.”

What About Dick is available for download from

This story Eric goes from Python to Dick first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.