At this year's meeting of television writers in California, PBS served up its usual menu of serious upcoming programs on the environment, civil rights, AIDS, cancer, war.
And then there was something completely different: A conversation with Eric Idle for "Monty Python's Personal Best," a series of six hourlong specials premiering at 9 p.m. Feb. 22 on PBS, locally on WNED, Channel 17.
After the specials conclude, PBS will begin airing all 47 original episodes of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" in April.
Idle gave an entertaining history of how the show, with its fish slapping, dancing teeth and a documentary on mollusks, conquered America in the 1970s and never let go -- to the amazement of the six zany guys from Oxford and Cambridge: Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and the late Graham Chapman.
In "Personal Best," the five living members of the troupe select their individual favorite shows and then collaborate to create Chapman's episode.
Idle humorously touched on the differences between American and British comedy, the roadblocks age and maturity are to comedians, and the beauty of American law.
Idle explained that the financing for some Python projects was straight out of "The Producers." You couldn't make some of this success story up unless, well, you were Mel Brooks.
To hear Idle tell it, Python's success was an unexpected, silly accident that keeps on giving.
"Monty Python's Flying Circus" first aired on PBS in Dallas in 1974 because the troupe couldn't get anybody else to pay for it. It attracted a young audience that grew up with it.
"And we poisoned their minds," said Idle.
This being America, eventually a broadcast network decided there was money in it. ABC carried episodes without the "rude bits" in a 90-minute special, which prompted the Pythons to sue the network for messing with their content.
It wasn't a silly suit. Idle said Gilliam and Palin showed their work in court with the censored material out and got big laughs. The edited versions were greeted with silence.
"We were rewarded by owning our own masters [of the programs]," said Idle. "We established an American law principle that the creators do have rights over and above what the networks tell you is standards and practices."
Rather than take an approximately $2 million check from ABC after winning the suit, the group's lawyer, Jim Beech, wisely advised them to take the masters of their work. They might have been worthless then, but the advent of new technology has subsequently made them a gold mine.
"I think the nice thing for us has been that every 10 years there's been a complete change in technology," said Idle. "It's like buying your own records again."
The revolutions of the VCR, DVD, the Internet and HDTV have been a bonus for the troupe.
"The lovely thing for us is, because it is digital, it can still look really fresh and new," said Idle. "Some people don't know that we're just old farts."
Beech, who also managed the rock group Queen, saw the value of owning one's material.
"Owning the masters is really smart and could only have come from rock 'n' roll people because they, from early on, understood that importance," said Idle. The group of comedians also owns their movies made under the Monty Python flag. He explained that "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" cost $400,000 to make and had 20 investors, including members of the bands Pink Floyd, Genesis and Led Zeppelin.
"It was paid for by British rock 'n' roll, basically who didn't really want their money back and have been surprised ever since that they still get checks from 'Spamalot'," the 2005 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical based on the "Holy Grail" film.
Python's second film, "The Life of Brian," was a $4 million investment by George Harrison of the Beatles.
"It's still the most that anybody has ever paid for a movie ticket," cracked Idle. Harrison, who died in 2001, and his partner didn't expect the movie to be a success.
"Suddenly it started to make money and they had to collapse [another company] and go offshore," he said. "They expected it to lose. It was just like 'The Producers.' "
Idle said the troupe was absolutely certain that "Python" would never work in America in the 1970s, either. "It was quite big in Canada," said Idle. That, of course, made it prominent in Buffalo. "People [in Canada] found it. But they were used to British shows."
The BBC didn't expect much either when it commissioned the first 13 episodes and gave Python total creative freedom. "It's never been successful," said the self-deprecating Idle. "That was part of its charm, I think. It was never, never, never a big hit."
But it was an inspiration for "Saturday Night Live" and many comedians.
It also inspired a Python cult. Some people dressed as knights or something equally as silly when "Spamalot" opened last year. After all, no attire is off-limits to Python, including cross-dressing.
Asked why male British comics seem more comfortable in women's clothes than American comics, Idle cracked: "I think we have much more confidence. We're less insecure about dressing up as women. I think there's something very funny about dressing up as a woman and we like cheap laughs."
But it would be very silly to expect the troupe to ever get back together and perform. Idle said with age, one mellows and becomes nicer, which is a sketch-comedy killer.
"I love being an older comic now," said Idle. "It's like being an old soccer or an old baseball player. You're in the Hall of Fame and it's nice, but you're no longer that person in the limelight on the spot doing that thing."
"We're all over 60," added Idle. "I'm sorry to say this, but comedy is really a young man's game. It's sort of about what you had to say when you were fresh and young. And I'm perfectly happy to get drunk with the rest of them."
Monty Python's Personal Best
Six hourlong specials from the "Monty Python" cast.
Premieres at 9 p.m. Feb. 22 on WNED-Channel 17 and then consecutive Wednesdays at that time.