WALLA WALLA — Eric Idle, the English comedian, author, playwright, composer and parent of a soon-to-be Whitman College graduate, once played a character who spoke completely in anagrams for an episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
So it may have been no surprise to the full house at Cordiner Hall on Saturday afternoon that a man with such a talent for turning around words and letters had an astute observation about the name of the college where he’ll be delivering the commencement speech and receiving an honorary degree this morning.
“Interestingly enough, it’s only a ‘W’ away from being ‘Hitman College,’” Idle deadpanned.
Given the death of the college’s namesake, the modified version would be “rather appropriate actually,” he continued to an eruption of laughter.
With his daughter, Lily, joining about 375 other graduates of Whitman’s 2013 class, Idle has spent enough time in Walla Walla over the last four years to learn a thing or two about the community.
A few of his favorite parts about it were revealed in a roughly hourlong event that was part monologue, part showcase of his work and part question-and-answer period.
He’s become a fan of the Museum of Un-Natural History on Main Street, he raved. He’s also fond of Whitman’s performing artists, making a point to present his very own “Idle Awards” with the help of his daughter and his son, Carey, during his free-to-the-public presentation, “From Monty Python to Spamalot: A Discussion with Eric Idle.”
The Idle Awards, he explained, “date back about 30 seconds ago” and “will go on annually until next year.”
For the “Best Drama Group From a College in the Walla Walla Region” he presented the Whitman Drama Department with a poster from “Spamalot,” the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical he penned, a round symbol of the Holy Grail.
And to the “Worst Named Comedy Group in the World,” Whitman’s Varsity Nordic troupe, he presented the giant hand holding a grail that had been outside Wynn’s Resorts in Las Vegas.
The presentation followed Whitman’s 2013 Baccalaureate. In one moment during Idle’s presentation, he shared a clip many recognized as the philosophers’ football match, also known as “Internationale Philosophie,” on a giant screen behind the lectern. He called it “some of the best visual humor” the Monty Python crew ever did.
His presentation also shared a rousing rendition of “The Philosophers Song” performed with Varsity Nordic.
In an experience he shared sitting on a water bus in St. Petersburg came an explanation of his understanding of comedy. A sweet woman in need of a seat asked if she could sit beside him. “Yes,” he responded. “As long as you keep your hands to yourself.” People on the water bus laughed hysterically.
“I figured out comedy is like saying the wrong thing at the right time,” Idle said.
“I think the sign of a healthy society is comedy. It’s deeply subversive, which is of course (exercising) free speech.”
Over the years, he said, some fans described the work of the Monty Python comedy group as “gods.” “I always thought of it as the other way around,” he said. “I always worshipped (comedy) and loved it because I trusted it to tell the truth.”