THE SPECIAL “Eric Idle’s The Entire Universe”
WHEN | WHERE Friday at 10 p.m. on WNET/13
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Monty Python great Eric Idle has written a musical explaining the origins of the universe — the entire universe, by the way — and managed to keep it less than an hour. With song and dance numbers performed by a group called the Muriel Tritt School of Music and Dance, this is hosted by Idle and British physicist Brian Cox, who get some help from a handful of stars, including Warwick Davis and stand-up Robin Ince.
MY SAY You won’t need a doctorate in astrophysics to appreciate “Eric Idle’s The Entire Universe,” but you will need one in British pop culture. Everything (and everyone) involved here is familiar to English viewers, and its sensibility — or is the word eccentricity? — is deeply, unashamedly English, too. At the very least, an appreciation is required of the sort of surreal sketch comedy that Idle pioneered with Monty Python nearly a half-century ago.
You’ll otherwise be left without a paddle, adrift in the solar system. But because this is unique and — despite some truly awful puns — well worth watching, here’s an attempt to bring you up to speed. Foremost, what is “Rutland Weekend Television?” Idle notes at the outset that this hour is the first return of “RWT” in more than 40 years, which — for Idle fans — is huge indeed. “RWT” was his classic sketch show that arrived immediately after “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” wrapped and featured a Beatles parody group named The Rutles. Muriel Tritt and her merry hoofers assume (sort of) that role here.
Next, there’s Cox. He’s a physicist but also a star “presenter” on British television, perhaps best known for his 2011 series “Wonders of the Universe.” Then there’s the cast: One of the singers on the show is Hannah Waddingham, who originated Lady of the Lake from Idle’s Broadway (and West End) hit, “Spamalot.” (This hour’s songs were also written by Idle and “Spamalot’s” John Du Prez.)
Noel Fielding also plays a couple of roles, notably Albert Einstein and a boatswain for a song on the Higgs boson particle. (Boatswain? Boson? Get it? Hey, don’t say you weren’t warned about the puns.) He’s arguably the biggest star on this stage, and the other half (along with Julian Barratt) of the Mighty Boosh, which was also arguably England’s biggest comedy sketch group since Monty Python. (He’s now host of “The Great British Bake-off.”)
Meanwhile, what of the science? Think of “The Entire Universe” as a ridiculous hour built around a compelling idea: If it is impossible for the human mind to fully grasp the nature of the universe, then why not deploy a ridiculous musical in the attempt? (Well, why not?) Some of the songs in fact offer good summations of complex ideas, while some — like a bizarro parody of the Bee Gees — get completely tangled in the Einsteinian weeds.
Best of all is the one on “multiverses,” which is an absurd and yet perfectly accurate definition of the concept. The best joke of all wraps the hour with this line: “Let’s hope there’s intelligent life in space because there’s bugger all down on Earth.”
BOTTOM LINE Deeply eccentric . . . terrible puns . . . corny song-and-dance routines . . . and the entire universe explained. What’s not to like?