A Conversation with John Cleese
Ethan Gilsdorf talks to the Monty Python's Flying Circus alum about his career, his new autobiography, and his limbs.
John Cleese is a tall man. He is a funny man. And he has written a new book.
The Monty Python's Flying Circus alumnus was the star of Fawlty Towers and the genius behind other comedic works–from being a scriptwriter and performer on The Frost Report to writing and acting in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and A Fish Called Wanda. Now he can add author to his resume, as his new memoir, So, Anyway..., hits shelves.
The memoir charts Cleese’s origins, from being a six-foot-tall 12 year old in a sleepy English town to his first forays into comedy at Cambridge University and London’s West End. That led to TV work with David Frost, Peter Sellers, Marty Feldman, and a 20-year writing relationship and friendship with future Python Graham Chapman.
The comedy scene of the 1960s and 1970s was a heady crucible, and Cleese and his contemporaries were desperate to break free from what his memoir calls the “deferential, stuffy, compulsively super-polite and excruciatingly cautious” climate of British culture. This set up his career up for what American audiences know him for most: His work with his five other co-Pythons, whose groundbreaking comedy mixed social satire, silliness and absurdity, to which Cleese brought his impressive gifts as a physical comedy.
In the course of reflections about his life and career, So, Anyway... discusses the origins of Python’s famous "dead parrot” sketch, and provides excerpts from several lost comedy routines from The Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show, among other nuggets. He also reveals that his family name “Cleese” originally was “Cheese”.
The charming, funny, articulate comedian, who celebrated his 75th birthday last week, is in the midst of a multicity book tour which takes him to the Chicago area tomorrow night, and later to dates in Kansas City, Vancouver, Seattle, various California cities, Miami, and elsewhere. Boing Boing caught up with Cleese during his stopover in New York City. Via the magic of telephony, I resisted the temptation to ask him the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow. My only regret? I wish I could have interviewed Cleese in person, and asked him to show us just one more of his amazing, body-bending silly walks. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.
Ethan Gilsdorf: Happy birthday! It’s amazing that someone at your age can continue to do as much as you’re doing. And I mean that as a compliment.
John Cleese: [Laughs] I know you do! I know you do. It’s still funny when people say, you know, “Someone of your age.” The only problem is, the last few months have been very tiring, and I’ve been very lazy about taking exercise. So really, the thing I’m looking forward to most today I’m actually going to go to the gym. And walk rigidly on a treadmill. I’ll have a stick with me. It’s a funny idea, isn’t it? I’m going to slowly get a little bit of my health back, and stretch a bit. Because the trouble is, I’m six foot five, and I used to be able to get into small spaces a little more … easily.
EG: I was looking at some of those old photos of you doing your Silly Walks, and I was reminded just how physical, flexible, limber you are. Or were.
JC: Yeah, considering what a terrible dancer I am. I used to practice it and before I went on stage, I’d do a bit of stretching for a few minutes, you know? Today, I’m afraid of complete and total knee replacement.
EG: In your book, you talk a lot about feeling awkward and big for your age as a kid growing up. When did you think of using your size and your physicality to your advantage as a comedian?
JC: I don’t think I ever reached that point as a kid. I was so skinny. I was a bag of bones up to about fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. Because in those days, you’ve got to remember, Ethan, it was quite a long time ago. Working out in gyms, with weights, was a very unusual thing to do, you know? It never occurred to me that one could build one’s strength up. I started going to gyms in London, and I found after a couple years of working out, I simply got a little bit stronger. And that made a lot of difference and gave me a little more control. Because if you’re very lanky and weak, you don’t have the biophysical coordination. While I had good hand-eye coordination – I could always play ball games quite well – it was only after I started to work out for a few years that I began to feel physically less clumsy and awkward. But I don’t think that pushed me into comedy.
EG: What did push you into comedy?
JC: I think I’d had a genuine sense of humor or interest in comedy very, very early. I remember listening to radio shows with a great attention, almost unconsciously, I was trying to learn from them. I can remember at thirteen and fourteen, every time I heard a good joke, I wrote it down in a little notebook. At the same time, it would never have occurred to me in a million years that I was going to be in show business. Because people from Weston-super-Mare didn’t do that.
EG: What compelled you to write So, Anyway ...?
JC: Twenty years ago, I was thinking it would be fun to do an autobiography, because I’d like to think back over my life. And then I had lunch with Michael Caine at Christmas in Barbados, and he’d just written his first autobiography and he said how much he enjoyed it. I remember the phrase I think he said was, he said you reclaim parts of your life that you completely forgot. And I thought I loved the sound of that.
EG: You weren’t inclined to write it, say, 10 years ago? Or 15 years ago?
JC: The timing then would in many ways have been more appropriate, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it so much. Because what I’ve found, as you get older, you really worry about things less. You just don’t get thrown the way you used to when you’re young. And so my perspective, when I look back on events that I probably found upsetting at the time, is that I find it hard to take them seriously. You see what I mean? Because you really do worry much less about things as you get older. So when I think of the evenings when I sat and moped around because I’d just been dumped by the latest girlfriend, now I giggle instead of feeling distraught and…worthless.
EG: You need that psychic distance. Some amount of time has to pass so you can look back over your life with some perspective.
JC: I think it means that you write a happier book. There’s not a great deal of bitterness in the book. Oddly enough, there are moments I recall, like teachers that were unkind to me. That makes me angrier now than it did at the time, because I don’t think teachers should be unkind. By and large, a lot of the other things that happened that used to upset me, from getting dumped by girlfriends to getting bad reviews, none of it matters anymore, really. And that’s lovely.
EG: As a comic and as a writer for radio, TV and movies, you’re mainly concerned with writing dialogue and maybe a bit of stage direction. I’m guessing you did not have experience writing these other elements we expect in prose: narration, scenery, description, reflection. Was that hard to adapt to?
JC: You’re absolutely right. And I wasn’t sure when I sat down to write this. I thought, “What’s it going to be like writing for the printed page?” And I found it much easier than I was expecting! I just tried to tell the tale, and I tried to tell it in a very simple way. The three things I would like to hear about the book is that it’s funny, that it’s honest, and that it’s simple. I tried not to complicate anything. I found the narrative relatively easy.
EG: Another surprise in your memoir are snippets of transcripts of some of your early comedy work, including shows that weren’t well preserved, like The Frost Report, I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again, and At Last the 1948 Show.
JC: Those completely disappeared. Those sketches that I quote from here and there, that went out on one single occasion in 1966 or 67, the chances of anyone having seen them are pretty low. It’s like brand new material, particularly the stuff from The 1948 Show. I was quite startled at how funny it was. The Frost Report had wiped all the tapes. But in the last twelve months, we found four more of the programs. If I showed you the last one of the thirteen 1948 shows, you’d say it was indistinguishable from Python, apart from the faces and the lack of animation.
EG: Did you save a lot of your papers and scripts from over the years?
JC: I did! But one of the problems about getting divorced and having to pay alimony so much is, there’s been a lot of buying and selling of houses. And moving. And my papers are all over the bloody place. I was actually in a storage place in Santa Barbara on my birthday, which was last Monday. And I found some scripts there and I was absolutely thrilled to find the script of a movie that Graham Chapman and I wrote in ’67. I didn’t think there was another copy of that script anywhere left on the planet. And it’s an absolute perfect, pristine copy. I was really thrilled.
EG: Many Americans probably know your career differently than your fans in the UK. We didn’t get a lot of those early British TV shows. American readers will be interested to learn that a lot of your memoir is really about your varied career and years prior to Python.
JC: It’s a story and description of how my life unfolded and how my sense of humor developed – who I watched, and who I loved. And then the people that I had words with and that I learned from. Like these two comedians who are not very well known here, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. They were absolutely huge in England. And I cut my teeth on television with these guys. I was really lucky because they were very kind and warm and generous people. For a young guy of twenty-six, never having done any television, working with these people, what an education. I was so lucky.
EG: Is it bothersome to you in any way that most Americans know you only from the Python work, a few movies, and perhaps Fawlty Towers?
JC: It’s a strange thing. I often feel in an odd way that I’m more popular in America than I am in England. In England, I’m much better known from Fawlty Towers than I am from Python. Python’s been kind of forgotten in England. They regard Python as something that was, oh, quite interesting in its time, and it appears to have influenced some comedians, but it’s not terribly good now and nobody’s interested. My whole feeling in England is that everything I do is very passé. If I go anywhere else – if I go to America, or Canada or Australia or Europe, particularly Northern Europe, places like Holland, and Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway – those kind of places, I’m still regarded as a funny guy. Not someone who’s way past his prime.
EG: Do you feel like, as a comic, that it’s your duty to stay current with new trends? Or change your shtick? Do comedians get pigeonholed?
JC: I think you’ve got to try to stay fresh. I mean, you can’t tell a joke twice. I mean, you can do a Python sketch twice, if you’ve got wonderful fans like we’ve got. Even though they know the skits better than I do.
EG: I suppose as a comic, or as a writer, you try to engage with every generation, which must be a big challenge.
JC: I think it would be very hard to write now, because I don’t understand what’s going on technologically, and I don’t understand something like Facebook. People explain Facebook to me, but the whole idea of somebody writing their own gossip column, about themselves, so that their friends know where they are shopping – this, I cannot understand. I was thinking about a month ago, “If I had to write a comedy now, I would definitely set it a few years ago, when I knew what the norms were.” Because so much of what goes on now, including the celebrity culture, is completely inexplicable to me. I just don’t get it.
EG: It baffles me too, sometimes.
JC: What I like about writing about the past is it enables me to be funny. And the greatest single delight about the book was, that I could sit there on my own and make myself laugh. And that hasn’t happened in a long time. I haven’t been writing much comedy for a long time.
EG: Do you find that your tastes have changed in terms of what you find funny, as you’ve gotten older? Or do you still find the same things, the same absurdities, the class differences, misunderstandings, your surreal take on life that a lot of your comedy revolves around, all still funny?
JC: I always had a very broad sense of comedy. I’m thinking of some of the writers like Robert Benchley. And I’m trying to remember the name of a famous humorist who used to write stuff for the Marx brothers [S. J. Perelman], which was very dry, very witty, very clever. I love farce. It’s my favorite form of comedy. French farces, some of the finest of which were written in Paris in about 1890. I’ve done a certain amount of observation comedy myself when I made training films to teach people management, sales, and service industry skills. What I did in Fawlty Towers, that was kind of farce, but it was about a particular personality type that you can find particularly in England. Then Python was absurd.
EG: What were you your comedic influences growing up?
JC: The Goon Show was my favorite show of all time on the radio. I used to watch an enormous amount of American television and I was always completely charmed by George Burns, I adored Phil Silvers, I thought W.C. Fields was a genius. Lots of different types of humor. But I think, as you get older, you realize the world is much more of a madhouse than you ever dared to think when you were young. And I think that done, it’s now, it’s the complete insanity of ordinary, everyday things that makes me fall about.
EG: Such as?
JC: I was in a very nice little hotel in Carmel, about three nights ago. And I wanted room service, but I couldn’t find the menu. So I called down and I said, “Could you tell me where I could find the room service menu?” And they said, “We’ll send you one up.” And I said, “Wait a moment. Don’t you keep them in the rooms?” And they said, “No, we don’t.” And I thought, why would you have room service and not have a room service menu in the rooms? And now, I’ve met the managing director, who’s an extraordinarily nice woman and I said, “Why is that?” And she said, “Well, we don’t want to encourage people to use it.” That’s the sort of stuff I find very funny.
EG: Do you think that there’s an essential difference between what British people find funny and what Americans do? It does seem like a lot of what happens in British comedy, or certainly the comedy that you’re known for, revolves around a kind of undercutting of a class or a character type who’s meant to behave a certain way. The comedy comes from pushing that expectation.
JC: Yes, I think there’s slight variations on the content, but I think you’ll find exactly the same senses of humor. There are a lot of people in the South and parts of the Midwest in America who are very lost by the concept of irony. They don’t get it. And I don’t think you’ll find that in England. But when you talk about English humor, are you talking about Monty Python or are you talking about Benny Hill? They’re both British. What I have noticed when I do my one-man show and I show clips, I watch the front row. And the extraordinary thing is, that they don’t laugh at the same time. Humor is much more subjective than you think. You simply can’t make everyone laugh.
EG: You’ve done some really wonderful videos about creativity. You’ve also managed to stay incredibly creative and productive over a long career. Any advice?
JC: Most of the rest of life is a complete mystery to me, but the one thing I think I get, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I continue to be creative, is because I’ve learned to rely on my unconscious much more than most people dare to do. And as a result, work has become more fun, less heavy lifting. But at the same time, still quite creative. The other day, for example, I was doing a speech in San Francisco about having the right attitude about mistakes, which is almost a starting point for being creative. And I couldn’t think how to finish it. And I spent about twenty minutes at my desk before I went to bed, and I thought, “That’ll be enough.” And so in the morning, I got up, got my coffee and within five minutes, I had the rest of the speech, because my unconscious had been working on it during the night.
EG: Some people would say that the great humorists or great comedians have, at the core of what they’re exploring, a kind of sensitivity to pain or injustice or suffering. And that somehow, comedy comes from his ability to observe that.
JC: Would you say that was any less true about people who wrote serious books? Solzhenitsyn, or John Cheever or Updike or any of these people, that kind of sensitivity’s going to be there because you can’t write or create if you’re not pretty sensitive to other people. I think you can be an accountant or a banker and be remarkably insensitive to other people. I notice with bookkeepers and accountants in general, they’re often quite clumsy psychologically, but absolutely brilliant with their figures. And when you take the bankers that wrecked the global economic systems single-handed, they haven’t learned anything. So they’re, I would say a lot of those people are very insensitive to other people’s feelings. It doesn’t stop them being successful in business. I would call them basically high-functioning sociopaths, but I wouldn’t want to read a novel by any of them.
EG: If you had to choose to do one thing for the rest of your life, either perform or write, which do you find more appealing at this point in your life?
JC: There’s much more writing I would have written. The trouble is, that writing is much more difficult. Twenty times more difficult, because for every good writer, I can find you twenty good actors. It’s much harder to write. But it’s not paid as well as performing, so the reason I’ve always done a fair amount of performing is that I’ve had a fairly expensive lifestyle particularly under my third wife. I have five houses! Well, that meant I was having to earn money all the time. I was much better when I had one house, and then I could stop and write something that took me quite a lot of time, but which I could enjoy. Very much like the book. I haven’t done anything like that probably since I wrote a movie in the mid-nineties.
EG: Do you have any projects in the works that we all should know about? Upcoming roles, TV shows or movies?
JC: Well, there are a couple of movies around. The Australians apparently want me to be a judge on a sort of “Australia’s Got Talent” contest with stand-up comedians. I think that would be great fun to do and I would enjoy it. I think I could be helpful and encouraging. I would not be one of those mean judges whom I despise. I’ve done a first draft with my daughter Camilla, actually, of a book, of a musical of A Fish Called Wanda. And I would like eventually, when I have earned a little more money and paid off my alimony, I would like to do some television documentary shows – but of course, they get paid peanuts. I would like to, for example, do a program on a series of interviews or something about why some people want to be so very rich. Because I don’t understand. I think it would be really interesting to find out why some of them want so much more money than they can ever spend. Or I’d like to do a series about what religion would be if the churches hadn’t fucked it up. Those would be really interesting, but as I was saying, you can’t get paid much for them and I still need a little more alimony.
EG: You present at the end of So, Anyway... the reunion shows that you did with your old Python buddies last summer at London’s O2 arena, which was the first live Python performances you’d done in three decades. You mention that it was perhaps motivated more by needing to pay off some legal debts than anything else. But in the end, what was your experience like doing that again? Was it enjoyable?
JC: Oh, yes. The big impulse to do it came out of that, but it turned out to be extraordinarily enjoyable. We can never agree on anything these days so it was very lucky that four of us were so busy that we had to go off and not interfere while Eric [Idle] put the show together, and he did a terrific job by adding all the singing and dancing, which of course has nothing to do with Python. In the whole series of Python, there wasn’t a song or dance you could remember. A lot of the enjoyment was the fact that we were just getting on well and enjoying each other. But an awful lot of it, we do have the best fans in the world. I was thinking this today, signing books at Barnes & Noble. You know, the people who like our stuff, they’ve got a nice sense of humor, they’re nice people. You know?
EG: I like to think so. Certainly people like me, we grew up on your material. We’re nerds, and we geeked out on your comedy, and we memorized your routines. Nerds are friendly.
JC: Well, the only thing I ask: Try somewhere to let people know the book is intended to be funny. I often get serious discussions about the book, but the main thing, is I’m trying to make people laugh and, I think I said to you, I really did make myself laugh when I was writing it.
[This interview has been edited and condensed. Thanks to Melissa MacEwen for her transcribing work.]
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