Pythonesque silly things – but also a serious message
Ahead of his visit to Jersey next month with his latest live show, An Evening of Silly Things, John Cleese talks to Tom Ogg about his rise to the pinnacle of comedy, the funny thing about audiences and the deadening effect of political correctness on society.
‘LONG John Short On Jokes’. Such was the Daily Mirror’s punning summary of John Cleese’s new sitcom, Fawlty Towers, back in 1975.
Well, that didn’t age well, did it? Today, Fawlty Towers is widely regarded as a comedy masterpiece, with co-creators Cleese and Connie Booth cramming more belly laughs into single scenes than some comedians manage in their entire careers. If in doubt, watch a scene from Communication Problems, The Hotel Inspectors or Waldorf Salad and remind yourself of its timeless comic brilliance.
But of course, there is far more to Cleese’s CV than merely the Greatest Sitcom Ever Made. The Somerset- born star has been a prominent figure in British comedy now for over half a century, from his key role in the satire boom of the 1960s through to the ground breaking Monty Python’s Flying Circus – still probably the most influential sketch comedy show of all time – and his subsequent big-screen success, first with Python (The Holy Grail, The Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life) and then with such self-penned classics as 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda. Now fast approaching his ninth decade, Cleese shows few signs of slowing down, and in recent years has toured several one-man shows across the UK, Europe and beyond, often with unforgettable titles (Last Chance to See Me Before I Die anyone?).
‘What happens is I agree to do a show and immediately I’m asked to provide a title, because I’ll be told the programme is going to print on Friday,’ says Cleese, chatting over the phone from the UK. ‘So I started coming up with stupid titles, such as Seven Ways to Skin An Ocelot. “Ocelot?” Yes, that’s right – O-C-E-L-O-T. “Oh, okay”. No matter what I say, they’re delighted.’
True to form, Cleese’s latest show is memorably titled An Evening of Silly Things and will see him doing ‘lots of crazy, silly things’, beginning with two performances at the Jersey Opera House next month.
‘I’m going to be taking the show to Belgium, Copenhagen, Germany, Holland, Athens,’ says Cleese. ‘I just wanted to do a show where I’d come on stage and do some silly things. Basically, if you like Monty Python or Fawlty Towers, then you’ll like the show, and if you don’t, you won’t.’
Surely anyone who dislikes Monty Python or Fawlty Towers doesn’t have much of a sense of humour?
‘I find that people’s tastes can be quite subjective when it comes to comedy,’ says Cleese. ‘It was something I found during my last show [Last Chance to See Me Before I Die]. I would show TV or film clips on a screen and this would shine a light onto the first two or three rows and illuminate the audience. And what I would notice is that people don’t all laugh at the same time. You’ll get someone laughing, but then someone else will look puzzled, someone will have a contented smile, someone will be looking annoyed – that’s always a he. It’s really quite variable.’
Unlike previous live shows, An Evening of Silly Things will only feature a small number of clips (‘I think the longest is about 30 seconds’) and instead will involve Cleese talking directly to the audience throughout the show.
‘I’ll also be playing a few tricks on them,’ he laughs. ‘I give the audience a surprise at the beginning, which I love. It’s a show where I do silly things and I talk about silly things that have happened to me, many of which happened in hotels, which is rather funny given that I played Basil Fawlty.’
Elsewhere, the show will include Cleese discussing the negative impact political correctness has had on modern comedy, an opinion shared by many other comedy legends such as Jerry Seinfeld, Mel Brooks and Ricky Gervais.
‘Political correctness doesn’t just deaden comedy, it deadens everything,’ he says. ‘It’s a terrible way of living. You can’t say this, you can’t say that – it’s a way of living that is like a communist state. You don’t need a lot of rules to stop people being offended – just try and be nice to each other. Just be friendly and kind, that’s all that’s needed. You don’t need this phobia of using words.
‘I tell a lot of jokes about the British and the French and the Germans and so on, but if I’m performing in America and I say something about Mexicans, everyone suddenly goes quiet. I point this out and then they laugh. But to say that you can’t say anything about Mexicans is to imply that Mexicans are a hopeless, pathetic bunch. It suggests they’re weak and indigent. That’s not the case at all, of course. Mexicans are the loveliest people.’
Is it the case, therefore, that political correctness is largely people claiming offence on behalf of others? ‘Yes, it’s posturing. It’s people striking a pose. It’s a way of showing how much more sensitive they are because it makes them feel warm and satisfied and superior. If anyone wants to debate me about this, they’re more than welcome to come on stage and I’ll talk to them about it.’
As if to demonstrate how PC culture dominates modern mainstream comedy, the BBC’s former head of comedy,Shane Allen, recently admitted that he wouldn’t commission Monty Python today on account of the troupe’s lack of ethnic diversity. ‘No, the reason they wouldn’t commission Monty Python today is because it’s too funny,’ says Cleese. ‘Monty Python is respected all over the world, but it’s very funny, and, oh, we have to stop that.’
Sadly, the Pythons wouldn’t have much luck with ITV today either, with the station recently announcing it had banned all-male writing rooms. ‘It shouldn’t matter who is in the writing room as long as they’re funny. It all depends on whether you have a Dawn French or a Jennifer Saunders or a Miranda or–’
Or a Connie Booth? ‘Yes, or a Connie Booth. I’m all for encouraging people, but the truth is it’s very hard to make a success in showbusiness.’
Regarding his own stellar success in the industry, Cleese says it was mostly a result of luck, beginning with his breakthrough appearances on The Frost Report in the 1960s, on which he was initially a behind-the-scenes writer.
‘It was dear old David Frost who decided to introduce me to TV audiences, putting me on camera with dear, dear Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. No one knew who I was back in 1966, then suddenly I was being watched by 14 million viewers and I was rocketed to stardom. I was lucky.’
Lucky Cleese may have been, but he was also undeniably talented, and his prodigious work ethic and expert comic timing played no small part in his subsequent success. In partnership with the late, great Graham Chapman, Cleese wrote many of Monty Python’s funniest sketches (the Dead Parrot sketch among them), while scene-stealing turns in cult films like The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer and The Magic Christian cemented his stardom.
The latter film wasn’t well received by critics (although Cleese effortlessly upstages both Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr during his brief cameo) and he is open and honest about the misfires that occasionally appear on his CV. ‘Well,Yellowbeard–that was utterly impenetrable,’ he laughs, referring to Mel Damski’s oddball 1983 film, which features dozens of famous comedians but relatively few laughs. ‘Isn’t She Great wasn’t a great film. And although I’m a big fan of Steve Martin, I thought the Clouseau film [2009’s The Pink Panther 2] was pretty terrible.’
There are other films, however, which John feels are due reappraisal, not least 1997’s Fierce Creatures, which was partly filmed at Jersey Zoo, and which was met with mixed reviews upon release. ‘The reaction to the film was too harsh. There were some very funny scenes, some of which we couldn’t use, either because I got it wrong or the director did, but other scenes made it into the finished film and they’r every funny.There is some great stuff at the end with Kevin Kline.’
Returning to An Evening of Silly Things, the live show will conclude with Cleese talking about death, a subject which, he readily admits, makes a lot of people uncomfortable. ‘They don’t like hearing about it because they don’t like the idea that they’re going to die. They’re terrified of it. But I talk about it anyway and I find that a lot of people actually leave the show feeling rather uplifted.’ It’s a subject that is particularly pertinent given ex-Python Terry Jones’ diagnosis with frontotemporal dementia in 2015, a condition for which there is sadly no cure.
‘I was talking with Michael [Palin] about Terry yesterday,’says John.‘There isn’t going to be improvement, but he is physically okay – he likes his meals, he likes going for walks, and he enjoys watching old tapes. He has difficulty in conversation, so if someone is talking and the subject changes, he is bewildered. It’s such a shame because he is such a pleasant man and a very interesting guy.’
Cleese himself turns 80 in October and he says he is increasingly aware of the passage of time: ‘I’m waiting for the doctor to call and say: “Er, Mr Cleese, could you come in for one or two more tests?” But there are nice things about getting old, such as you stop caring. You become less anxious and you stop worrying about everything.
‘I was terribly anxious when I was younger.If you’ve read my autobiography [pause] – says the man talking about dementia who can’t remember the title of his own book – you’ll know I used to be terrified. Absolutely terrified. But now I do a show at the Opera House and I know those coming to watch it like what I do. They don’t say: “He’s a boring old twit who isn’t funny, but let’s buy six tickets anyway”. They like what I do.’
Before the interview ends, and given that few people know the ins and outs of comedy better than John Cleese, I ask him if the following quote, which is often attributed to him, is genuine: ‘There are three laws of comedy: 1) no puns, 2) no puns, 3) no puns.’
‘I did say that, yes,’ he replies. ‘I don’t mind a pun if it’s obscure enough. I heard one recently which is a delight. Why don’t bears wear shoes? Because they have bear feet. I’ve told that to audiences and it always gets a laugh. But by and large, puns are a fairly low form of humour.
I used to do a show called I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again [1960s BBC radio comedy show] and there were too many puns. The show was nothing but puns, which I think made me tire of them.’ The aforementioned pun by the Daily Mirror might bring a smile to John’s face, however, not least because he has undoubtedly had the last laugh.
For more on An Evening of Silly Things or to book tickets, visit jerseyoperahouse.co.uk
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