Sir Silly

Monty Python’s John Cleese visits Pasadena this week to discuss something completely different

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 11/5/2015

Having finally paid his ex-wife $20 million in alimony in July, John Cleese is ready to have fun again.

The renowned comedian, author, director and cultural icon is best known as one of the founding members of the silly and surreal comedy troupe Monty Python. Creator of such cult favorites as the Dead Parrot Sketch, the Ministry of Silly Walks and the Argument Clinic, as well as his role in the four Python movies, Cleese also received accolades for his 1970s comedy series “Fawlty Towers.” He was nominated for an Oscar for the 1988 film “A Fish Called Wanda,” which he wrote, directed and starred in and will soon be turning into a musical. He also won an Emmy for his guest appearance on “Cheers.”

Cleese just wrapped up a two-man show last month with fellow Python Eric Idle called “Together Again at Last…For the Very First Time,” which Cleese said is the most enjoyable tour he’s ever done. The two came up with the show after a similar successful event at the Alex Theatre in Glendale last year. At that show, Idle interviewed Cleese about his new memoir, So, Anyway…, which was published last year. The book primarily focuses on Cleese’s early life: his childhood, college years, entry into show business and the formation of Monty Python.

Cleese will speak at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11, at the Pasadena Convention Center, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena, as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series.

He recently spoke with the Pasadena Weekly about comedy, Donald Trump and the death of democracy, and why Monty Python broke up.

Pasadena Weekly: In 1968, you told us how to irritate people. What irritates you these days?

John Cleese: I’m not so much irritated as despairing. When I first came to America what I admired about your American political system was that there was a real friendship across the aisle. People cooperated, people listened to each other. The Republicans and the Democrats behaved in a very civilized way, much better than the British. I thought, ‘Oh this is a much better way of doing it.’ Now you have a party who’s visible representatives are the worst rabble I’ve ever see in a Western country. It’s not that people like that want to stand out, like this guy Trey Gowdy [R-SC] on the Benghazi committee. Just look at him. This is someone who if you walked into a pub and saw this guy you’d try to avoid any contact with him. You’d walk the longest route along the edge of the pub to stay away from him. And here people have elected him. The extraordinary thing is not that he wants to be powerful, but that people would have chosen him, and that makes me feel that democracy has failed, because democracy’s to do with a fairly intelligent and well-informed electorate, and we don’t have it, either in America or in England.

People just have their own facts and there’s nothing that will convince them otherwise of their previously held beliefs.

That’s right, it’s the affirmative bias. If you believe something to be true and then you’re given two bits of information, one of them confirms your opinion and one contradicts it, you’re going to pay far more attention to the one that confirms your opinion, and the one that contradicts it you’re just going to flip aside. And as a result of that we’re in a state of crisis. This might surprise people, but I think science is in a state of crisis. An enormous amount of the research that was done particularly in social psychology and in medicine is now showing they can’t replicate it. This is being hushed up and people in the scientific world are trying to pretend that it isn’t the case because it strikes at the heart of some of the paradigm beliefs that they have. What I see in England is the press censoring the press. They censor themselves. If there’s information that for example is not favorable to Murdoch, then the Murdoch papers simply censor it. Democracy can only function with an intelligent and well-informed electorate, and with newspapers that make some attempt to present the facts, as opposed to being used as propaganda vehicles. So I feel very despairing, but it doesn’t stop me from enjoying my coffee in the morning. I just think it’s very disillusioning at this stage of my life, having quite a lot of experience in the world, just to see how badly it’s all run, and how people with out of control egos manage to do far, far better than they ever deserve to do. And obviously [Donald] Trump is the main example of that. This is a man whose ego is out of control. And yet people are seriously contemplating putting him in charge of the country.

Is any of it funny?

I think it was funny to begin with. It’s like anything, it’s funny to begin with, and then as you suddenly realize what the reality is, it kind of becomes less funny because it’s threatening. The guy or girl who’s in charge of the United States, we all need this person to be pretty sensible, intelligent and well informed, but, in particular in the Republican Party, the feeling is as with George W. Bush that ‘I want someone to be president who I want to have a beer with.’ I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t want to have a beer with the president. I want the president to make me feel ‘what a stupid, uneducated person I am and thank God someone much brighter than me is in charge.’

Are you going to write part two of your memoir?

Not yet, because I think when you’ve written something it’s very good to take a break before you just keep ploughing on. So many authors have a first book that’s successful and then the publishers want another one immediately. I think you need to refresh yourself sometimes by taking a break between similar projects. So I’ll probably start on that in about a year.

How did you cultivate your creativity when the Clifton College curriculum and other elements of your youth didn’t allow for that? Did that not happen until you got involved with the Cambridge Footlights Revue?

It didn’t happen that I became conscious of having creative ability, because if you come from Weston-super-Mare and you go to good English private schools, there’s not a lot of creativity about. I’m not so sure that any of the masters are very creative, and I certainly don’t think they can recognize it in other people. They have no idea I think how to nurture it. It’s not part of the academic curriculum. It’s very left brain. It’s all about learning facts and learning how to analyze and be accurate and be critical and about precision. I do talks about creativity and none of that really applies. But when I look back to that time, I was doing creative things. I was quite funny in the house plays, and some of the essays I used to write. I had to write an essay on time, and I wrote a whole essay about the fact that I didn’t have time to write the essay, and I remember thinking it was rather clever, but the teacher didn’t think so at all.

Could a new comedy troupe like Monty Python rise out of nowhere today, or does the corporate environment stifle creativity?

It’s hard to say. It’s particularly hard to say for me because I don’t really understand much about the Internet, but I read people now who become stars on the Internet and have an enormous number of followers who don’t seem to do much other than just sort of chat about themselves. And that’s incomprehensible to me. In the most literal sense, I do not understand, but if that can happen to people who talk about themselves, then presumably it could happen to people who have talent, too. But I come from a generation that simply does not understand how a Kim Kardashian can have so many followers. It is absolutely incomprehensible to me, and I find more and more things that are incomprehensible. Facebook in general is astonishing. I use Twitter because occasionally I want to comment, and Stephen Fry pointed out to me five years ago that if you get a big enough Twitter following you don’t have to get interviewed by the British press in order to publicize things, and that’s literally why I started doing it. But I enjoy it sometimes, you know.

You write in your book that in the 1960s British culture was ‘deferential, stuffy, compulsively super-polite and excruciatingly cautious.’ Is that one reason why Monty Python took off, because Britain was sorely lacking in silliness?

Yes, yes. The breakthrough started with ‘Beyond the Fringe,’ in ’62, because suddenly they started making fun of people doing sermons in church and prime ministers and even making jokes about the queen, which would have been unthinkable in the ’50s. What happened was there was a first wave that had very much to do with satire, and that lasted about four years. There was satire, satire, satire; everybody got sick of it. And when [Monty Python] got together we thought, ‘Everybody’s bored with satire, so let’s just be silly; let’s play and do things that strike us as being absurd.’ So we were able to benefit from that period of stuffiness.

Did the BBC ever censor Monty Python? Was there ever a sketch where they said, ‘No, you can’t do that’?

Once or twice, yes, but on the whole they were very, very amazingly trusting of us. There was one particular guy named Michael Mills. I bless him every time I think of him, because he gave us a series when he didn’t really know what we were going to do for the simple reason we didn’t know what we were going to do. Extraordinary risk he took. He also allowed us to do things. We finished one sketch with Michael Palin dressed as a cardinal in the Spanish trying to catch a bus and get someone before the end of the program, and at the end Michael Palin said, ‘Oh bugger,’ which in those days was considered quite a strong word. And Michael Mills said, ‘I didn’t think I would ever be able to let you say ‘bugger,’ but it’s so funny, I’m going to let you say it.’ So they were on the whole very good with us. The other [Pythons] I thought used to get unnecessarily upset when [the BBC] occasionally put a foot on the brake for a few seconds.

Why did Monty Python fall apart?

I think it broke up for me for about three reasons. One was that I didn’t think the others were particularly sympathetic to the fact that my writing partner [Graham Chapman] had become an alcoholic. Nobody else wanted to write with him, and he was screwing up filming and recording in the studio because he would get drunk on the day of a show and not be able to remember his words. And there’s not much point spending a week writing stuff and then rehearsing it if the other guy isn’t going to get his lines right. That was part of it. The other thing was a genuine artistic [difference]. I was a bit of a purist in those days. I thought we were beginning to repeat ourselves. I thought the only point of Python was to be original. When I saw sketches being written that were combinations of previous sketches, I thought, ‘This is not why we started to do Python.’ And also I had a strong desire to do something with my wife, Connie Booth. Of course as a result of not being in Python anymore, I was able to go off and do ‘Fawlty Towers,’ which also pleased people. Leaving Python was very much the right thing for me to do at the time.

Did you and Terry Gilliam ever get along?

Oh yes, there was always an affectionate interchange, but I began to realize that Terry was so many different people in the same skin that you never really quite knew which one you were going to be talking to next. He was very disparaging about therapy and always very critical of the fact that I had done therapy, and quite angry actually that I helped Robert Skinner write a couple books on the subject. He told my doctor that. He was kind of furious that I wrote those books. I have no idea what his problem was because he needed psychiatry himself. He’s gone on making similar mistakes again and again and again. And yet he has this huge talent, huge visual talent and he doesn’t understand that he needs somebody to work with, someone who’s very good at story and narrative. If he’d had therapy he might have had a chance of realizing that, but it’s frustrating to see someone who’s so talented who has a self-destructive streak in him.

All the members of Monty Python seem to simultaneously be very similar and very different, in terms of their personalities, comedic style, writing style, work ethic, etc. Was that your sense of it?

I don’t think they’re very similar. You see, if you look at where they’ve gone. Michael [Palin] has gone off to make the travel programs and he makes very good little programs about artists, painters. [Terry] Gilliam went off to be a film director. I don’t think he ever wanted to do anything else. He’s not happy if he doesn’t have a film bubbling, despite the fact that he never seems to enjoy them when he’s actually making one. [Terry] Jones is a renaissance man and has written all sorts of things, books on Chaucer. He’s a very good historian on the Middle Ages. He’s done some very interesting documentaries. He was an excellent director of the Python movies, really, really good. He understood how to shoot the Python movies. He wrote children’s books, he was always doing different things. And Eric [Idle’s] great strength, quite unlike the rest of the Pythons, was that musically he writes very, very clever lyrics. Some of the lyrics in ‘Spamalot’ are just brilliant, and he comes up with very good tunes. Although I think John Du Prez comes up with most of the tunes, but Eric can write good tunes, too. So he went off in that more showbizzy way, and I did all sorts of things. I became part of a company that made management training films, and wrote two books with Robin Skynner, the psychiatrist, and wrote one or two movies, one of which was very successful. So we’re all very different and that’s often the essence of a good team, that people should have different strengths, not similar ones.

Why is Monty Python more popular in America than in England?

I think it’s partly to do with the fact, first of all, that I don’t think the BBC which has sole rights to terrestrial broadcast of Python, I don’t think they’ve put us out for something like 15 years. I think the other thing is that the British press has an ingrained negativity. They want to condescend toward anyone, and I’m not just talking about actors. People think, ‘Oh this is about actors.’ No, if you look at the British press, they criticize everyone. They criticize politicians, businessmen, writers, sportsmen; they just criticize the lot, which is funny because they’re sensitive to criticism themselves. Because of that, they will allow you a success, but not for very long, because then they will say, in my case, ‘He hasn’t done anything funny recently.’ They will ignore the fact that ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ was a pretty good movie, and that I got an Emmy and did the documentary series ‘The Human Face’ in 2001. All that gets forgotten, and it’s just, ‘He’s not interesting anymore.’ So the fact that you did do something that’s generally regarded as very good, they don’t like that. They’re very envious people. The extraordinary thing about talking to American journalists is that they’re often enthusiasts; they say, ‘I really like your work.’ You talk to someone because they know the work. That’s considered OK, whereas if a British journalist said to his editor, ‘Can I interview Michael Palin because I really like his work,’ that would be a reason to say, ‘No. No, we want someone who’s basically going to criticize him and take him down a bit,’ because that’s what they think people want to read. I don’t know whether it’s true. If it is, then I weep for my fellow countrymen. So with a combination of not being on television screens and having a very sniffy press who attacked all of us, people tend to forget about us, or maybe they take on more of the attitude of the press. So when we did the ’02 [Python] reunion and sold out the first show in 44 seconds, we were astonished, because we started to think of ourselves in the same way that the British press did. We suddenly realized, ‘No, there’s this huge affection.’ Although you have to remember that an enormous part of the audience was not British. They came from all over. They came from Turkey and Israel and Brazil and Singapore. It was extraordinary.

Where did the name Monty Python come from?

It’s a very boring story. We couldn’t come up with a name. And we came up with lots and lots of other names, and eventually we hit upon ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus.’ There’s nothing more interesting to the story than that.

Was making Monty Python as fun as it looked? Or was it more work and struggle than it seemed?

When we first started, because we were moving into completely uncharted territory, it was very exciting. I used to think it was like a farmer opening up the farm gates to a beautiful field of flowers and just saying, ‘Go on in there and pick the flowers.’ And after you’ve been in there for two [seasons] of course you’ve picked most of the flowers, do you see what I mean? Then it becomes harder to come up with something that’s genuinely original, and that was when I began to get antsier about the fact that we were not as creative as we had been in the beginning. The movies were on the whole very good experiences. ‘The Holy Grail’ was a very good little film. I don’t think the second half is as good as the first half but the first half I think is very good. The only problem about that was the Spartan conditions under which we shot it. Then after that, ‘Life of Brian’ was a joy. It all fell into place much quicker than we had any right to expect. We shot it in the sunlight, in the warmth in Tunisia. There was a sense of space. A lot of the scenes were shot outside, and I always prefer to act in the open air than in the studio. It was just a delightful experience. Jonesy did a wonderful job directing it. He was always on top of it. We thought the script was very good. We had no idea that we were going to make our masterpiece. We were very optimistic about it. When we got to ‘The Meaning of Life,’ we started on that before we were really ready to do something very new. I think it was a mistake to have embarked on a new film before we’d had a break, which is probably why I’m not settling down to write the next book in the autobiography series yet. I think one needs to get away and sort of refresh oneself. And I didn’t find the shooting of it very encouraging either. But the other Pythons have different feelings. I think Jones and Gilliam both like ‘The Meaning of Life,’ and I thought there was some wonderful stuff in it, but it didn’t satisfy me because I didn’t think it held together.

The eulogy you gave at Graham Chapman’s funeral I thought was just brilliant, by the way. You took what was clearly a very solemn occasion and turned it around and used it as an opportunity to make people laugh.

Yes, it was good, wasn’t it? I was trying to think in terms of what he would have wanted. And when I realized what he wanted it wasn’t difficult. It’s very important [to laugh] around death; people can get so solemn. There’s not the slightest doubt that when someone dies, it’s sad, there’s loss. But it’s not the end of the world because when you’re born the whole deal is that you die. It’s something that’s utterly built into the structure of your life. It can’t be regarded as a tragedy every time. It’s a tragedy when people die young, and [Chapman] died at the age of 48 which is nothing, but if you get to 80 and somebody says, ‘Well I’m afraid that’s it,’ that doesn’t seem to me so much of a tragedy. I don’t mean people won’t suffer loss, get over that, but that’s part of life, again.

Where did you and Eric Idle come up with the idea for your show ‘Together Again at Last…For the Very First Time?’

We had a very good time [at a show in Glendale last year], when he was kind enough to come along and interview me about my book. We came off afterwards and all we knew was that the audience had laughed a great deal and we couldn’t quite remember what we’d said. But what then intervened was that Michael Palin made it very clear over a period of several months that he did not want to do any more Python shows. We got a very generous offer for [a Python reunion show] in Australia in April and Michael, who’s always polite, just didn’t want to do it. Eric and I were talking a couple days later and we said, ‘Well if [the Pythons] don’t want to do it is there any reason why we can’t do something like we did in [Glendale]?’ We thought about it for a while and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I tend to be pretty busy still trying to repair my finances after the divorce, because when you’ve got to pay someone $20 million you can’t sit around reading. You know what I mean? Having paid her off, which I finally did in July, I’m still short of money. I’ve got to pay mortgages and things like that. So that keeps me fairly busy on projects, some of which are great fun, like this tour with Eric, which is really the most enjoyable I’ve ever had.

Have you found some subjects in life easier to make fun of than others? Organized religion, for instance?

Oh yes, some are easier. The point is, anywhere there’s stupidity or egotism or incompetence or whatever, there’s fun to be had. If someone’s running an organization well, there’s not much fun to be had, because comedy’s about things going wrong; it’s not about things going right. It’s not about perfect human beings; it’s about the imperfections of human beings.

Are you still working on a musical version of "A Fish Called Wanda"?

Yes, when I’ve repaired my finances the middle of next year I think I might’ve got there. I shall then sit down and do almost nothing for four or five months bringing in no money at all. That’s the problem with musicals, you cannot get money up front and it’s not a good idea to do so anyway because then they’ll take it away from you. But it does mean you have to find a period of your life when you don’t need money coming in.

I bet the public sees you as a performer first, but you say you see yourself more as a writer first, right?

I’ve always valued writing more than performing, but I can’t justify that. It’s like preferring strawberries to raspberries; it’s just the way you are.

What will you be speaking about at the Pasadena Convention Center next week?

I’ll be interviewed about the book and then we’ll get on to the Q & A thing, and I always say please, if you’re going to ask a question, ask an interesting one. Or a rude one is best. Say, ‘Why can’t you stay married?’ Or ‘What are the things you’re really bad at?’ That’s interesting, you see. But what I don’t want is questions like, ‘Oh Mr. Cleese, you’re so wonderful, how could I learn to be as wonderful as you?’ But I do get those and the trouble is they bore the ass off the rest of the audience.