John Cleese, at the Midland Wednesday, talks killer rabbits, Pythons and funny business
Four decades after Monty Python’s Flying Circus left the air, writer-performer John Cleese still can’t get away from it. Lately, though, that doesn’t seem to bother him.
Cleese, whose TV shows and movies created with fellow Pythons Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and the late Graham Chapman influenced everything from Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons, participated this year in 10 sold-out reunion shows at London’s 16,000-seat O2 arena. Those were broadcast live all over the world, and the results come to DVD this week. He has also lent his voice to a new game for tablets and smartphones based on his classic Python sketch “The Ministry of Silly Walks.”
On top of all that, Cleese is now on tour to promote his first memoir, a pre-Python autobiography titled So, Anyway…. Wednesday, November 12, his schedule brings him to Kansas City, where he’ll be at the Midland at 8 p.m. to take questions about the book and his long career from Rainy Day Books co-owner Vivien Jennings and from the audience. (Tickets, which come with a signed copy of the book, can be had via rainydaybooks.com.).
The Pitch called Cleese on the road.
Otto von Bismarck once lamented that people should never see how laws or sausages are made, but your book retraces some of the most famous sequences you’ve worked on.
I would have agreed with you wholeheartedly 30 years ago, but the fact is that audiences’ psychologies have changed so much. When I was growing up, the feeling was that what went on behind the camera was sort of secret, and what mattered was what was on the screen.
I find that now nearly all audiences understand the processes of filmmaking, and that’s completely new. Thirty years ago, I would have said it’s a bad thing, but now it’s just part of the times. I don’t think there’s any point in pretending that it isn’t.
I tend to listen to audiences, particularly when I’m standing in front of them, but I’ve noticed that people come up, and they’ll ask about this sketch or why this sketch happened or why we didn’t do this, and it’s all part of the process. It’s not a terribly interesting answer, but I think it’s just a vast change in the way that people look at art.
Speaking of that process, there were a couple of passages in So, Anyway… where you indicate where the homicidal rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail might have originated. In one case, you had a friend who was trying to put down a diseased rabbit.
Let me think, I was bitten by one when I was 5 – oh, and the killing of the rabbit. That’s right.
I think it’s the funniest story in the book, and so does my editor, and the only surprising thing is that you’re the first journalist to have mentioned it. [laughs.] And it’s so true of this guy named Anthony Viney that he wouldn’t have hurt a fly, and here he was behaving like somebody from IS [the so-called Islamic State] in the middle of Salisbury Plain.
To write the book, you actually had to look up some genealogical data that couldn’t be easily found on Wikipedia.
Exactly. I was interested. The whole point of doing this book was as a labor of love and to take my time over it. That’s why it didn’t come out 15 years ago. I did it because Michael Caine told me that if you write your autobiography, you regain parts of your life that you completely forgot, and I thought what a marvelous thing to do. I feel that in the first part of that life, it was like I collected the key material, and there was a bit more packed into it than I’d originally thought there was.
You cover the period of your life before you and Graham Chapman became writers and stars of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. You tend to look at the TV show and the movies that followed only tangentially.
That’s right. I’m worried at times that people may buy the book thinking that it’s all about Monty Python, but I think it’s very clearly signposted as my autobiography. And so I’ve taken the risk of talking about things that aren’t to do with Python. People say, “We’re not interested in you inasmuch as you are not talking about Python,” then they ought not to by the book, although they should probably buy the next one.
What is happening is that people seem to find some of the observations of this rather quiet and rather dignified life that I’ve had for the first 80 years, and they seem to find it quite funny because for me, the greatest joy of writing this book is not just remembering things that I’d forgotten long ago but making myself laugh for the first time in a long time. I love doing that.
While you are telling a fairly straightforward account of your days before Python, you sprinkle it with Python-like humor throughout.
One or two of the British critics don’t appear to have noticed that it attempts to be funny, but I think that’s the nature of British journalism. Everybody is anxious and competitive that I don’t think they have any of that relaxation that is necessary to enjoy humor.
You were on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last night, and Stewart’s new movie Rosewater deals with an Iranian-Canadian journalist who is mistaken for a spy because a cast member from The Daily Show jokingly pretended to be a secret agent with him. Totalitarians don’t seem to get jokes, either.
People sort of lose their sense of humor when they’re anxious. I noticed this when I was writing pieces for a radio magazine program, and I just put in this stupid joke about someone who’d crossed a rhinoceros with a mouse. And what have you got?
You’ve got fucking great holes in the wainscoting. And the guy who was producing the show — and it was the first one he’d ever produced — rang me up in a panic and he said, “What is it about the story of the rhinoceros? Is it true?” I thought, “What’s going on here? This guy is normal.” I suddenly realized that extreme fear drives a sense of humor out the window.
They’re two different moods. You can’t laugh if you’re frightened, and if you’re really laughing a lot, it’s hard to be frightened. See what I mean? They’re mutually exclusive.
I think the problem with the British press now. I talked with George Schlatter, who produced Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and he said that a lot of American television is very, very good, but there’s no fun in it anymore.
I think we live in a very anxious age. We all don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on in the Ukraine or anywhere else. The Middle East is changing very, very fast. Extremely rich people seem even more rich and powerful and invulnerable than they’ve ever been before. And we never get any down time because our phones and computers are always buzzing and beeping, and when we are calm, there’s a noise where we don’t know what it means. I think we’re all much more anxious than we used to be.
When you consider that Rupert Murdoch divorced Wendy Deng over an affair she conducted under the roof of one of his houses with the British ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, that must be one of the hottest stories this century. But you’ve hardly read anything about it, and that’s the power that the rich have to shut the press up. I think some people have been anxious and lacked a sense of humor and a sense of perspective, and I think that it’s beginning to spread.
You also deal with some of times when the press either bungled or defamed you in the book.
I think it’s a thoroughly honorable profession, and as you know from reading the book, I was thinking one time of doing it. It’s been completely devalued. I think American journalism is much better than English journalism, and I think that ethically Americans are still concerned about them.
In the book you lament that a David Frost-produced special called How to Irritate People wasn’t very good. One of the sketches, a job interview skit, later made it to Monty Python. Why do you think the sketch was funnier on Monty Python’s Flying Circus?
I think we were just in a better, more relaxed comic atmosphere, and I think that Graham and I were better performers than we were two years before. You’ve got to remember when we did How to Irritate People, Graham had done very little performing. And I’d only done about 40 shows. And I think that the two years we spent writing stuff for other people like Peter Sellers, and I was doing other shows all the time. I think the key was that we were more relaxed, and when we rewrote it, we rewrote it better.
The Pythons have a firm place in cyberspace as well as on TV and film. The “Spam” sketch inadvertently coined the term for junk e-mail, for instance. You and Eric Idle are both on Twitter. The Pythonline.com site is active, and your voice can be heard taunting players of a new game for tablets and smart phones based on the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. I know because I’ve never been able to get past 420 meters before dying.
I am embarrassed by how bad I am at IT technology. Gilliam is good, and I suspect Terry Jones knows a little bit about it. I regard myself as poor. Eric, I think, is good because I think he understood it was important promotionally, and I’ve taken a long time to come around to this because I like aspects of the Internet enormously.
I think it allows some sociopaths to express some extraordinarily nasty opinions, but at the same time it is a way of getting around the press. But the reason I’ve built up nearly 3 and a half million is that Stephen Fry said this is a way of bypassing the British Press.
In the Silly Walks game your voice laments, “That was dreadful, no funding from the Ministry for you!” and, “You’ve let me down. You’ve let the Prime Minister down, and, God forbid, you’ve let the Queen down, too. Bless her.”
How do you feel about letting all those important people down [laughs]? The idea for that [Silly Walks game] came from a really smart guy named Chris Curd. And Chris had been looking after my website for some time. When he suggested it to me a year ago, I thought it was a very funny idea, and he’s working with the Python organization on it.
I’ve never played it because my hand-eye coordination isn’t as fast as it used to be. I’m now 75, three quarters of a century. It was in the very early stages when Chris was showing me how it worked. It seems to be catching on because it’s one of the few games that makes people laugh.
So why do you think that 40 plus years on, people still love the sketches and films you and the other Pythons did?
I just don’t know. I just know that we are delighted and utterly mystified by Python’s popularity. It’s just astonishing to us that this thing that started, not exactly as a private joke. What we were trying to do when we started was to make each other laugh. That was the criterion for whether material went into the show or not. And to find that it’s popular in places like Brazil and Iran and Poland, it’s just wonderful, but we don’t begin to understand it.
True, but in the job interview sketch we discussed earlier, you don’t have to be British to have been through the fear and uncertainty that Graham Chapman experiences in it.
We must have dealt in archetypes because the people that we played seem recognizable in totally different cultures like the Japanese who say that’s funny to us because we know people like that.
In the book, you’re candid about the projects you think were successful and which were not. You’re obviously happy with the Oscar-winning A Fish Called Wanda and Clockwise, but you’re not pleased with how Fierce Creatures came out.
That was a mess. It’s not as bad a movie as all that. Believe it or not, we got some quite decent reviews. But there’s a lot at the beginning that’s badly structured. But there’s a lot that’s quite funny after that. I never minded that because so few comedies are consistently funny. There’s about a dozen made since World War II that are consistently funny with the right tone all the way through. A lot of them are scrappy, but with funny scenes. I think that Fierce Creatures is in that category. We had to reshoot it a lot, and then we almost got it respectable.
You often played oppressive authority figures in Python sketches, but in the book you tend to describe yourself as an outsider. How were you able to become a convincing villain or tyrant?
If you go to an English public school, you learn, without anyone ever instructing you or ever giving you a word of advice, how to seem self-confident. It’s just that you see everyone around you behaving a certain way, so whatever you start to feel inside, you start to behave as a reflex, as a confident-ness. It was very natural therefore that the sort of middle class sort of profession like being a barrister, or I suppose being a judge or being a doctor or being anyone in charge like an army office. These people had all been to public school in reality. Going to public school myself, I was able to ape them because I was being surrounded by them my whole time.
The Black Knight sequence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is fascinating because it’s astonishingly violent, but at the same time it’s funny because he won’t quit even after he’s lost all his arms and legs.
If you see the idea behind it, you don’t primarily think that the guy’s losing limbs, but that’s because he never expresses any pain. He never even goes “ouch.” If he suddenly started to experience pain, then it would cease to be funny immediately. As it is you can see it as a Tom and Jerry cartoon. There’s Jerry running Tom over with a steamroller, and we laugh, and we don’t think, “Gosh! That poor cat.”
In So, Anyway… you cite a story of Roman wrestlers you learned in school where one was declared a winner despite the fact that he’d died in the struggle as the beginning of that sequence.
People love those stories. Most ideas, or course, come out of nothing at all. You sit there, and you chat about what you watched on television last night or you pick up the thesaurus and start reading words out, and then something amuses you, makes you think of something and then you’re off.
Very few of the sketches you’ve written have that kind of genesis where you can say, “Why, yes, I thought of that because of something that happened to me.” People love those stories when they occur. Most of the time, that’s not typical