Two stupid people walk into a bar ...
John Cleese laments the lack of sophistication in modern comedy, writes
JOHN Cleese has heard enough about sex, nightclubs and getting drunk. The English actor thinks too much comedy these days revolves around such mundane topics and longs for a little more intelligence.
“I think if you made a joke about 1776 now, most of the young members in the audience would think, ‘That rings a bell!’,” he says. “There’s a tiny range of things people know … so that means you can’t make jokes about all of the rest of this wonderful, insane world.”
Cleese, 75, became famous for his work writing for and acting in the pioneering 1969-74 television comedy Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The show featured a more educated brand of humour, with skits touching on history (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!), literature (the All-England Summarise Proust Competition) and music (Beethoven trying to compose his Fifth Symphony while being constantly interrupted by Mrs Beethoven and a myna bird). But there was straightforward silliness, too, such as the famous dead parrot.
Cleese has just published a memoir, So, Anyway... and as he reflects on his career, he regrets the loss of broader general knowledge that allowed for a wider variety of jokes.
“In my day, anyone who was vaguely educated — in other words, they knew where Pakistan was … or had a vague idea which century Henry VIII [lived in] —would give you the opportunity for all sorts of humour,” he says. The Monty Python audience, he adds proudly, is particularly intelligent. “They’re very smart fans. If we had a fan competition up against the Rolling Stones or [American football team] the 49ers, I think our fans would win.”
In his book, Cleese charts this change in comedy’s range as well as his own trajectory through the entertainment world. He starts with his childhood in a small English town, where he was teased for being six feet tall by age 12, as well as for his original family surname: Cheese. To hold his own against schoolyard bullies, he turned to humour.
Despite his parents’ modest means — his father was an insurance salesman —they sent him to private schools, and he went on to study law at Cambridge. Afterwards, he wrote for BBC radio and then for The Frost Report, where he met some of the writers with whom he would create Monty Python. He left the show after three seasons. He went on to work on other TV programs, most famously Fawlty Towers, and movies, including several Monty Python films and A Fish Called Wanda.
He still spends his time writing, acting and doing one-man shows. He hopes to soon turn A Fish Called Wanda into a musical. As he relaxes over a soy latte in a banquette at a midtown Manhattan hotel, he laments the effect that political correctness has had on humour.
“There can be major developments in the Ukraine and ISIS and Putin, and the top story on the internet will be that [a comedian] has used one of the ‘forbidden words’,” he says.
At the same time, he’s pleased to have 3.5 million followers on Twitter, while acknowledging this is fewer than fellow actor Stephen Fry. “Stephen explained to me ... [that] you can bypass the British press by having more Twitter followers than newspaper readers.’’
He thinks humour should be inappropriate sometimes. “In a sense, it’s always critical because it’s always saying, ‘This is not a smart way to behave’.” He adds that he was surprised to hear Polish jokes when he arrived in America because the Poles “were these splendid peo- ple who fought alongside the British Royal Air Force in the war”. The British version of Polish jokes, he says, were Irish jokes.
People love jokes that rely on group stereotypes because of the specificity, he says. “If you say ‘this Pole,’ or ‘this Irishman’ or ‘this Newfie’ [someone from Newfoundland], somehow the joke is funnier than if you say ‘this stupid person’, or ‘two stupid people went into a bar’. ”
Although he’s all for pushing boundaries, he still longs for smart subjects. He blames the younger generation’s “lack of curiosity” about information that doesn’t directly apply to their lives. “I don’t know how it started, but it’s kind of like, ‘Geography? Well, I don’t need to know about that’, ” he says. “The general feeling is that anything that doesn’t affect you personally is not worth knowing about.’’
The humour on Monty Python often commented on social status, something he still finds relevant today. “In the 1960s, we all thought it was going to be a thing of the past and fade away, but it doesn’t seem to.” He finds class consciousness in the US even more taxing. “When I first got to America I was kind of appalled at the reverence for people with money,” he says. “What people don’t get about wealth is it’s very boring.”
Cleese has been a financial success, though he has been outspoken about his hefty alimony payments to three ex-wives, the last of whom he had to pay $20 million. (He titled a 2011 oneman show the Alimony Tour, saying that he needed to make money to pay for his divorce.) He is married to his fourth wife, Jennifer Wade, a jewellery designer. They live in London.
It was another actor who sparked the memoir idea. “I was having lunch with Michael Caine in Barbados and he’d been writing his. He reclaimed parts of his life he’d forgotten. And I thought, what a marvellous experience.’’
Cleese is especially interested in the circumstances behind great creativity, such as the combination of talent and temperament that produced the Pythons. He found writing that section of his memoir the most surprising. “I thought to myself, what a strange bunch we were and how completely different we were.’’
“Then I realised that’s the essence of a team, to have people who are good at different things, and I couldn’t have written that 30 years ago because we couldn’t have known what different directions we would go in.”
A recent reunion show in London, Monty Python Live (Mostly), was their first in 30 years and sold out within seconds.
“We hardly ever agree on anything, which is why we didn’t do a show between 1980 and 2014,” Cleese says. He likens the group to a rock band — something that’s hard to find in comedy. “That’s why I suppose it’s so special.”
November 22-23, 2014
Actor, comedian and writer John Cleese