Two stupid peo­ple walk into a bar ...

John Cleese laments the lack of so­phis­ti­ca­tion in mod­ern com­edy, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - COVER STORY -

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

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