And now, for something completely different: John Cleese, how silly will your next “An Evening of Exceptional Foolishness: Unique Lives and Experiences” appearance in Toronto be?
Very, very dumb or just semi-dumb?
“I think half silly, probably,” replies the legendary British comedian and famous co-founder of the legendary Monty Python, speaking in early March on Zoom from a tropical-looking place where I would rather be.
“Because we’re not going to do stunts or get into costumes. My daughter (Camilla), who is very funny, is going to open me up for 15 minutes. Then I’ll go out and do 45 minutes or more. Then, we’ll take questions from the audience, which is a lot of fun, because you never know what people are going to ask you. And no matter how well the first half is written and performed: people appreciate always the second half because it’s a bit chaotic and they like it.”
At 82, Cleese – who appears at Roy Thomson Hall on April 26 – is comedic royalty. Known for iconic Monty Python creations such as The Gumbys, Minister of Silly Walks and ‘The Dead Parrot’ skit, Cleese still possesses the ability to crack ribs and let his audience roll down the aisles due to his pedigree. rather distinguished, not only with Monty Python (also with Graham Chapman and Terry Jones, now deceased, and Michael Palin, Eric Idle and only American of the group, host and acclaimed director Terry Gilliam) but as the principal of the madcap, 12 – episode of the British series “Fawlty Towers” which he created with his first wife, Connie Booth.
And that’s just a drop in the bucket: there was his 1988 Oscar-nominated box office hit “A Fish Called Wanda” starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Palin that won Kevin Kline the ‘Best Supporting Actor Oscar and 1997’s ‘Fierce Creatures’, its not nearly as successful follow-up but not quite a sequel with the same cast. There were acting stints as “R” and “Q” in two of Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond films – 1999’s “The World Is Not Enough” and 2002’s “Die Another Day” – the roles of Nearly Headless Nick in the 2001 and 2002 Harry Potter films. Potter films ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ and ‘The Chamber of Secrets’; and King Harold in a trio of “Shrek” films in the 2000s.
There were also six episodes of TV’s “Will & Grace” in which Cleese appeared as the character Lyle Finster and five on “3rd Rock From the Sun” as Dr. Liam Neesam, and he also makes an appearance. on Bryan Adams’ new album “So Happy It Hurts” as the intro narrator for the song “Kick Ass”.
Even before the Monty Python years – 40 TV episodes, 10 albums, three books, two video games (supervised by Toronto native Bob Ezrin) and five films (1971 “And Now for Something Completely Different”; 1975 “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”; 1979’s “Life Of Brian”; 1982’s “Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl” and 1983’s “The Meaning of Life” – Cleese’s formative years in the 1960s involved the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club (where he met Chapman and the Tim-Brooke Taylor and Bill Oddie of Goodies); “The Frost Report” on BBC One, which he co-wrote with Chapman (where he met Palin, Jones and Idle, as well as future British comedy legends the Two Ronnies, Marty Feldman and Peter Cook); ITV’s ‘At Last the 1948 Show’ (star and co-writer) and as a writer for ‘Doctor in the House’.
With such impressive credentials, it seemed fitting to ask Somerset-born Cleese, who earned a Cambridge law degree and is currently enjoying life with his fourth wife, what makes a good comedy ?
“I think I see the truth in situations that are normally lightly camouflaged,” he replied. “Do you know what I mean? If you can say what people think, but not say it…it’s still very funny. Because if there’s an element of anxiety about what you talk about, you laugh harder.Not only do you get the laughter, but you get extra energy in the laughter from the anxiety released.
“Like, I talk about death a lot on my show and people get a little tight when I start, but by the end they laugh their silly head off and feel better about the prospects too,” he said. he explains.
Cleese said sketch comedy has proven to be a great creative training ground for honing his skills, especially surrounding himself with a team.
“I think every time you start, it’s very useful to have talented people around you and to form a small group. If you get a good group of people, they learn from each other and support each other. There’s a bit of a rivalry, but basically it’s like a bunch of brothers or sisters: they argue, but if someone tries to attack them, they unite and repel the invaders.
“If you have a group like that, you become good. And I think one of the problems is that people who make political and economic decisions don’t understand this stuff. “
Why did Monty Python work so well?
“Because we didn’t know what we were going to do,” he said. “When we saw the head of entertainment at ITV he said, ‘What do you offer? And we couldn’t tell him. And he looked at us and said, ‘Go ahead and do 13 programs.’ He didn’t even ask for a pilot, because back then people trusted their judgement. He just bet on us and he resulted in a remarkably original series.
“A lot of the time leaders try to control things and say, ‘Well, what exactly are you going to do?’ And in this way, they are already narrowing the possibilities before people even talk to each other about what they are going to do. So I have to think we didn’t know what we were going to do, it was like walking through a beautiful field full of flowers and people saying, well, ‘Just choose what you want.’
One of this scribe’s all-time favorite films is the Python classic “Holy Grail” – and one of the most notable scenes Cleese and Chapman wrote for the film was epic, the battle between King Arthur and the black knight during which the latter loses all his limbs. in a sword fight and still refuses to admit defeat.
“It came from a story I had heard from a teacher, a man who didn’t bother to teach us much English, which was fine because we were fluent anyway,” remembers Cleese. “But he told us some great stories, including one about a wrestling match that had taken place in ancient Rome, where the regular wrestlers had gotten incredibly entangled and suddenly there was a loud crack.
“One of the men’s arms had broken from the pressure of the tangle and the ref pulled them apart, untangled them and said to the guy with the broken arm, you know, ‘Go to a doctor and get this set immediately.’ He said to the other guy, “You won”…but the other guy was dead, and I always thought that was awfully funny.
“I told Graham Chapman one morning when we were making coffee. And the teacher said to me, “It just goes to show that if you don’t quit, you can’t be beaten,” which I always thought was a very dubious interpretation. But that’s why we wrote “The Black Knight”; no matter how knocked down he was, he didn’t even realize it. He wasn’t even disappointed when he lost an arm or a leg. We put this idea, wrote the sketch and people laughed when this man had his arms and legs cut off.
Despite Python’s popularity, the troupe found it difficult to secure “Grail” funding, and they ended up being funded in part by British rockers Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. And even though “Grail”, filmed for $400,000 (all US figures), offered a box office return of $5 million and – decades later – became the inspiration for the Broadway musical “Spamalot,” which grossed $175 million, the Pythons found it equally difficult to garner support for “Life of Brian.”
“We couldn’t find anyone to give us the money,” recalls Cleese. “The only guy who would have put in the money was George Harrison.
“Amazing – and I think that’s because creatives are much better at spotting creative possibilities than executives who have never written, starred or directed themselves.”
The film was a worldwide box office success, earning $20 million and establishing Harrison’s film arm, HandMade Films (“Time Bandits”, “Withnail & I”).
Alas, my 14-minute stipend with the comedian was over. As he prepares to visit Toronto, when he says “it’s my favorite city, but first of all, Vancouver” (he prefers their ports), there was still time to ask another question: how can a species of lemur named after him?
“There was a very nice guy in Zurich in Switzerland and he contacted me one day and he said, ‘I have discovered a new species of lemur and this new species has been officially recognized by the body that does these things. Can I call him after you?
“And I was thrilled because I’ve always loved lemurs anyway. Funnily enough, when I was little I was in a school that was right across from a zoo. You literally walked out of the school and across the road was a zoo. And my favorite animal in that zoo was a ring-necked lemur. And so, I said, ‘Well, that’s wonderful.’ And he said, the lemur (the woolly lemur of Bemaraha) will be called ‘Avahi cleesei’ (pronounced a-vah-high cleez-e-eye). It is the Latin name for Cleese’s woolly lemur. And I have never been to Madagascar to see one because there are none in captivity. There is a small group of them on a lake in Madagascar. So on my bucket list is a visit there.