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And Now for Something Completely Different: John Cleese talks about decades of making us laugh

Okee dokee folks… Back in the early ’70s, I was part of the first very fortunate generation of Americans that discovered “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” on late night TV. It was the funniest and most original program that I had ever seen. My friends and I would watch it whenever we could and recreate the routines and accents for days after. I remember my high school showing And Now For Something Completely Different in the auditorium on a rare after school movie night. When Monty Python and The Holy Grail came out we, of course, HAD to see it. How could a Monty Python film about the odyssey of King Arthur in search of the Holy Grail not be side splitting? That was 45 years ago, and that film is still as funny, if not funnier, as the day it debuted. A few years ago I attended a screening of that film with a post film Q&A with one of the Pythons, John Cleese. I wasn’t sure how something like that would be, but it wound up being one of the funniest shows I have ever attended. It had been decades since I had seen Holy Grail in a theater with a crowd of people. Not only was it a nostalgic experience the film seemed funnier than ever! The icing on that night was John Cleese. He took the stage after the film, answered questions and told stories. Just to be in the same room as a member of Monty Python was amazing, let alone to be regaled Monty Python anecdotes that were hysterical. I thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it seems that the once-in-a-lifetime gods are being generous and it is happening AGAIN! John Cleese is bringing Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Veterans Performing Arts Center on Sunday, February 16 and will once again spin his post picture “Python-ical” yarns. I had the EXTREME honor to talk with Cleese by phone last week. 

John Cleese: Hello, John! now that’s easy to remember!

John Fuzek: It is, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

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JC: Thank you for taking the time to help me sell tickets!

JF: My pleasure. I saw you last time you came to town and to me, it was like seeing one of the Beatles!

JC: (laughs) What a lovely thing to say! We’ve discovered over the years we have had some extraordinarily famous fans, Elvis Presley used to sit in bed doing Python sketches with his wife if you can believe that. Barry Manilow is a huge fan, but we’re most proud of the fact that John Lennon once said he’d rather have been a Python than a Beatle! Very touched by these tributes and it’s funny because we always had great difficulty persuading TV and film executives to put us on the screen, but we never had any problem getting fans among the very talented artistic people. Tells you a lot about the structure of the business.

JF: True! I know you have done this tour with the Holy Grail film a couple of times, but why don’t you tour with Life of Brian or Meaning of Life? Those would be great for this format.

JC: I agree with you 100%. I’d love to tour with Life of Brian in particular, I think that that would be very interesting indeed, but the fact is that these shows are put on by promoters and promoters don’t want to lose money, and they know that Americans love Holy Grail. But if we were doing it in England, it probably would be Life of Brian because that is the Python film that the British like best. I think that the most interesting one would be Life of Brian because of all the questions it raises about what is religion and what isn’t religion.

JF: Especially these days with all the religious fundamentalists in the US.

JC: Fundamentalism seems to be taking over in every way, you know, authoritarian people are 100% sure that they’re right and anyone that disagrees with them are bad people. This is not a good time in world history.

JF: No, it is not. I like to get political in my columns and I know that you have been vocally opposed to Trump over the years. One of the things that you said was, “He doesn’t trust anyone in charge of democracy” and it’s ironic that he is in charge of a democracy.

JC: Yes, it’s extraordinary that when talking about Russian interference in the American election that he would take the word of the Russian president over the testimony of his intelligence agencies. If you put that in a Python sketch, no one would believe it!

JF: No, they wouldn’t. I also saw a but where you compared him to a pro wrestler and that was the whole concept of the movie Idiocracy, which is basically what we are living now

JC: What I said about pro wrestling, is when I first went to pro wrestling I was struck by two things: one is what superb athletes they are, and the second is what dreadful actors they are. And what astounded me was about 40% of the people sitting in the hall watching the wrestling thought it was for real. If they can’t see it when it’s under their own noses, if they can’t see the terrible acting and the facts that things are quite clearly orchestrated, they think it’s real. I always say to the people when they charge the wrestling people with not having enough doctors in the corner the defense was it’s a scripted entertainment. That is what they said in court, and if you can’t see it’s phony when it’s right under your nose, how can you explain to anyone that it’s phony and that’s what I feel about Trump.

JF: That is why we are in the situation that we are in!

JC: Exactly, it’s just extraordinary, I don’t know if it’s a failure of education or what, but i think one of the problems is that people get more and more and more anxious because the human being is basically a conservative, with a small “c”, conservative creature. If you look at what causes stress and what causes stress is change. If things stay the same, people don’t get so stressed. Well, the world is changing very fast. In the old days, people had periods of quiet when they would, oh, I don’t know, take the dog for a walk or go fishing or just go out and play around, kind of aimless fun. Now everybody’s so focused and the phone calls are coming in. Nobody has any down time in which to process their emotions. So if something upsetting happened in the old days, people must just sit on the porch or just wander around a bit and just process it. Now nobody has time to do that because the phone is ringing, that makes people both irritable or angry and it makes them anxious, and the more anxious people get the more they don’t like uncertainty and assume that anyone that doesn’t agree with them is a bad person. Oh, it’s an absolute nightmare!

JF: Do you think that if Monty Python had been a comedy troup in the Middle Ages would you have all been beheaded?

JC: Oh, yes, of course we would have been! We would have been lucky if we’d been beheaded. It would have probably taken them a lot longer than that (laughs). Yes, if you look now, for example, at Life of Brian, the conversation that they have at the amphitheater, Stan wanting the right to have a baby, that was 40 years ago we wrote that and now it’s on the front pages of the papers every day. It’s quite extraordinary.

JF: Do you live in the US or the UK or both?

JC: I don’t really live anywhere at the moment. I left the UK in disgust about 18 months ago. My main course of disgust was the Tory government and Theresa May. So I just left. I don’t want to live in this country anymore. But because my job requires an immense amount of travel, I don’t really have a home now. My wife and I have a flat in London, but I visit it very seldom. What i am really looking for is a place in the sun, possibly in the Mediterranean on a little island where I can sit in the sun, which makes me feel much better than when i am cold and wet, and observe the world going mad from a safe distance (laughs).

JF: That’s the smart thing to do, I don’t blame you! So, I watched the last Monty Python O2 show from London, I know people always ask about reunions. I know it will never happen again, both Terrys are dealing with dementia, correct? (Note, this interview was just days before Terry Jones’ death.)

JC: Well, right, Terry Jones is and Terry Gilliam hasn’t mentioned it yet, but he’s been dealing with dementia for about 40 years, so I don’t think anything has changed.

JF: Those 10 shows should have pleased any Python fan forever.

JC: I said to people when they would ask me about it before, it’s not really a show. Because how many times have you ever been to a show where the audience knows the words better than the actors do? It just doesn’t happen. So what was happening was an event. It was a celebration. They were coming to say thank you for making us laugh over the years and we were saying, “Well, thanks for coming to thank us!” There was so much affection in the audience, that you felt, well, we were comedians and may not be terribly useful. But if we can bring this kind of contentment and affection to large groups of people we are actually doing a useful job, especially at the moment.

JF: Didn’t people know the words when you first started touring with Python?

JC: No, that happened much later. If you listen to some of the most successful sketches like the silly walks for example, there’s not that amount of laughter on the original tape. But I think what happened is we started doing the stage shows, which was not for about five years. When we started doing the stage shows, that’s when people began to come up to us and be able to do the dialogue because I’d always thought how lucky singers were because you can sing a great song and then people want to hear it immediately again, and encore. But if you tell a joke and then tell the joke again (laughs), the second time round the joke doesn’t get much laughter, and people knew the lyrics of songs and suddenly they knew the words of sketches. I don’t know when it all started but I think it’s when we started touring.

JF: Well, I have been a fan for 45 years, or maybe more, I am part of the initial crew that was turned onto Python in the early ’70s, so I’ve been a fan for a long time

JC: That’s lovely, that’s lovely to hear, and I have to say that Python fans are very nice people because they have a sense of humor and they don’t take things too seriously and they’re never aggressive. They’re just very nice, relaxed people, so going in front of audiences is a genuine pleasure. I went off and did one of those dates at Comiccon where you sign and everyone said it would be so boring, but it wasn’t because the people I was dealing with they were delightful and that gives you energy.

JF: How much longer will you keep doing this? You are going to be 81 this year?

JC: I am writing some things. In two weeks time I go to a small provincial theatre in the southwest of England to see a play of mine that is being rehearsed, and then it’s going on a 10-week tour. I’ve never done that, so I am looking forward to that. I am also about to work on a stage version of Life of Brian, and I am working with my daughter. Camilla will be on stage with me, shepherding the questions at the performance. She and I are working on a musical of Fish Called Wanda, so I think I will continue to do a lot of writing until I die, but I don’t think I can do the touring. Although the shows are lovely, the act of touring is very tiring. Someone was talking about doing a residency in NYC, and if you’re in one city you just go to the theater in the evening for two hours and that’s not exhausting,

JF: I would go to NY for that!

JC: Well I hope that it happens!

JF: I don’t want to take up, well, I would love to take up more of your time, I would love to talk with you for hours but I think our time is up

JC: Well, come to the performance and we will have a bit of a gossip on condition that you ask me a very rude question during the Q&A!

JF: I will do that! thanks for the chat!

JC: (laughs) I can’t hear you very well there is a helicopter going over… but it’s fading away now…

JF: I will see you on February 16, thank you!

Monty Python and the Holy Grail with John Cleese will be at Veterans Performing Arts Center on Sunday, February 16. For more, silly walk to TheVetsRI.com. That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. JohnFuzek.com

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