Veteran English actor, comedian and screenwriter John Cleese comes to Rockford this weekend for his one-man show, “An Evening with the Late John Cleese.” WNIJ’s Jason Cregier spoke with him by phone in advance of his appearance.
When you first started Monty Python, did you think it would take on such cultural relevance?
Oh, no, absolutely not. We wondered at the beginning whether there was going to be an audience for it at all. It was so different from any other comedy that had come before it. It was so much sillier. And we did completely unexpected things. And then a fair number of the audience just stared at the screen thinking “what is this about?” But it slowly grew, at the end of the first season there was very little excitement. But at the very beginning of the second season The Times of London wrote a piece saying that it was a very good show. And suddenly it seemed to take off. We were very surprised that suddenly it became a bit of a craze with younger people. But we sort of understood it. When I was younger, we had the same reaction to a wonderful radio comedy show that Peter Sellers hosted called The Goon Show.
Who were some of the influences that you drew inspiration from?
Well, I think early on when I was younger, a lot of it was Laurel and Hardy. And then Chaplin. I think he was enormously important. And then as I got a little bit older, you see in those days without video, anything I used to buy were gramophone records. And I got to know about Nichols and May, Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman in the late 50s. A lot of the best stuff on English television was American. Jack Benny and George Burns, and [Sgt.] Bilko. Phil Silvers was absolutely wonderful. And at the same time, we had this wonderful radio show with Peter Sellers called The Goon Show. And we had some very good sitcoms — a fella called Tony Hancock is totally forgotten. There was lots and lots of very, very good comedy.
What makes your comedy so generational?
I’m not so sure that it is. I think that most of the audience who come to see me are older people, many of them watched and grew up with Monty Python. One of the great delights is that they’re not the super sensitive, extremely woke people who think you shouldn’t laugh at other people. They understand that there’s a kind of affection with laughter, which overcomes any of the critical nature, everything about humor is basically critical. If you have someone who’s perfect like Jesus Christ, or Saint Francis, there’s no mystery about them. What’s funny is all the failures of human beings. I always point out on stage; we like people who can laugh at themselves.
What is so appealing to you about live stage performances?
The connection with the audience is something very real. You do a joke, and they laugh, and you stand there and enjoy the laughter. Whereas on television, you never have that experience. And you certainly don’t on film.
Do you have a favorite character or performance you’ve done over the years?
No, not really. They’re different styles. Python is very, very silly, and sometimes I think gorgeously silly. But Fawlty Towers, which is the sitcom in the hotel, I think that that was very, very good farce. That was a slightly intensified level of reality, but otherwise quite believable, and nothing particularly silly about it. And then you’ve got Life of Brian, which I think is the Python masterpiece. It says very important things about the way that people follow religious leaders. It depends really on your tastes, and the sort of humor that you like, and I like them all. It’s hard for me to pick one.
Does this continue to motivate you to still perform?
Mainly the need for money. I had a very expensive divorce from a woman who I’d been with for a number of years. We had no children, and the California court decided that she was entitled to a standard of living to which she had become accustomed. But the person who provided that standard of living to which she had become accustomed, wasn’t entitled to it himself.
I grew up with Monty Python through my father. I started watching it with him when I was around 14, it really influenced a lot of what I liked going forward. Eventually, I became a big David Letterman guy. And I saw a lot of parallels between the silly humor in both.
Yes, I liked his show (Letterman) a lot. I did the show many times. It took me a long time to realize that it was not really a conversation show, you had to go on with material. But if you had good funny material, Letterman was extraordinarily good at sort of feeding you and letting the funny material come out.
When you start your shows, do you have an idea what you’re doing when you come out? Or is it a blank slate, and you just kind of run with it.
Oh no, it’s very much scripted. Because you see with comedy, the way I put it is, the audience helps you write the script. Because if you go out there and they get a big laugh, you think, Well, that’s good. I think I’ll keep that. And if you go out and don’t get a big laugh on a joke, you think, well, there’s something wrong with that joke. I better fix it. The audience is always telling me what works and what doesn’t work. And as you do a tour, more and more of it works because you keep fixing the bits that don’t work. And I’ve gotten to the point now, where there’s about two moments in the show that aren’t quite right. Otherwise, it’s material I’ve been doing for some time. And although I’m repeating it, the fact that the audience is enjoying it so much always gives me the feeling of fun, that we’re having fun. So, in a funny kind of way, it still feels quite fresh, but it’s because it’s a live performance. I can see people’s faces.
John Cleese, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you, Jason, lovely to talk to you.
Listen to this interview at Northern Public Radio: John Cleese loves silly humor