Python’s John Cleese still loves silly humor

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.

Jason Cregier:
When you first started Monty Python, did you think it would take on such cultural relevance?

John Cleese:
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.

The Goon Show
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.

Life of Brian
Life of Brian

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

John Cleese on the Enduring Influence of The Goon Show

John Cleese
John Cleese

Talking with the Monty Python member about Peter Sellers, failure, and why he prefers disrespectful interviewers.

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underratedwe chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

By Erick Arviss | 2018

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone working in comedy that hasn’t creatively cribbed from Monty Python. The influential British comedy troupe’s trademark surrealism, self-referencing, and artistic anarchy has been coded into the DNA of many modern architects of America’s absurdist comedy Zeitgeist, from Doug Kenney to Amy Sedaris to the minds behind Mr. Show. With Flying Circus, Python reconfigured the stuffy structure and unadventurous format of the modern sketch show, thumbing their noses at the medium by acknowledging its limits then speeding past them completely. Sketches would connect, reference each other, and bend time and space but would never fully conclude or tie up loose ends. It was an exercise in creating a lattice of meta-narrative and self-aware characters, which ultimately established its own extended universe of comedy iconography that is still being cited nearly 50 years later. I mean, the Dead Parrot sketch is just straight-up foundational.

But beneath Python’s Dadaist deconstruction of comedy trends (sideways credits FTW!) was a mean anti-authority streak. Their films were big and silly, yes, but their themes took direct aim at nationalism and war (Holy Grail), dogma and religious fundamentalism (Life of Brian), and class (Meaning of Life). Founding Python member John Cleese made this clear during our conversation, telling me that “anti-authoritarianism was deeply ingrained in Python” growing up in post–World War II United Kingdom.


Cleese, who is currently on tour screening Holy Grail followed by career-spanning conversations with audiences, wanted to pay homage to the stylistic forefathers of Python, The Goon Show, for our Underrated series. Created by British-Irish satirist Spike Milligan along with Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers, The Goon Show disrupted the most dominant entertainment format of the ’50s — the radio show — with a cast of fictional characters (with Sellers, Secombe, and Milligan embodying multiple personalities) performing scripted three-act shows parodying aspects of modern life and mocking show business, the military, advertising, and English culture along the way. The Goons also used music and sound effects in innovative ways, creating a more surreal and heightened atmosphere unlike anything else on the BBC Home Service at the time. Picture A Prairie Home Companion on acid, or Tim and Eric distilled into audio form. Cleese claims the Goons had the greatest impact on the troupe, and after hearing him speak about them, it’s easy to see why.

It’s impossible to overstate how influential your body of work — from A Fish Called Wanda to Fawlty Towers to especially Monty Python — has been on modern comedy. But what comedy inspired you growing up that your fans may not know about?
Well the biggest influence, and this might surprise you, is not something we were watching. We were listening to it because it was a radio show. It was a radio show in the ’50s called The Goon Show. It was a pure radio show and we all were listening to it. Kids were devoted to it in England. It was written by a guy who was a bit of a genius, rather a depressed one of course, named Spike Milligan. It also had Peter Sellers in it, who of course is the greatest voice man of all time. If he could listen to you for five minutes, he could do a perfect impersonation of you. He had this wonderful program he created which allowed him to experiment with his insanely funny characters. We used to listen to that in the same way that people listen to Monty Python. In the morning, we’d be at school and we’d discuss the whole thing and rehash the jokes and talk about it. We were obsessed with it. Continue reading

Van Morrison & Spike Milligan Interview

The time has come, the jester said, to talk of many things. Of life and art and 12-man-a-side porridge, of ice cream cones and jazz. Chuckling quietly the grave minstrel nodded assent and together they stepped into the sunlit garden. Later, there would be tea and cucumber sandwiches…
Paul Du Noyer describes the day that Spike Milligan met Van Morrison…

May be an image of 2 people

Across and around the sunlit lawn of an English country garden, there romps a spry old gent of 71 years, dressed for the occasion in a floppy black hat. He also sports, we note with some curiosity, a large, pink, penis-shaped false nose, affixed to his face with elastic.

To complete this singular scene, there is another figure, a man of stockier build, who frowns in concentration while talking into a portable telephone. Within a moment, though, he’s spied the spry old gent, loping towards him with a speed that many might think alarming, and abandons his conversation, shaking with mirth.

And that was how Spike Milligan got to have his picture taken with Van Morrison:-

“He was always just there,” is how the singer recalls the comic’s influence on him down the years. “Sunday mornings, if I remember, was The Goons, then Round The Horne, Jimmy Clitheroe, they all seemed to be on Sunday. The Goons were huge in Ireland: kids I grew up with talked like that all the time.”

To which Milligan responds in that foggy, moronic voice that Goons specialists will recognise as belonging to Eccles: “My brain hurts!”

The meeting had been Van’s idea. A most reluctant customer when it comes to promoting himself and his music through the media, Morrison had made it known he’d find an interview to be a more congenial experience if it was conducted by a fellow artist. He suggested Spike Milligan.

Ever since he tuned into The Goons on the wireless, back in Belfast childhood, Van has revered the other man’s work – an aspect of Morrison’s passions that few might expect, given the brooding, spiritual intensity that seems to inform so much of his singing. Indeed, the two men have met before (backstage at one of Spike’s shows, at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin), while Milligan himself has been impressed by Van’s music, especially his collaborations with The Chieftains.

Spike has already featured, unknowingly, in Morrison’s work, being the character named in Boffyflow And Spike, a whimsical short story that Van wrote for the sleeve of his Sense Of Wonder album (“Boffy is covered with leaves completely the buckijit and Spike is in hysterics”); there’s an instrumental track, of the same title, on the record itself. The night after this meeting, at a gig in Newport, Wales, Van will again invoke the Milligan name, during a bizarre boogie work called Max Wall, in honour of another venerable character in British comedy.

That aside, their two careers have followed long but separate paths, the only apparent connections being Milligan’s early flirtations with jazz bands, and his taste for all things Irish (he’s Indian-born, but of Irish Catholic upbringing) typified by his 1963 novel Puckoon, set in a slightly surreal Sligo village (“Many people die of thirst but the Irish are born with one.”)

Nowadays more active as a writer than as a performer, Spike has just completed a new book, a kind of Milligan family history. It follows his much-loved run of war memoirs, now in six volumes, which began with Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall.

Morrison, meanwhile, is to be the subject of a BBC Arena film, for broadcast late in ’89, that celebrates his 25 years in the music business (though it’s to be doubted if Morrison himself sees his involvement on the “business” as anything else but a painful by-product of what he does). He marks this year with the release of his latest album Avalon Sunset, another instalment in the musical odyssey that started in local Belfast bands, came to wider prominence with the mid-’60s R&B group Them, and subsequently settled into a stream of albums from Astral Weeks (in 1968) and Moondance through to more recent offerings such as No Guru, No Method, No Teacher and 1988’s teaming with The Chieftains, Irish Heartbeat.

And so the arrangements were arranged, and Morrison has made the two-and-a-half hour car
trip down to Milligan’s home in this secluded corner of Sussex. The veteran japester arises from his sofa to greet his guest, and they settle in for an hour and a half of conversation which Milligan, inevitably, tends to dominate. Indeed, for much of the time, Morrison is unable to speak even if he feels so inclined, as Milligan’s reminiscences have the Belfast man doubled up with laughter.

Spike: Van, I must ask you something. Dutch descent. You must be.

Van: No.

S: No? You’re an Irishman?

V: Ivan is my name.

S: I see. A Russian! I’m baffled now.

V: No, in Ireland they call me Van. It’s East Belfast slang for Ivan, that’s all it is.

S: The last time I saw you, you came in the dressing room, you had an ice cream!

V: I can’t remember.

S: Yes, I’d had a few, too. It was vanilla. I asked if you could get me one, too. I didn’t think there was an ice cream bar for miles. you must have come in with it from another county! Do you find that Irish audiences are more professional? I came on stage with this iron hat on, and straight away from the gallery: “Jaysus, take yer hat off, we can’t hear you!” They said, “Give us Danny Boy.” I said, I can’t, he’s in the loo.

My father was born in Sligo, Van, very Irish working class family, very poor. He used to live in a romantic world. He loved a drink, he was full of stories. He came to me one day and said, I’ve never killed a tiger. I said, Why are you telling me? Well I’ve got to tell somebody! I thought all fathers were like this lunatic. He used to tell the kids all these stories, about shooting elephants, strangling giraffes by hand. I said, What’s all this, Dad? It’s all lies isn’t it? He said, Oh yes, all lies. But what would you rather have: a boring truth, or an exciting lie?

Have you seen Paddy Moloney recently?

V: No, d’you know him?

S: Oh yes, he’s a rugger fan like me. Are you into rugby, Van? No? Porridge?

V: Oh yes, porridge.

S: Porridge. It’s a better game. Twelve-man-a-side porridge! Did you hear about the Tipperary hurling team? They had to leave at half-time to catch their train home. So the other side went on scoring and won the game! Marvellous! Only in Ireland.

V: I played rugby in school, but after I left I forgot all about it.

S: D’you go into pubs at all, in Ireland?

V: Not really, no.

S: I used to go in there just to hear the talking. That’s why they produce such good writers, the conversation is so good. I hope television doesn’t change that. You come from East Belfast, Van? Was it tough?

V: Not really. How long have you lived down here?

S: Only a year. As you get older you earn less money, and I couldn’t afford to keep the house on in London. So I put it up for sale, and they said, We’ve got this Japanese bloke to buy it, you don’t mind him buying the place? I said, It’s OK, I’ll wire it up to explode on the anniversary of Pearl Harbour.

I listened to your record with The Chieftains. Lovely. I tried to analyse you as a singer. You really are a jazz singer, aren’t you?

V: That’s right.

S: You must be one of the most adventurous singers, you move through such a spectrum. I’m not grovelling to you, it’s just the truth. Thank you, that’s a pound! I don’t really know much about your family life and all that.

V: When we do these things I don’t usually talk about anything but the music.

S: Were you ever into jazz? You’re such a blues singer.

V: I listened to jazz since I was two years old or something. Who impressed me? Leadbelly, Mahalia Jackson. That’s my background. They’ve been saying for years I’m rock this, rock that, but that’s all…

S: I listened to the first track on the new record, I thought for a moment, if I hadn’t have known you, this guy might be coloured, the way he sings.

V: I just got into it by accident, started off in skiffle groups when that was happening, went through showbands, whatever was happening. I was just a professional musician. I joined the union, and they’d knock on your door, Can you play in County Mayo on Saturday night for 40 quid? My peer group that I came from, they were into playing, they weren’t into making records. Pop music wasn’t even reality to me. I had this R&B club going, doing in Belfast what Ken Collier was doing here. And then this bloke came over from Decca Records and the whole thing got wound up from there, and we went into the studio, and got involved in the music business. It became like pop. People were telling you, You must do this, or that. All manipulation.

You played trumpet, didn’t you?

S: I played trumpet and jazz guitar and piano. In about 1933 through to about 1947. We did shows in the Army, ENSA saw us and offered us 20 pounds a week when we got demobbed. So we became the rage of Italy, went round for two years. Then we came back here and fuck all happened, so I just dropped it, worked in a bar and became a scriptwriter.

V: How long was that before The Goons?

S: Oh, a long time. The Goons didn’t start until about 1949. I was telling jokes in the bar, and started writing scripts for the BBC, met Peter Sellers, and the chemistry was there.

V: Did you play on any of the singles, like I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas?

S: I played guitar on the Ying Tong Song, in the middle eight. My total record as a musician! With the pop scene as it was, I thought, I bet I can write a hit record, I’ll write the worst song in the world, with three chords and no words. And I did it. I sent it to my mother, and wrote, By the way, that’s me playing guitar in the middle. So she invited all her cronies in. “Listen to this now.” And she’d marked it with a chalk, where the guitar started and where it finished. “Oh he’s a powerful good player!”

Did you follow any jazz guitarists?

V: I heard Django. My father had a lot of jazz records. Rosetta Tharpe played guitar. The Carter Family, the country stuff , that’s what I liked.

S: D’you still enjoy the music, Van, when you’re doing it? You sound like you do.

V: Occasionally. I don’t do many gigs now, that’s why I enjoy it.

S: It’s like people, isn’t it? Meet them once a month, it’s very nice. Meet them every day you start to hate them. Of all the groups I’ve listened to, you are the most experimental. You keep moving. Where will it stop? Will you go into raga? Or Spanish flamenco? They’ve never married that into pop.

V: Well, The Gypsy Kings do.

S: Are you still throbbing about music? Do you lie in bed at night and think, I like that sound in my head?

V: Not really. I think you just have to find different angles if you’ve been doing music for so long. Georgie Fame’s working with me now, and Cliff’s on one track on the new album. When did you see The Chieftains last?

S: They came here to Tunbridge Wells about nine months ago. Moloney’s a delightful man, such a musician. A wonderful feeling of happiness they can convey. Of course they all go to blind tailors, don’t they? Listening to your singing, Van, you have a sense of excitement. Not many singers have this. That’s what you convey.

V: It’s drama, isn’t it? The blues are drama, that’s what I picked up from it. You make things more than they really are, to get it across, I find. It’s fantasy, illusion.

S: This is deep stuff, you see. Pop stars don’t talk like this. “Yeah, we done a gig. My brain hurts.” You have a very strange charisma. I don’t feel quite comfortable in your presence. (Morrison laughs) A sense of menace. There’s a sense of abandonment in your singing, I thought, He doesn’t think, he just does it.

V: I don’t feel comfortable doing interviews. My profession is music, and writing songs. That’s what I do. I like to do it, but I hate to talk about it. You’re more interesting to me than I am talking about my music.

S: Too bloody modest by far! Your name is worldwide. Go to Alaska and somebody will say, Have you heard Van Morrison? Colossal fame. I’m famous to a certain degree, but I haven’t got a showbiz ego. I’m more interested like you are in the actual meaning of things.

V: Why do you think there were so many comedians about in that Goons time, the ’50s?

S: Well just after the war, suddenly they were being loosed out of the forces, Jimmy Edwards, Max Bygraves, Frankie Howerd, Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, and they were all dying to break out.

V: Did you know Hancock?

S: Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself. And he did. He phoned me up from Australia the night before he died. He said, It’s wonderful here. I could hear he was smashed out of his mind. He said, I’ve got a great series coming up, you must see it. The next morning he was dead.

V: Do you know Max Wall? He’s doing Beckett isn’t he?

S: That’s right, bloody hard plays to appear in… I’ve listened to music right up to Schoenberg, but I’m baffled by him and this tonal music. I suppose it’s technically very clever but it doesn’t give me any emotion. I like Mahler. Do you listen to any classical music?

V: Debussy.

S: Marvellous. Sensuous, descriptive music.

(There is a break while Spike’s wife serves coffee and sandwiches.)

V: lt’s not unleaded coffee.

S: Unleaded coffee! Ha ha! (Munching) Thank Christ you came, I’d have starved otherwise… The only other Van I know is Van Driver.

V: Yeah, he’s very popular!

S: Does the touring get you down’?

V: I don’t tour much any more. I used to when I was about 15. Slept on a bus for a couple of years. Are you ever serious?

S: Yes. I’m being semi-serious with you, because I think you’re basically a very serious person, Van, I really do. I’m serious about the environment, about kids, about what goes on, a better world. If you’re ever stuck for lyrics, I won a song lyric contest once. I’m an environmentalist, I’m a romantic. I’m not trying to make money out of you, I’ve got enough money. I like experimenting. If you’ve got a strange song. That nobody can put words to, throw it at me. I don’t want any money for it, I’ll just do it for kicks.

D’you know, I write a joke every day. I make them up, I don’t know how, like you get songs.

Little man owns a jeweller’s shop in London. And he gets a pretty girl to work behind the counter. She’s very attractive, very sexy, he’s about 75. He suddenly starts missing money from the till. And he finally catches her with her hand in the till. And he says, Miss Mollison, I’ll have to call the police! She says, No, don’t do that! I’m from a very good family. I’m sorry Miss Mollison, I caught you, I’ll have to call the police. She says, No, you can take me upstairs and you can screw me. He says, Well, as you put it that way. So he takes her upstairs and he’s banging away for two hours but he couldn’t make anything happen. So he says, It’s no good. I’ll have to call the police.

Are you a Proddy, Van? Don’t come near me, I don’t want to catch it.

V: Basically I’m not really anything.

S: Aren’t you? So when I introduce you to people I say, Here is Not Anything. This is Van Not Anything Morrison. A singer and Not Anything. You must be something.

V: Well theoretically I’m Church Of lreland.

S: Proddy? Oh Jaysus I won’t mention this to my mother. Dear Mother, I spoke to a Protestant today. Oh God forgive you, son. Go and confess it. Father I have sinned. Amazing the power of the Catholic Church. My father went bald very early, and he was so incensed by it that he went to church and prayed for it to come back. I’m certain he went to a priest and confessed, Dear Father, forgive me, I have gone bald. “Go away, my son, buy three wigs and say one Hail Mary.”

V: How many characters were in The Goons?

S: About six.

V: Neddy Seagoon?

S: An idiot! We used to give him a little megaphone to speak into. “Hello the world! It’s Neddy Seagoon calling the world!” Great stuff. The best joke I did with Eccles, though, was he was in class, they were trying to teach the Theory of Relativity to this idiot. “Now look, Eccles, jump up in the air. You see what happened then? You had to come back down to earth again.” “Yeah. I had to come back down to earth.” “Yes, why?” “Well. I live there!” Continue reading

The Goon Show “The Ying Tong Song “

by Johnny Foreigner

Here are The Goon Show’s Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and Spike Milligan performing “The Ying Tong Song.” You will either forever love me or hate me for delivering you this precious British earworm.

The Goon Show was an extremely influential British radio comedy program, broadcast by the BBC throughout of the 1950s. John Lennon once said, “I could go on all day about the Goons and their influence on a generation” – high praise from a jealous guy.

Wrote NY Times in 1972 : “Goon comedy was in equal parts the harmless violence of Warner Brothers cartoons, the wordplay of James Joyce and the lowbrow japes of the English music hall.”

Monty Python’s Terry Jones has called The Goon’s Spike Milligan ”the father of Monty Python.” John Cleese called him the ”great god of us all.”