John Cleese

The Monty Python comic legend is downright jolly about the absurdity of it all

By JULIA ANN WEEKES
NH Weekend Editor
September 13. 2017 12:54PM
John Cleese, who describes himself on social media as “writer, actor and tall person,” is sharing thoughts about his life, career in comedy and other assorted topics both silly and serious. 
If you go...
WHO: John Cleese

WHEN: 7 p.m., Sept. 20

WHERE: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 S. Main St., Concord

TICKETS: $79.50, $99.50, $149.50 and $224.50. (VIP Meet & Greet tickets have sold out.)

INFO: 225-1111; ccanh.com.

After 45 years of pointing out things that should be painfully obvious to anyone with even a hint of a frontal lobe, John Cleese, at 77, is still irritated by stupidity.

Yet, he’s is in surprisingly good spirits.

“Hell-oooo,” he says, stretching a cheery greeting into two notes. “You just go ahead and fire any questions you like.”

From the moment he gets on the phone, the “Monty Python” master of sarcasm is downright amiable, quick with a laugh even while confiding that he holds out absolutely no hope for humanity, no matter what side of the pond you happen to be on.

“Everyone’s in turmoil, darling,” he says drolly, as if relating a clearly universal, if somewhat unpleasant, truth. “Nobody has any idea what’s going on. The whole place is mad. We’ve got some of the worst (expletive denoting “idiots”) in the history of the planet in charge. It’s all hopeless.”

Comic ‘Holy Grail’

Cleese will level his steely, deadpan gaze on New Hampshire next. He’ll visit the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord Wednesday, Sept 20, to screen the classic Arthurian Legend spoof “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and then do a 75-minute Q&A with the audience about his life, career and other topics worthy of a good rant or cutting assessment.

“People come and laugh and leave much happier than when they arrived,” says Cleese. “You never know what’s going to happen, and that’s so much more fun.

“When I was doing a show once with Eric (Idle, a fellow Python star of TV and film), a woman in Florida got up — a very nicely dressed, good-looking and beautifully turned out woman in her 50s,” Cleese said.

She politely asked if she might ask Mr. Idle and Mr. Cleese a question.

“Of course,” Cleese responded.

“Did the queen kill Diana?,” she asked.

“I thought it was the funniest thing,” Cleese says of the strangely serious query about the late Diana, Princess of Wales. “Because I laughed so much, I had time to think. So, in the end, I said, ‘Well, certainly not with her bare hands.’”

It’s that cheeky kind of comedy that introduced TV audiences to “something completely different” with the sketch comedy show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” A mix of the risque, bizarre and ridiculous, the quirky program ran on BBC from 1969 to 1974. Cleese’s imposing 6-foot-5-inch frame coupled with his deadpan, off-kilter musings and simmering rage, made the unexpected and odd entertaining.

In “Holy Grail,” one of the most popular bits finds Cleese standing atop a castle, hurling insults in an exaggerated French accent to British knights below: “I blow my nose at you. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries. Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time.”

The point? There’s always been conflict in the world, and laughter is a pretty effective coping mechanism.

“I think on some level a lot of people realize how absurd life is on this planet,” says Cleese with a bark of laughter. “What I think it is, is that there’s an enormous amount of uncertainty in life — the worries that we have, the way we spend a lot of money dressing up so people think we look nice. You know, really, it’s just absurd, and I think Python really catches that absurdity.

“When Python first started, somebody said to me that when he watched Python, he could not then watch the evening news, because he couldn’t take it seriously,” Cleese adds. “I think it’s a very healthy attitude.”

Silly walks app

Another fan favorite from Python days, “The Ministry of Silly Walks” is getting some new legs with an app that lets players step into Cleese’s high-stepping shoes. Anyone successfully avoiding obstacles, pigeons or other distractions accrues points toward more even more ridiculous maneuvers.

Cleese is taking it in stride.

“I now have two replacement hips and one replacement knee, so I think it would be quite dangerous — not to me but to any passing spectators if I try at any point to reproduce that,” he says, chuckling. “It was, what, 45 years ago?”

Cleese also is known for his sharp wit and physical comedy in “Fawlty Towers” (1975-79),” a BBC sitcom in which he played a perpetually irate and bumbling hotel manager who could barely get out of his own way.

“We’re now working on a video game based on ‘Fawlty Towers,’ which I have to tell you I think is hilarious, because you basically have to operate Basil, and he has to deal with all these problems,” Cleese says. “If, at a certain point, he fails to handle too many problems at the same time, he simply goes out of control. You cannot control him. I think it’s hilarious. But it’s not going to come out for another year.”

On the big screen, Cleese starred in the Python films “Holy Grail” (1975), “Life of Brian” (1979) and “The Meaning of Life” (1983) before taking a memorable turn as barrister Archie Leach in 1988’s heist comedy “A Fish Called Wanda,” opposite Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and fellow Python veteran Michael Palin.

The films showcase another of Cleese’s trademark skills — his affinity for mimicking foreign languages.

“I’m very good at accents on the whole, and I speak what I call shop German, shop French, shop Italian, and shop Spanish,” Cleese says. “And if I go to those countries for 10 days, I can carry on a very simple conversations.”

Still, he speaks only one language fluently.

“I’ve never lived anywhere other than in an English-speaking country,” says Cleese of his time in England and the United States. “I’ve been in America a great deal of my life — 12 to 13 years all together. Though I’m not much good at an American accent.”

His forte is a German accent.

“I have, from what they tell me, a near perfect German accent,” Cleese says. “I did a show in Munich once for the Bavarian channel, and Michael (Palin) and I recorded a sketch in German. A group of Germans who were having a tour of the studio stopped to listen to us, and one of the Germans said to the tour guide, ‘What part of Germany are they from?’ So, I was rather proud of that. Quite a complement. But I wished I learned the language (fluently). I’ve left it a bit late, since I’m nearly 78.”

Four marriages

Cleese moved back to London in 2008 after living in California for about 10 years.

Pretending to need a moment to recall all the times he’s been married, Cleese talks about past “I do’s” to Connie Booth (with whom he has a daughter, actress Cynthia Cleese), Barbara Trentham (with whom he has a daughter, comedian Camilla Cleese)and Alyce Faye Eichelberger.

“Having been married to, I think, three Americans ... let me see ... one, two, three — yes, three Americans — I spent a lot of time with them in America ... so I’m very familiar with lots of Americans.

“I thought it was time I tried someone British, and I met a lovely girl called Jennifer Wade,” Cleese says of his wife, who is 31 years his junior. “She is delightful — the funniest woman I ever met, and we’ve been married for five years now.”

And apparently, the secret to a happy union is pets.

“The reason we’re so happy is — other than that we quite like each other — is that we don’t have children. We have cats,” Cleese says with his self-assured logic. “And I’m telling anybody this, cats are far preferable to children. The last thing you want are those little wretches taking over your lives.”

He and Wade have three Maine Coon felines.

“They are the biggest beasts you’ve ever seen in your life,” he says. “One of them is slightly bigger now than my wife. She’s thinking about having a small, leather cat saddle made so she can ride it into town.”

Which brings up another question. Is Cleese, with his precise and clipped manner of speech, ever at a loss for words?

“Oh, no,” he says. “People come up and say, “I’m terrible sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Cleese ...,” and I always immediately say, ‘Then why are you interrupting me?,” says Cleese with a laugh.

It’s quite liberating, actually, all this lack of a filter.

“Nobody ever listens to what I say, so I can say very silly things to people,” he confides. “I’ve never set eyes on them before, and I’ll never set eyes on them again.

“They pull on my shirt sleeve and say, ‘Can I have a photograph with you?’ and I say, ‘No, but why don’t you ask the man over there,’ Cleese says. “I just amuse myself.”

And then John Cleese giggles.


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