Completely different: CL interviews John Cleese

The comedy legend speaks on Monty Python, A Fish Called Wanda and his tour with Eric Idle.

John Cleese and Eric Idle: Together Again At Last … For The Very First Time!
Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater, Weds.-Thurs., Oct. 14-15, 7:30 p.m. $59.50-$99.50.

Last Friday a cheerfully mischievous John Cleese appeared on the guest panel of Real Time with Bill Maher, shaking his head and lamenting "There’s no hope” during the show’s discussions of Donald Trump and the U.S. presidential race.

During the show’s “Overtime” segment, the British actor, writer and author shared that he would be launching a tour in Florida with fellow Monty Python-er Eric Idle. Cleese mentioned that they were starting their jaunt in “Saratoga, Florida” — a misnomer he promptly corrected. He and Idle were in fact headed for Sarasota’s Van Wezel Arts Center, and on Oct. 14-15 they bring their show, Together Again At Last… For The Very First Time!, to Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Maher asked Cleese what he’d like to say about his tour with Idle. “Nothing,” he responded dryly. “It’s not a very good show.

“It’s what we call sit-down comedy. That’s why we are going to try in Florida, ’cause if we bum in Florida, no one would know. … Did you ever read newspaper stories about a bad review in the ‘Sarasota Bugle’?”

At 75 (he turns 76 on Oct 27), Cleese is more unfiltered than ever. “I’m bored with all the bullshit,” he told Maher.

But a few hours before appearing on the broadcast, Cleese sounded more like a proper English gentleman in a phone interview with CL. He even complimented the name of our newspaper. “What is this Loafing? I love it!” he said. “I’ve basically been encouraging people to do some loafing, but loafing of a particular kind.”

Cleese explained that he teaches the art of constructive laziness at business seminars, a gig that sounds straight from a Monty Python sketch, but he wasn’t joking. He has indeed added corporate training to his resume. Naturally, during these conferences he meets fans of his erstwhile TV sketch comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the four Monty Python films. “Computer nerds love Python,” he acknowledged.

Industrious multitasking aside, Cleese doesn’t believe in micromanaging comedic material. Of the “sit-down” show with Idle, he says, “I am an enormous believer in listening to the audience. … The show will develop organically.”

Much of Cleese’s success has been unplanned. In 1963, he graduated from Cambridge with a law degree. While at school he had begun writing and performing with the university’s famed Footlights troupe, which led him to more gigs onstage and on BBC TV and radio. In a recent biography of his early years, So, Anyway…, he talks about growing up in a suburb completely devoid of anything artsy. The lanky misfit didn’t discover his showbiz talents until college.
At Cambridge, Cleese met his first Monty Python mate, the late Graham Chapman. Soon after that, Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones signed on, all of them having crossed paths on various BBC programs. In 1968, when Cleese worked off-Broadway for a spell, he met his first wife (and Fawlty Towers costar), Connie Booth, and the sole American Python-er, Terry Gilliam. Cleese and his cohorts went from writing for other comedians — Cleese penned scripts for Peter Sellers — to performing in front of the camera.

The Monty Python TV show started with no plan, no premise. Cleese says that for the previous four years, British TV had been filled with satire, and the troupe, tired of mocking current events, wanted to do something “completely different.” Fortunately for the crew, they didn’t have to deal with any unwelcome input from suits or tedious meetings. Even more out of the ordinary, BBC had no available studios for rehearsals (Idle’s explanation: “It was England”), so they read scripts at Terry Jones’s house.

From those early sketch ideas to Gilliam’s ingeniously illustrated fillers, Monty Python did it all on their own and on their own terms. The clever absurdities they would come up with — from that famous Dead Parrot sketch to the Ministry of Silly Walks — redefined comedy as we know it today.

“We literally didn’t know what we were going to do,” recalls Cleese, “and I think sometimes what comes out of a situation like that is the most creative stuff, because we weren’t following any guidelines.”

When two-fifths of Python appear live in Tampa Bay, they will be just as off the cuff and unscripted, and they’ll have some stiff competition. American comedy legend Mel Brooks will be headlining the Straz Center at the very same time. Upon learning this, Cleese said, “How interesting!” He shared that Brooks had invited him to perform a scene in History of the World, Part I, but nothing ever materialized.

One of Cleese’s best film projects, the 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda, came to fruition almost despite itself.

“There were odd things happening in people’s lives that were distracting for everyone,” Cleese said of the making of Wanda, which he co-scripted and starred in, playing Archie Leach, the successful barrister he might have become had he not detoured into comedy.

“I chose the wrong director [Charles Crichton], which was very much my fault. He had worked with me many times before, but for Wanda he was like a rabbit in the headlights.” The film, which co-starred fellow Python-er Michael Palin and Jamie Lee Curtis, nevertheless went on to great success, winning BAFTA awards for Palin and Cleese and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Kevin Kline.

Cleese’s candor makes his appearances a delight, and will give audiences much to laugh at during his shows with Idle. The two have worked closely on projects throughout the years, from Python to Wanda to the musical Spamalot. Idle, who’s the most musical of the crew, wrote Monty Python’s movie tunes, including their most famous number, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Expect a song or two from “the lost Beatle,” a performance of a lost sketch, and most likely, Cleese will construct an amusing anagram of an audience member’s name.

Recently married to wife no. 4, Jennifer Wade, 32 years his junior, Cleese says he looks forward to some down time in the Caribbean after the tour and a couple of other projects in the works — he’s doing a stage adaptation of a 19th-century French farce (which he will not name) and a theatrical run of Fawlty Towers in London’s West End.
Asked why Python endures in popularity, Cleese said it accomplished what most of the greatest comedies of all time have brought us — it was an exaggeration of real life. “Monty Python appeals to people who think life is absurd.”

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