A life in comedy, from lemurs to last words.
JOHN CLEESE, Actor; Writer; Producer; Author, So, Anyway...
In conversation with ADAM SAVAGE, Host, “Mythbusters”
ADAM SAVAGE: How is this book tour treating you?
JOHN CLEESE: Brutally brutal! We came to New York – two days in New York – Washington, Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle and here.
SAVAGE: I can’t believe you can remember all of those.
CLEESE: I think I did those in just under two weeks. So you just get pretty tired. You really do. Mainly because on those planes now, the seats are so small. I mean, they’re all right. You’re a decent size. You’re not huge, but you’re not tiny, right?
SAVAGE: It’s true. They fit me very well.
CLEESE: So you’re OK. They fit you. I’m miserable. I always think of those bamboo cages that the North Koreans use.
SAVAGE: With the water up to here?
CLEESE: Yeah that’s right. So you couldn’t get comfortable, right?
CLEESE: They used to keep their pilots [in them after they were captured].
SAVAGE: Kafka called it something. Kafka talked about it in In the Penal Colony. It was this box that you couldn’t get comfortable in.
CLEESE: Yeah. It’s just like that. I have to sit there for two hours being uncomfortable and then get in a car, and they always get me a small car, so that I can’t sit up straight. So by the time I get to the hotel, I’m kind of like “Bleh, bleh, bleh.” And I’m 75, for God’s sake.
SAVAGE: You look damn good for 75.
CLEESE: Thank you.
SAVAGE: I don’t want to make you feel old with this comment because you are old, but –
CLEESE: No, no, I’m very old. I’m very old. Seventy-five is nearly dead.
SAVAGE: For most of human history, it has been.
CLEESE: It’s way past dead.
CLEESE: Absolutely. But then it’s not such a bad thing, because most of the best people are dead, right? Most of the people you and I would like to meet most, like Plato. Who is dead that you’d really like to meet?
SAVAGE: Richard Feynman, Da Vinci.
CLEESE: Yes, wonderful man.
SAVAGE: Did you ever meet him?
CLEESE: No, but I just think he had this incredibly positive attitude when things went wrong. Whereas most of us think, “Oh f--k, what are we doing?” Feynman would say, “Now that’s interesting.”
CLEESE: And I think that’s most wonderful. My favorite last words [were uttered by] an 18th-century woman; she was vaguely upper class and I don’t know her name because she wasn’t famous. Just before she died, she announced to the people in the room who were waiting for her to die, “It’s all been most interesting.” Isn’t that wonderful?
SAVAGE: What a great thing to be able to say.
CLEESE: What a great thing to be able to say. Exactly.
SAVAGE: That’s awesome. I’m sure you’ve been peppered with all sorts of memories people have of the first time they saw you. The memory that I have is that watching Monty Python was the first time that I was laughing with my parents.
CLEESE: Oh! That’s so touching.
SAVAGE: It made me feel so grown-up, and I have been searching for that ever since.
CLEESE: I find it very touching, because, particularly in America, a lot of men have said that it was the only thing that they really connected with their dads on, which is sad in a way, but at least they had that.
CLEESE: Well, I love that. In fact, one of my failures, which was Fierce Creatures, was an attempt to make a movie specifically for children to watch with their parents. That is what I was trying to do, and everybody thought I was trying to make A Fish Called Wanda again. But I think that’s lovely when people laugh together.
SAVAGE: Exactly, and you made me feel like I was having a connection with them.
CLEESE: That’s right.
SAVAGE: I remember being unhinged and we were trying not to laugh, so we could hear the next line. We were choking.
CLEESE: That’s wonderful. The only real connection I had with my mum was that we laughed at the same things. Let me tell you a story that amuses me about professional comedians. W.C. Fields is one of the greatest comedians ever, and I don’t think young people know him as well as they should. He was absolutely wonderful. Somebody asked him about a professional comedian’s sense of humor. And W.C. Fields said, Well, for most people, if an actor dresses up as a very, very, very old woman and walks along the street like this and falls down a manhole, they’ll laugh. But to make a professional comedian laugh, it has to really be an old woman.
SAVAGE: You have an anecdote in your book about making your mom laugh with a very dark joke.
CLEESE: Yes, well she was a very anxious and neurotic woman. When I would telephone her – she lived until 101, so I saw quite a lot of her over the years – I would ring up; I would say, “Hello, Mum.” And she’d say, “Oh hello, John, how are you?” I would say, “I’m fine, Mother. How are you?” And she would always say with a hint of surprise, “Well, I’ve been just a little bit down this week.” I don’t know why she was surprised, because she was a little bit down this week for 50 years. You don’t like it when your mother is unhappy; you want her to be happy, and you know if you’re with a depressive, it’s very difficult; it’s hard to cheer them up. One year, I just spontaneously had a moment of utter creative inspiration, because I said to her, “Mother, I have an idea.” And she said, “Oh, what is it?” I said, “Well, Mother, if you’re still feeling this way next week, I know a little man in Fulham, and if you like, but only if you like, I could give him a call and he could come down there and kill you.” So from then on, any time she started to say that she wasn’t very happy, I would just wait a couple of minutes and then say, “So should I call the little man from Fulham?” And she’d laugh every time and say things like, “Oh no! I’ve got a sherry party on Friday.”
SAVAGE: Something you said earlier reminded me that Richard Feynman said that “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
CLEESE: That’s wonderful! I would love to make a film about all the [screwups]. A cardiologist said to me in London just last year, a top heart guy, he said, “We got it wrong.” For 60 years, they’ve been saying that heart problems are caused by eating fats. He said, “It’s not fats, it’s sugar.”
SAVAGE: Oh crap! If there’s one thing I like more than fat, it’s sugar.
CLEESE: Me too! Me too! It’s bad news. The point is that for 60 years, they were out there telling everyone to avoid fats. Everything was based on this and now they’ve decided, “Oh no! We got that wrong. Sorry!”
SAVAGE: But that’s like what we are. I was saying to one of my kids, “Think about yourself four years ago.” They’re 15. And I said, “Think about what an idiot you were compared to now. That’s going to keep happening for the rest of your life.”
CLEESE: Yes! I think it was Mark Twain who said that he had never realized what an idiot was until he was 15 and he had a long conversation with his father. When he got to the age of 20, he was surprised at how much his father had learned in the previous five years.
SAVAGE: That’s exactly right. Now about this book – wait, I was going to ask about lemurs.
CLEESE: Oh! Ask about the lemurs.
SAVAGE: What is it with the lemurs?
CLEESE: I just think they’re the nicest little creatures. I wish I had married one. It would have simplified my life. They are the dearest, dearest little things and I see one of them is carrying an advertisement for a movie – oh no, it’s a raccoon, isn’t it? That’s right. No, I just love lemurs and I think they’re absolutely adorable, so I do a little bit to help because they are getting wiped out in Madagascar. It’s the only place [they live] – this huge island. We think it’s small because we look at the map next to Africa; it’s the size of France. They keep discovering more species. In fact, I have a species named after me.
SAVAGE: A Latin name?
CLEESE: Yes. Avahi Cleesei, Cleese’s woolly lemur. Isn’t that wonderful?
SAVAGE: That’s fantastic!
CLEESE: Lovely. And I turned down a peerage.
SAVAGE: I think you’ve got your priorities.
CLEESE: I’ve got my priorities right. I’ve got a lemur named after me. So when I pay off the alimony, I must give them something.
SAVAGE: The characters you guys [in Monty Python] took on are very specific. Thirty years after the last live performance, when you went to the ’02 [live performance], did [you and] Michael [Palin] go back into the exact same characters? Or did those characters get modified over the years?
CLEESE: I don’t think they get modified much. I think my voice has dropped a little bit as I’ve gotten more relaxed, or rather because I’ve gotten older. I think there used to be a tightness in my voice, which a certain amount of therapy helped to clear. I can really just go straight back into it and it’s peculiar then. There are certain characters – if you played characters a great deal – it’s as though they continue to exist somewhere in you and you can just connect with that place and go. Even the gestures will be right.
SAVAGE: I think one of the main things I got from the book that I didn’t know was that you are a writer first and foremost.
CLEESE: I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. I’d gotten to Cambridge on science and switched to law, because I wasn’t really interested in science. And I just discovered one day, by chance, that if I was given sheets of blank paper, I could write something down and if somebody – perhaps myself, not necessarily – performed it right, people would laugh. It was an astonishing discovery to me. But from the very beginning, I was always performing what I had written. If you actually look back over the things people know me from, which are Python and Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda, all of those I wrote or co-wrote myself.
SAVAGE: You said that the tension that existed among the Pythons while writing existed within the writing but not within the performing.
CLEESE: That was the bizarre thing, because we did fight and argue a lot. The arguments were always about the script. Was the script good enough? We never argued about who was going to play what role, because it was quite obvious that Graham was going to play that or Michael would play that. It was obvious. We never argued about that.
But when we got into arguing about the script, we used to get extremely worked up, much too much so. One of the problems was there were two really difficult people in the group. The first was Terry Jones and the second was me. We used to butt heads, and it was sort of temperamental. I don’t usually say this in public, but it is sort of known. Terry is Welsh. I once explained to Terry that God had put the Welsh on the planet to carry out menial tasks for the English. He could never get his mind around it and insisted on behaving as if he was an equal. So there were a lot of fights with Terry.
SAVAGE: Did you guys end up fighting over the same territory?
CLEESE: No it was just whether something was funny. This is how ridiculous it got: Somebody had written a funny sketch in a dormitory, and somebody said it should be a really dusty, rundown sort of place. Somebody said, “Yes, but with one magnificent Louis XIV chandelier.” And somebody said, “Yeah, that’s funny, but not a chandelier, a dead stuffed farm animal with a light bulb in each one of its four feet.” And somebody said, “Obviously a sheep.” And somebody said, “What do you mean a sheep?” One guy said, “Well, obviously it’s funnier if it’s a sheep.” And another guy said, “No, it’s obviously funnier if it’s a goat.” “A woolly chandelier, that’s funnier.” “No, no, a goat with the horns.” This argument went on, and I remember quite seriously it went on for a quarter of an hour. Three were passionate that it should be a sheep. Three were passionate that it should be a goat. I remember I sat back and I thought, “This is insane! What are we arguing about? It’s obvious that it’s going to be a f--king goat.” [Laughter.] A lot of passion went into it. It was really ridiculous.
SAVAGE: Did you guys write Meaning of Life in Hawaii?
CLEESE: No, we wrote a bit of it in the West Indies. What happened was that after Life of Brian – which the Pythons all pretty much think is our best show, our best film. And I agree. I think the first half of Holy Grail is very, very good, but I don’t think the second half is. I thought, in Brian there was a real story there and it was about something important, too. When we got to Meaning of Life, we could never agree on a story. We kept meeting and writing for a month and we had masses of material and nothing could come together to unify it. So we all went off, after we finished The Life of Brian, to the West Indies for two weeks and I said on the first night, “I have a plan. Let’s not do any work at all. Let’s just have a wonderful holiday on the beach in the sun and then go back to everyone and say, “We’re very disappointed; we just couldn’t put it together.’” I just about won the argument and then that little Welsh bastard came down the next day and said, “Well, I was thinking last night…” He really had put all the different sketches together into stages of life. And I remember my sense of disappointment. I thought, “Oh God! We’re going to have to make this f--king film now.” He was entirely responsible. It was his determination. Otherwise, we would have had a wonderful holiday.
SAVAGE: In an interview, you said writing this book was relatively easy and straightforward. But I’m gobsmacked by the detail. I mean, how did you compile all of the timelines?
CLEESE: Well, there was a guy called James Curtis, who’s a really marvelous writer. He’s written a wonderful biography of Spencer Tracy and before that, W.C. Fields. He was helping me with the timelines, because he was such an expert on those kinds of research. He dug up reviews that Washington papers had done of shows I had done for a week in a nightclub in 1965. I mean, he found this stuff everywhere. It was incredibly helpful because sometimes you’d think, “But that doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t have,” and then you realize, “Oh wait, I did that show in Chicago. Then I went back to New York before I went to Washington.” Just little things like that clarified these puzzles that you come across when you can’t figure out what happened in what direction.
But you see, my experience with memory is that when I meet someone that I used to know very well, they will remember two stories about me in great, considerable detail, which I will have no recollection of and vice versa. I can tell them very specifically about what happened and they have no memory of it. That happened yesterday. Somebody told me in great detail something that had happened that involved me when I was about 18. No recollection of it at all. And in fact, when I was doing a rather fun show in New York with four fun women that would sit on a sofa…
SAVAGE: “The View”?
CLEESE: “The View.” [Laughter.]
SAVAGE: Fun. They’re fun.
CLEESE: They’re great fun. They showed me a clip of a sketch and I watched it, and I would’ve bet money that I’d never been in that sketch. I have no recollection of it at all. I sat there watching it and was just amazed I could’ve forgotten something. Look, someone else wrote it, which is probably one of the reasons I don’t remember it, and then I rehearsed it for five days and then recorded it. That was probably 1969. It seems to me that you remember what’s memorable and you forget the rest. You tend to remember stories when there’s a kind of moral at the end of them.
SAVAGE: A moral for yourself?
CLEESE: Yes, or a point or learning thing. Those are the kinds of stories I tend to remember more than outside jokes.
SAVAGE: When Stanley Kubrick was writing Dr. Strangelove, he was originally writing it with material from the book Fail Safe, and he was writing a serious movie, but every time he took a scene to its natural conclusion, it was funny. So halfway through the process, he called up [co-scripter] Terry Southern and said, “We’ve got to make this a comedy.”
CLEESE: That’s fascinating. It is strange. I remember somebody said to Arthur Miller, “Do you think life is a farce or tragedy?” He said, “I’m not sure, but on the whole I tend to think it’s a farce.” I think it’s a much healthier attitude to go through life just saying we have no idea what we’re doing; we’re all idiots, and we’re all getting it wrong.
I came across this wonderful research – I’m a phony professor at Cornell, or at least I used to be before the alimony. I haven’t been back in some time because I can’t afford to take the time off. There’s a fellow there called David Dunning; he’s been interested all his life in self-assessment – how good people are at knowing how good they are at doing things. What he’s discovered is that in order to know how good you are at something requires almost exactly the same aptitudes as to be good at that thing in the first place. It follows as a corollary that if you’re absolutely no good at something, you lack exactly the skills that you need to know you’re no good at it. Once you realize that there are thousands of people out there who have no idea what they’re doing, and they have no idea that they have no idea – this is not tragedy material. The only disappointing thing is that at the end we die.
SAVAGE: I like the grammarian who, as they were dying, said, “I am going to, or I am about to, die; either is correct.” [Laughter.]
CLEESE: My favorite one was an English practical joker in the ’20s who had a private income. He used to amuse himself with practical jokes. He lived in a very small but beautiful flat right off Piccadilly Circus. He lived above a very famous French fish restaurant called Prunier. He had a heart attack. The ambulance arrived and discovered that the steps up to his little flat atop Prunier’s were so steep that they couldn’t bring him down them on a stretcher; they had to use an emergency exit, which meant that he had to be carried out through the restaurant. As he was carried out through the restaurant, dying, he raised himself on one elbow and said, “Don’t eat the halibut.” [Laughter.]
SAVAGE: There’s a local resident near here – Steve Wozniak, co-inventor of the Apple computer. He buys uncut sheets of bills from the U.S. Mint and then he has them laminated into a [sort of] checkbook. So when he wants to pay you with a twenty, he tears it up by perforation. His whole goal is to convince you that he’s giving you money that he just printed. He’ll also have them put out rolls or just the sheets.
CLEESE: Now there’s a good way to use a lot of money.
SAVAGE: Exactly. That’s exactly what billionaires should be doing.
CLEESE: Oh! Absolutely! You know, we’ve rather lost practical jokes, haven’t we?
SAVAGE: Well, one of the problems with practical jokes is that they get mean really quickly. And it takes real intelligence to do a practical joke that’s not mean, because mean is easy.
CLEESE: But to do one [well] is just a really glorious, benevolent attempt to completely waste someone else’s time. The cleverest practical joke I ever heard was from a French poet in Paris in about 1817. He lived on his own in a block of flats and there was a nice old lady he was quite fond of. One day, he was out on a walk and he saw a pet shop and he just wandered in. He didn’t know what he was doing and he saw this dear little turtle and he thought, “I’m going to buy it for her.” So he bought the little turtle and a bowl of water and took it back to her and she was so thrilled. She couldn’t stop talking about the thing. So after a time, he had a brilliant idea. He waited until she was out and he went and got the turtle and took it back to the pet shop and swapped it for a slightly bigger one. He took it back and she was so excited. The next day, she said, “Oh look! Look how well he’s doing.” He kept on doing this. Every week he’d go and swap it. It would get bigger and bigger.
And the genius was, he [then] started making it smaller and smaller.
SAVAGE: That’s beautiful. It puts a whole different slant on scientific inquiry, doesn’t it?
CLEESE: Yes it does, for sure!
SAVAGE: What would you be doing today if not for Monty Python?
CLEESE: Oh. What an interesting question. If not for Monty Python, what I’d really like to be doing is I’d like to make documentaries about things that I really don’t understand, which would be humorous. They would be really humorous. I’d love to make a documentary about what religion would’ve been if the churches hadn’t [screwed] it up. I think that would be interesting.
CLEESE: What is mystical experience? You know, what is it about? Why do people find it so extraordinarily emotional and powerful and yet why does it always fall into the hands of people who then basically turn it on its head? Because I think it’s very hard to justify the Spanish Inquisition, you know? If you were there in Auto De Fé in Seville in what would it be, about 1560? There they are burning heretics and you can imagine Christ arriving and saying to one of the Inquisition people, “Could you explain what you are doing? Why are you burning these people alive because they’re in great pain?” And he would say, “Well, you see, we discovered that they have a different interpretation from us of your gospel of love.”
And in America, in some extraordinary way, Christianity begins to overlap with capitalism.
SAVAGE: Oh yeah. It’s all real estate.
CLEESE: It’s all real estate and huge quantities of money being generated by preachers. I want to say, “I don’t think he said, ‘Blessed to the rich.’” So it’s fascinating. Somebody once said that an idea is not responsible for the people that hold it. I think that’s very, very accurate. So I’d like to do that, and I’d like to do a documentary about why very, very rich people need to be very, very rich – unless [it’s that]they want to play practical jokes. [Laughter.]
SAVAGE: I agree. I find myself wondering about that too.
CLEESE: Why do they need so much? I remember I said to someone in Santa Barbara once, “The funny thing about the very rich is how greedy they are, that they still want more.” And he said, “No, no, no, they’re rich because they’re so greedy.” In other words, they’re not really affected by the money coming in. That is the personality type.
SAVAGE: Right. They’re continuing to attempt to satisfy the need.
CLEESE: A psychiatrist said a beautiful thing to me about a year ago in London. He said, “If you want to understand what God thinks about money, look at the people he gives it to.”
SAVAGE: Someone wants to know what the inspiration for Venezuelan beaver cheese is. [Laughter.]
CLEESE: Well, I was trying to come up with silly cheeses and I came up with some more when we did the ’02 [show]. There’s a DVD of it out. It should be worth looking at, because there were some wonderful moments where we broke up, which were just utterly, utterly special.
SAVAGE: Where you cracked each other up?
CLEESE: Cracked each other up. And it was just wonderful to have that freedom and to know [you have it]. You see, what happened was [comedian] Eddie Izzard came to seven of the shows. Can you believe that? He came to seven of the shows. And on the second night, a very weird thing happened. We started off with a very silly Spanish number with guitars, and then we went to white tuxedoes and talked about these Yorkshire businessmen who would get competitive about how tough their lives had been. We were halfway through the sketch and I was mainly listening to Michael on my right and Eric on my left. And I glanced over at Terry Jones and he had blood running down the side of his face. It was the side away from the audience. And I thought, “What the hell?” What had happened was, when he had taken his guitar off in a hurry because it was the second night and he was still rushing, he cut his eye and it bled profusely. The next time I looked at him, he thought there was something there and he had a red hand and I blew a couple of lines, I said the wrong thing. And I saw Eddie backstage about 10 minutes later; he was wandering around. I said, “Sorry about blowing the line. You know, I don’t know why I bothered.” He said, “No, no you don’t get it.” And I said, “What?” And he said the most important thing to me than anyone’s said in 10 years; he said, “You don’t realize. They’ve seen you do it right countless times. It’s much more special when something happens that’s never happened before.”
And he was right. So it was the opposite of what a theatrical performance is supposed to be about. It became a completely other kind of animal. And the sheer goodwill and happiness in that arena was an extraordinary thing to experience. And I suddenly – I know this will surprise people – thought, Maybe entertainers are important after all. Because it was bringing people together.
I was on a T.V. show four weeks ago in London with Neil Diamond and the same feeling happened when they were all singing “Sweet Caroline” and suddenly I just looked at this audience and everyone was having a good time. I thought, This is good. There’s no question. This is good.