John Cleese on Donald Trump, Humor, and a New Show With Eric Idle
John Cleese: "Most people don't recognize me."
Photo by Bob King
In his San Francisco hotel room, John Cleese has been catching up on American politics. He's been getting to know a handful of our presidential candidates through his TV set, and, of course, like any sentient being on this planet, he has an opinion about Donald Trump. "He is a complete clown," Cleese says. "And I'm fascinated that people are drawn to the man."
He acknowledges that Trump probably could've been a Monty Python character and refers to his hair as a "dead squirrel."
"That confidence that he has — which really comes from a lack of awareness — that is what people are drawn to," he says. "We have some fairly stupid politicians in England, but we don't approach your scale of stupidity."
Cleese, if you didn't know, is British, born in the Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England, in 1939. If you didn't know that tidbit, you probably also aren't aware he's one-sixth of one of the most important and influential comedy troupes ever, Monty Python.
Founded in 1969, the legendary comedy group consisted of core members and Brits John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Together, they created the sketch-comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus, which aired on the BBC from October 5, 1969, to December 1974 before spinning off into movies such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python's Life of Brian. Though the show might not have been responsible for inventing British humor, it surely spread it around the world unlike anything before.
To many, Monty Python's Flying Circus skewered the core tenets of stodgy British culture: stoicism, propriety, intellectualism, and everything else in its path. But Cleese doesn't look back at Monty Python's comedy as uniquely British. With the exception of some linguistic differences, he doesn't see much difference between American and British humor. "You have pretty much the same sense of humor that we do," he says. "In the real George W. Bush states, where they lack irony, there is a sort of literal-mindedness, which is why they don't get irony and why they tend to go towards a literal interpretation of the Bible. But if I'm in New York or San Francisco or L.A., then I'm not aware of any difference. Except with Americans, you see, they love jokes, whereas the British can love just situations."
Perhaps he has a point. After all, if Monty Python was so exclusively British, why did it connect so deeply with people around the world, especially Americans?
You'd be hard-pressed to find an American comedian who doesn't list Monty Python — or Cleese — high on their list of all-time greats.
In November 2014, Cleese appeared on The Daily Show to promote So, Anyway..., his autobiography. "My guest tonight, he is the man, a comedy legend," Jon Stewart swooned during his introduction. And during the six-minute interview, Stewart — a man who, with poise and tact, has interviewed multiple sitting presidents — acted like a high-school nerd who suddenly found himself locked in the supply closet with the prettiest cheerleader. After getting a hearty laugh from Cleese, Stewart paused and said, "If you think that I'm not gonna get a GIF of me making you laugh and put that up on my wall and run it 24 hours a day..."
But, again, Cleese rejects this notion. He hardly sees himself as legendary, and when he's told there are people in this world who think of him the same way a devout Catholic thinks of Jesus Christ, he chuckles and says, "Well, we share the same initials." Pressed further on his status as a comedy god, he humbly says, "You're... with the greatest respect — you're building it up.
"It only happens at a very low level. If I was with Tom Cruise or Justin Bieber or someone like that, then of course ordinary life becomes impossible. My level is a much lower level. Yes, I get recognized here and then. I had a coffee in San Francisco, and I sat down and two people came over and we had a nice conversation. But it's very low-key."
It's easy to shrug this off as good old-fashioned British humility, but Cleese may, again, have a point. His fans are aging, and although he and the rest of the Pythons are still very much beloved globally, they probably wouldn't cause much of a stir at a high-school assembly.
Cleese doesn't seem to mind. "Most people don't recognize me," he says. "Occasionally, you'll get recognized too many times in a day. If you're recognized four or five times in a day, it's pleasant. But if you're recognized 40 times in a day, it's pretty intrusive."
The best chance this new generation might have at getting to know a Cleese isn't through John, but through his daughter Camilla Cleese. The 31-year-old descendent of comedy royalty is in the infant stage of a standup career. And she shows some serious promise. Her honest and unflinching style would have made her father's early fans shit their knickers, and though nepotism may have gotten her foot in the door, it's not earning her laughs — she's doing that all on her own.
"I saw her in New York at the very end of last year with a really good friend of mine, and we looked at each other and we said, 'She's really good,'?" Cleese says. He first noticed her chops when he took her on tour with him in 2006. "She started writing material, and I thought she was just going to be a stage manager. And I suddenly realized how good she was, so I gave her something to perform, and she wrote a little monologue, and she did several sketches with me."
Camilla pulls no punches when it comes to her father, who, at the age of 75, is on his fourth marriage, to a woman 31 years his junior. "I got a surprise recently, very exciting news," she says in her act. "We have a new child in the family: my new step-mom... It's actually pretty cool. We have a lot in common. We're both six foot, blond, and are way too fucking young to be married to my dad."
But Cleese isn't quite ready to relinquish his fame yet. His latest tour pairs him with fellow Python alum Eric Idle for a stage show called John Cleese & Eric Idle: Together Again at Last... for the Very First Time. The two will drop by the Fillmore Saturday, October 10, for a night of improv, music, and an audience Q&A.
"Tickets sold in 43 seconds for the first show," Cleese says in disbelief. "We didn't know that we were that newsworthy. Film crews all over the world wanted to interview us. We didn't know that." It's tough to tell whether he's being genuine or, as they say in the UK, taking the piss. That has always been one of his strongest skills as a performer. But if he's being serious, it seems one of the few comedians in this world truly unaware of John Cleese's importance is John Cleese.
John Cleese & Eric Idle: Together Again at Last... for the Very First Time
7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 10, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. Tickets cost $45 to $100 via livenation.com.
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