Given the chance to chat with John Cleese, the famed actor, writer and co-founder of Monty Python, we began with something completely different: has there ever been, to his knowledge, a porn parody of Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Like a fellow who’s quick-wittedly determined that the parrot he’s just purchased is “no more,...expired and gone to meet its maker,…joined the choir invisible,” Cleese rapid-fires his response.
“Well, if there is I haven’t heard about it. And, I hope Stormy Daniels is in it,” he says.
That’s perhaps an odd way to start a conversation with a comic legend, but Cleese doesn’t protest. The weirder the question the better has sort of been his mantra lately. He visits Smart Financial Centre this Thursday to answer audience questions live onstage following a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The film, originally released in the United Kingdom 43 years ago this week, is widely considered one of comedy’s most influential films. It’s routinely ranked among the genre’s greatest movies by everyone from esteemed film critics to our own round table of local viewers.
While promoting the tour, Cleese has asked audiences to steer clear of mundane questions. After all, we have the Internet for those answers. The challenging questions are the ones which nudge Cleese into action, where we viewers get to see his genius at work before our very eyes.
“Most questions aren’t terribly good,” he noted. “Not necessarily that the question’s wrong but it just doesn’t lead to an interesting answer, you know. The questions like, ‘Why is it called Monty Python?’ – you could tell people, but it isn’t very amusing and it isn’t totally interesting, and it’s a long story."
Instead of asking for a sample of the questions lobbed at him by audiences, we ask about what has not yet been asked - some question about himself, Monty Python or the film he would have expected to have been asked by now.
“Occasionally, when you’re talking about your work, you don’t want to draw people’s attention to something. Like at the end of A Fish Called Wanda, Archie escapes with Wanda on a plane, and we don’t mind the fact that he’s left his wife behind because she’s horrible,…but he leaves his daughter behind. Nobody ever thinks, ‘Ooh, that’s awfully nice.” So, you see, I’ve always avoided pointing that out. And now I’ve blown my cover," he says.
“But there are things sometimes that you want to keep secret, but I can’t think of anything that I expected to be asked. The questions are very, very widely spread. They are sometimes about creativity, sometimes they’re about what makes people happy, sometimes they’re about why people spend so much of their time trying to get money when it doesn’t actually make people happy above a certain level,” he continued. “But, no, I can’t think of anything that I’ve been expecting to be asked.”
We choose a question Cleese himself has asked others to ponder. The question concerns asking God one question about any of life's mysteries.
“I would say to Him, 'Would You explain to me how the afterlife works?" he said. “Well, I think it’s the most important question. If you were allowed to ask one question about life, I think the most important thing is does it finish when you die or does something go on after it? There’s nothing more important than that. And, I was in a group for several years — eight, nine years — that studied the subject and I came away from the group quite convinced that something goes on. Maybe not for everyone, but for some people something goes on afterwards. So, what it is, I don’t know and I don’t say it should be any simpler than quantum physics. I’m perfectly happy to say yes, I think that something does go on and I have no idea how it happens but the evidence is, to me, that it does happen.”
Cleese has spent his career making people laugh, but also making them think. However absurd the skits from Monty Python’s Flying Circus were or what foolishness was found in films like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, there was always an element that challenged viewers to ruminate. In his later years, Cleese has taken a more overt role in instruction, while sharing philosophical notions with tour audiences or in interviews or even teaching courses at Cornell University. Does he see instruction as the primary bent of his career now?
“Well, I think it’s probably my primary use. I think I can be most useful doing that, although I think making people laugh, particularly at this time in our history, that is very important, too. The trouble is that you don’t get paid much for teaching and I had to go through a divorce that cost me $20 million. As I said to the audience at Davis two nights ago, I said, 'If it wasn’t for the divorce I wouldn’t be here in Davis,' – and that’s true," he admitted.
"The English comedians don’t make the money that the American ones do, and when you go to write out a check for $20 million it means that most of your assets have been stripped. So, that’s why I’m still working on comedy. The sort of thing that I would be doing, or very similar to what I’d be doing if I didn’t need the money, but I think probably I would be spending more time writing, which is what really interests me and excites me, and less time performing. But, at the same time, if you have to earn money, there are few more pleasant ways than standing in front of the Monty Python audience.”
We note that he’s very well-read and ask if he believes that being so is a dying art in the information age.
“I mean, when I was growing up in England in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was taken for granted that anyone with a reasonably good education had a sort of general knowledge about the world. They knew where countries were on the map and had some idea how big they were, roughly what sort of culture they had, whether they were a Christian country or an Islamic country. We took a certain knowledge of history for granted,” he said. “But what I notice among the young now is there’s less curiosity. If it doesn’t affect their lives absolutely directly they, on the whole, don’t tend to know much about the subject, you see what I mean? It’s a very different approach. But if somebody says, 'Why should I know about history?' the answer is well, if you’re not interested, you’re not interested. But maybe you won’t be a very interesting person, either.”
Speaking of persons who don't seem to be well-read, we ask Cleese for his take on the American president. Trump’s administration has, at many times, seemed as farcical as a Python romp. We wondered, if a studio asked the Pythons to create something more absurd than the social and political climate in Trump’s America would they’d be up to the task?
“Very, very good point and the answer is no," he says emphatically. "Will Rogers, the wonderful comedian (of) the ‘30s and ‘40s said, ‘I don’t make the jokes, I just point them out.’ And, if you’d written a script about what we’ve got in the way of an administration now five years ago, people would have said, ‘No, no, you can’t do this, no one will believe it.’ This is a disadvantage for comedians,..when real life is more ridiculous than everything we can come up with creatively, we’re pretty much struggling.
“I mean, when you have a president like Trump, who’s probably never read a book – let’s just say, 'Well, justify that.' Well, go and read what his co-author of Art of the Deal said, Tony Schwartz, who spent 18 months with Trump and said he never saw a book. Not in Trump’s house, not in Trump’s office, not when he was traveling. Never saw a book. And he’s the president. He never read a book. I mean, can you be funnier than that? He doesn’t even read intelligence reports. So, is this setting a good example to kids? We would like - I would like kids to read more. But if the president doesn’t want to, how can we persuade kids it’s important to them?”
We hone in on a single state in particular. Cleese says Texas holds a special place in Monty Python's heart.
“Monty Python was transmitted very first time ever in Dallas, so Python’s got a very strong connection with Texas. When Eric (Idle) and I did a tour two years ago – and this is not show business bullshit – the best audiences, the most reactive, the most fun audiences were the Texas ones. I have to accept El Paso in that list, but Houston, Dallas, San Antonio were the best audiences that we played to. That’s not what people expect. When I point out that Dallas, Texas is where Monty Python first started, was first transmitted by a PBS station, we have got a special connection.”
Cleese noted that often the best way to view our modern problems is after a good chuckle. It's a critical observation he’s made from these jaunts and from hearing people tell why they enjoy Monty Python's work.
“I think it’s really been trying to puzzle out why it is so popular and I think it’s just that it is silly in a way that very little comedy is silly. Most comedy is based more in reality than Python. But when you have the man on my shoulder and I’m trying to get him on the cart of dead bodies and he’s shouting, ‘I’m not dead yet!’ and I say, ‘Yes, you are,’ I mean, this is very silly. It’s also slightly scurrilous and I think that those things were certainly not on American television when Python started being transmitted in America in 1974. It looked completely unlike anything else.
"When you look around, there’s lots of funny stuff going on but very little of it is as plain silly as Python is. And, the thing about silly is, you can go on laughing at it. If I tell you a joke and then tell you the same joke, you’ll both think I’m crazy and you don’t laugh at the second telling. The fact is, with silly things, like the Fish Slapping Dance, you can watch them again and again because they’re kind of meaningless but somehow they touch us in a very pleasant way. They tickle us.”
“I think there are many reasons to laugh but I think one of the reasons is it gives you a slightly different and better perspective on life. I was in Sarajevo about 12 months ago and they were under siege for four years. The Serbs had snipers up in the hills, they were all being shelled for four years. The Sarajevans told me that they felt they’d managed to get through it somehow because they retained a sense of humor. They felt that they had a very black and also very silly sense of humor,” Cleese shared. “They used to get together in sort of underground rooms converted to temporary cinemas and watch a lot of Python stuff and they suspect that the very act of being together and laughing made it better. So, I think if you can look at your circumstances and sort of try and stand back a step then you’ll see how ridiculous life on this planet is, and that helps us get through.”
John Cleese invites a Houston audience to get together and celebrate how silly life can be this Thursday at Smart Financial Centre, 18111 Lexington Blvd in Sugar Land. The show begins at 8 p.m. with a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then features a Q&A with Cleese, moderated by his daughter, Camilla Cleese.Tickets, $69.50 to $99.50.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.