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Early On, Comedian John Cleese Says, He Had Good Timing But Little Else


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. I wonder if you recognize this voice.


JOHN CLEESE: (As Robin Hood) Well, I mean, it's frightfully kind of you. The poor are going to be absolutely thrilled. Have you met them at all?

DAVID RAPPAPORT: (As Randall) Who?

CLEESE: (As Robin Hood) The poor?

RAPPAPORT: (As Randall) The poor?

CLEESE: (As Robin Hood) Oh, you must meet them. I just know you'll like them, charming people. Of course, they haven't got two pennies to rub together, but then that's because they're poor.


DAVIES: That's John Cleese as Robin Hood in a scene from the 1981 film "Time Bandits." Cleese was a member of the Monty Python comedy group and co-wrote and co-starred in the films "Life Of Brian," "Monty Python And The Holy Grail," "The Meaning Of Life" and the TV series "Fawlty Towers." Cleese has a memoir called "So, Anyway..." which is now out in paperback. It covers relatively little of his 50-year career in radio, television, film and theater. It's about Cleese's childhood, education and his early years in show business when he wrote and acted in British radio and television, working with his future Monty Python collaborators and others, including Marty Feldman, Peter Sellers and David Frost.

The book’s a breezy collection of memories, insights and funny observations, such as his impression of the upper-class boys he got to know in school. I realized how different their lives were, he wrote. They genuinely liked chasing things and shooting them and hooking them out of the water and asphyxiating them. Death seemed the inevitable result of all their entertainments, despite their excellent manners. I spoke with John Cleese last December when “So, Anyway…” was published in hardcover.


DAVIES: John Cleese, welcome to FRESH AIR.

CLEESE: Thank you.

DAVIES: You know, you play an upper-class Englishman so well. A lot of people probably figure you were born into the nobility. Tell us about some...

CLEESE: (Laughter) Yes, I know. I came across a friend only two weeks ago I'd known for years in Santa Barbara, an English guy formerly with the BBC. And he'd exactly got that impression you describe and was quite surprised to discover how ordinary and plebeian I was.

DAVIES: Yeah, so tell us about your family. What did your parents do?

CLEESE: Well, dad was an insurance salesman I think all his life. I think he left school at 16, although he was intelligent and he was literate. I never saw him misspell a word or make a grammatical mistake, and he pronounced everything absolutely correctly, as did my mother. But they were not educated in the sense that they had never come in contact with any of the sort of important ideas that you come in contact with if you're lucky enough to have a good education. So they just read novels, and dad read one or two biographies, and that was pretty much it. But they were, in their own way, intelligent, but very limited in their horizons.

DAVIES: You know, there are hints of a difficult relationship with your mother, here. What was that like?

CLEESE: Well, yes. Well, it was not an easy relationship because she was - I suppose you'd say she was a very neurotic woman. She was full of fears and very anxious most of the time and constantly worrying. And to give you some idea of the scale of this, when dad died and I would go down to visit her, she would greet me with a cup of coffee and a list. And the list was a list of all the worries that she'd been writing down during the previous two or three weeks so that she could discuss each one of them with me, at length. And she wrote them down 'cause she didn't want to forget a worry. She had a sort of feeling of alarm that if she didn't discuss one worry with me, then it would happen, this event that she was dreading, and she wouldn't have prepared sufficiently with me to deal with it.

So it was almost methodical, the way that she dealt with her worries. And we would discuss them at tremendous length. Now, people like this, who are full of fear, they're not usually very flexible. They need to have things their own way because if they don't have them their own way, they become so anxious they can't cope. They literally can't cope. So they're not really open to negotiation, and she did need to have her own way. There's no question about that (laughter). And if she didn't, then she did throw some quite alarming tantrums. And I think dad, who'd fought in the First World War for three and a half years, sometimes yearned for the relative tranquility of the trenches in France because it was a pretty noisy and alarming affair when she got angry. And I think there was always a sort of feeling of - well, I say in the book, it was not a question of her at any time not being angry, it was just that she wasn't angry yet. There was a lot of edginess and quite bad temper. And I remember her a few times hitting dad.

She was, in other ways, terribly good as a mother because she was punctilious. The food was always ready. She cooked extremely well. She ran the house well. Everything was extremely clean. My clothes were always beautifully ironed, all that kind of thing. But it was just, emotionally, she created a bit of an atmosphere of fear. And I think dad was scared of her, and I think I picked that up. So there was a sort of feeling of walking on eggshells.

DAVIES: I wanted to talk a bit about how you got into comedy. I know that you loved listening to radio and TV, and you had an interest in comedy at a young age.

CLEESE: Yes, I did. I couldn't quite - I still can't quite explain it because - I should make it clear that the sort of – the part of society that I came from, which was lower-middle class, living in a small medium-sized seaside town - the idea of anyone going into show business would've almost caused hilarity. People became bank managers, or they ran shops, or perhaps, if they did well in school, they would become accountants or even lawyers. But it was that lower or middle-class range of professions, and I didn't know anyone, at any point, who was vaguely connected with the arts in any way, even with music.

DAVIES: You were a tall, lanky fellow, and, you know, you're known for great physical comedy, you know, struts and all. I mean, how did you learn that?

CLEESE: I think I learned it by imitation because I was no - no good at physical comedy. I was a terrible dancer. I dance like an Englishman. And although I had good hand-eye coordination, I was so tall and skinny and muscularly weak that I just was not well coordinated. But what I started to do quite early on was watch some of the great old silent comedians, like Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin, and then later on Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

And the first thing you notice about these people is how extraordinarily physically skillful they were. And I began to just learn a few little things, like how to look as though I tripped or I was good at balancing things. I could take an umbrella and balance it on my chin or on my foot. And I just got interested in that kind of thing. And as I played games more and more and got stronger physically, I just became more coordinated. But by watching the great, old comedians I picked up a few tricks about how to do physical comedy. And whenever I could learn something, I sort of added that to my repertoire. It was nothing I was naturally gifted at. It actually was sort of work, but it was fun work.

DAVIES: One thing that you're really good at as an actor is indignation.


DAVIES: That come from anywhere, is it modeled on anybody?

CLEESE: I don't know, but it's quite true. I think it's - I've always found life quite difficult to explain to people or to myself. I think there are so many activities going on, like mountaineering. You know, you would pay good money not to have to do that, and yet there are people racing out who want to spend their spare time clambering up rocks. Other people, you know, put a latex rubber on, you know, to become sexually excited. There's so much I don't understand.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

CLEESE: I don't understand why very, very rich people want to have even more money than they've already got. And I think that I feel an indignation when I don't understand something. So I think a lot of it - the dead parrot is the perfect example of the indignation is that my character simply does not understand why the pet shop keeper will not accept the parrot is dead because he clearly is. I mean, it's that building indignation that I always find funny.

DAVIES: I want to play clip from "Life Of Brian." This is where you, as leader of the revolutionary anti-Roman group - was it the People's Judean Front or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea?

CLEESE: I've no idea.

DAVIES: One of them.

CLEESE: But there were a lot of those kind of...

DAVIES: Right.

CLEESE: ...Groupings. But you heard more about the ones on the left, but they had these very fanciful titles. And what was amusing that their infighting was ceaseless, and they were always splitting into two groups because they couldn't agree about anything. But - although in my experience, I read about them in the English newspapers as being on the - politically on the left. And when I did some research, I discovered there were masses of examples on the right, too.

DAVIES: So in this clip, you're planning a caper to kidnap a Roman. But in this conversation we're about to hear, you're essentially talking about how much you hate the Romans. Let's listen to this.


CLEESE: (As Reg) They've taken everything we earned. And not just from us - from our fathers and from our fathers' fathers.

ERIC IDLE: (As Stan) And from our fathers' fathers' fathers.

CLEESE: (As Reg) Yeah.

IDLE: (As Stan) And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers.

CLEESE: (As Reg) All right, Stan, don't labor the point.

And what have they ever given us in return?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Xerxes) The aqueduct?

CLEESE: (As Reg) What?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Xerxes) The aqueduct.

CLEESE: (As Reg) Oh, yeah. Yeah, they did give us that. That's true, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Unidentified masked follower #1) And the sanitation.

IDLE: (As Stan) Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Do you remember what the city used to be like?

CLEESE: (As Reg) Yeah, all right. I'll grant you the aqueduct, the sanitation are two things the Romans have done.

JOHN YOUNG: (As Matthias) And the roads.

CLEESE: (As Reg) Well, yeah, obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don't they? Well, apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Unidentified masked follower) Irrigation.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Unidentified Masked follower) Medicine?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Unidentified masked follower) Education.

CLEESE: (As Reg) Yeah, yeah, all right.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Unidentified masked follower) And the wine.

MICHAEL PALIN: (As Francis) Yeah, yeah, that's something we'd really miss if the Romans left.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Unidentified masked follower) Public baths.

IDLE: (As Stan) And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As Unidentified masked follower) Yeah, they certainly like to keep order. Let's face it, the only ones who could in a place like this.


CLEESE: (As Reg) All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Unidentified masked follower) Brought peace?

CLEESE: (As Reg) Oh, peace. Shut up.

It's a very funny piece, isn't it?

DAVIES: It is. John Cleese in "Life Of Brian."

CLEESE: It’s very funny.

DAVIES: It is very funny. And, you know, I love your performance as Reggie there. But it's the writing that really makes this wonderful, isn't it? I mean...

CLEESE: Yes, that's right, that’s right.

DAVIES: You know, and you say many times in the book that you're more a writer than a performer.

CLEESE: It's always hard for people to believe that because of course, anytime they've seen me it's because I've been performing. You know, they don't go to their televisions and switch them on and see me sitting at home writing, you know? So naturally, people's image is of a performer, but the reality of it is the writing for me has always been the most important thing and the most rewarding thing. And I've always called myself a writer/performer, not an actor because I basically write what I perform. And I kind of - the writing is the most important bit, and performing it is just closing the circle because I'm less likely to screw it up than anyone else.

But there's another reason. When you do comedy in front of an audience, they are the ones who tell you whether it's funny or not and which bits are funny and which bits need to be fixed. So that when you start performing it in front of an audience on stage, when you start in a show, it's a very interesting process to perform it because it's like a series of little scientific experiments each night to try and make things work that didn't work the night before. And as you've got it to the point where you think, now I know how this needs to be played. We've made some cuts, things that didn't work, we've rephrased it in things, we found that - to play these lines with some anger, but these lines with no anger at all. This now makes it funny. And that's the point where I want to say, well, that's the end of the experiment as far as I'm concerned. I want to move on to something new now. But of course, a proper actor will be happy to do that on stage for several months. And I don't have that temperament.

DAVIES: We're speaking with John Cleese. He's written a memoir called "So, Anyway..." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with John Cleese. He has a memoir called "So, Anyway..."


DAVIES: I feel we should listen to a bit of "A Fish Called Wanda," which you wrote, and it's just, I think, a wonderful, wonderful film. And this is a moment where it's you and Kevin Kline, who plays Otto, the former CIA agent who has such contempt for the British. And this is a moment where you have offended him, and he demands an apology. In the background, we hear Jamie Lee Curtis behind a locked door at the beginning. And I'll just - people who know the film will remember that at this moment when the apology is rendered, there's a wonderful side gag where he's literally dangling you outside a window threatening to drop you to...

CLEESE: Upside down, that's right.

DAVIES: Upside down to extract the apology. But let's listen to this and Kevin Kline, as Otto, speaks first.


KEVIN KLINE: (As Otto) Apologize.

JAMIE LEE CURTIS: (As Wanda) Otto.

CLEESE: (As Archie) What?

KLINE: (As Otto) Apologize.

CLEESE: (As Archie) Are you totally deranged?

KLINE: (As Otto) You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant twerp, scumbag, [expletive] face, [expletive] head, [expletive].

CLEESE: (As Archie) How very interesting. You're a true vulgarian, aren't you?

KLINE: (As Otto) You're the vulgarian, you [expletive]. Now apologize.

CLEESE: (As Archie) What, me to you?

KLINE: (As Otto) Apologize.

CLEESE: (As Archie) All right, all right, I apologize.

KLINE: (As Otto) You're really sorry?

CLEESE: (As Archie) I'm really, really sorry. I apologize unreservedly.

KLINE: (As Otto) You take it back.

CLEESE: (As Archie) I do. I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact and was in no way fair comment and was motivated purely by malice. And I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you or your family. And I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future.

KLINE: (As Otto) OK.

DAVIES: A model apology from our guest John Cleese, also with Kevin Kline there from "A Fish Called Wanda."

DAVIES: You know, the - the seething contempt Kevin Kline has for the British, was that - did he come up with that, or did you come up with that, or, I mean…

CLEESE: I can't quite remember. I know where I got the idea of the character from. It was a magazine called Los Angeles magazine and I saw a two-page spread that was an advertisement for a weekend retreat of a Buddhist nature. And somebody was going to be teaching it. His name was Zen Master Rama (ph) or something. And there was this rather callous-looking youth with uncertain eyes and a strange sort of haircut that looked like a full dandelion, you know, very fluffy. And I thought he was singularly unimpressive. And then I saw the banner headline across, and it said Buddhism gives you the competitive edge (laughter). And I thought this is wonderful, so I wrote Kevin as a man who had read everything and understood nothing...

DAVIES: Right.

CLEESE: …But was very proud of his intellect because he was not smart enough to realize how stupid he was. And Kevin and I did a - we met at one point in the West Indies for two weeks and he just ad-libbed stuff, and that's where he came up with stuff like, what was the middle thing? You just - if you just play like that, you move towards a character. As the actor finds the character more and more, he's likely to come up with lines that are absolutely perfect for that character, and I think the writer should embrace them.

DAVIES: Before I let you go, I want to ask you when people recognize you on the street, what are the lines they throw at you? And are Americans and British fans different in that?

CLEESE: The Americans are just more enthusiastic and more likely to engage in hyperbole. The British fans are liable to suddenly be talking to you about something that you don't know how you got into the conversation. I think it's something to do with the fact that they've been watching you for so many years sort of you telling your story. They want to tell you their story. But you usually discover that you're discussing their son's education without really knowing how you got embarked on the subject.

So the Americans are so much more positive. They are much more in love with success. In Britain, they're a fairly envious bunch, and they love it if you fail. If you want to know who your friends are, have a major failure. They'll all ask you round to dinner so that they can make sort of you feel better because they're no longer envious. The Brits tend to be less direct. But when people quote sketches to me, half the time I don't know what they're talking about so I have to sort of go, aha, yes, oh yep, I remember that and lie my way out of it.

DAVIES: John Cleese, it's been fun. Thank you so much.

CLEESE: Good, I hope you got enough stuff.

DAVIES: John Cleese, recorded last year. His memoir is called “So, Anyway…” Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film “Room,” based on the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.