“There's a lot of people who don't know Monty Python. The BBC haven't put it out for 18 years and I'm very suspicious: I think it makes the current stuff not look very good... We've had clever stuff and interesting stuff but people aren't as funny as they used to be.”
– John Cleese
John Cleese: We've only got ten minutes. Just go straight ahead. Ask anything you like.
Guy MacPherson: I was watching a TV series of a few years ago, Monty Python's Best Bits, and saw entertainers like David Frye, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers – all these great comedians – talking about their favourite Monty Python bits. For you, is there a troupe like Monty Python that you could talk about as reverentially and being as influential on your career?
JC: Yes, I could, but it won't be a tremendous interest to our audience because they were a radio show. They were called The Goon Show. There were three people in it, of whom Peter Sellers became internationally well-known, and a couple of guys called Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan, who wrote the scripts. They were hugely influential. I felt exactly about the Goon Show on BBC radio at the age of 15 that 15-year-olds felt about Monty Python when they saw it for the first time. It was that parallel.
GM: My father was a big fan of the Goon Show.
JC: They were the best comedic use of radio that there's ever been. They were absolute genius and quite unlike anything else that was on the airwaves in the mid- late-fifties.
GM: Being known for Monty Python when you've done so much in your career is a blessing, but is it sometimes a bit of a curse that everyone just wants to talk about Monty Python?
JC: Well, it all depends. If they just want to tell you how much they like you, then that's very nice because it is genuinely a very good emotional feeling that you've made people laugh. That's great. But what is even better is when they ask specific questions, like, 'Why did you choose to do that in that sketch?' or 'Why did that sketch end in that way?' or 'How did you decide to make the animations fit into the sketches?' Specific questions lead to conversations, but otherwise, if people are just telling me how wonderful I am, I don't know how to react. (laughs)
GM: After 50-odd years, do you even remember why a certain sketch ended a certain way? Is it that clear to you?
JC: No, I don't. No, in fact, yesterday I did something I had not done for years: I watched the first episode of Fawlty Towers with someone and I was astonished at how good it was, because first episodes are usually not very good. And the Fawlty Towers series, which was a sitcom set in a hotel, is the thing that I'm best known for in England.
GM: Yes, it's one of the greatest series of all time.
JC: Thank you. I'm glad you noticed.
GM: You're part of two such epic productions. Most people would be lucky to get one.
JC: And I've got A Fish Called Wanda. Those are the things that I'm most proud of.
GM: The last time you were in Vancouver, or in 2013 anyway, your tour was called The Last Time To See Me Before I Die. So that was a lie.
JC: Yes, well, we don't know yet, do we? Give me another three weeks. I try to keep promises.
GM: I understand now there's no hope at all, right?
JC: No. No, there is no hope. And it's a very funny subject. I've been working on this for a long period of time. And then I thought I need to try this out on audiences. I'm delighted to say I tried it out on audiences in Toronto and Ottawa. I think it was a year ago; maybe it was two years ago. It's hard when you're dashing around like I do. And it just hit a nerve. The response was as good as I've had to anything. And I think it's perhaps because of the stage of the world, or at least North America, at the moment that people find it very reassuring to know that it's always been like this. The world will never be well-organized and kind because there's so many assholes. And I have a lot of very, very amusing facts, like the fact, for example, about 40 years ago in New York when there was a doctors strike – and quite a long one – the death rate went down. Now that strikes me as terribly funny (laughs). There's a lot of that kind of stuff in it. What it actually says in the end is the world is never going to be a very nice or well-organized or kind place but it doesn't stop us from having rather enjoyable, and in fact joyous, lives.
GM: So even with a Donald Trump and where he takes us, we can still enjoy our lives on a small, local level?
JC: Yes. I had a brush with my family with alcoholism, and there's a wonderful thing called the Serenity Prayer, which helps us to be patient about things we can do nothing about and helps us to be courageous about things we can do something about, and please give us the wisdom to know the difference. And what I'm basically saying is, if you can't do anything about it, really, then don't let that get in the way of your life.
GM: I'm wondering about your audiences. Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and even A Fish Called Wanda were years ago so the bulk of those fans are a more mature group. Are you still getting new, young people in their twenties out to see you?
JC: Well, they love it when they come to see it, but in England it's almost been forgotten by the younger generation. There's a lot of people who don't know Monty Python. The BBC haven't put it out for 18 years and I'm very suspicious: I think it makes the current stuff not look very good. I mean, the comedy in England was extraordinary and most of it was on the BBC from, really, 1950 to, I don't know, maybe 1990. And then I don't think we've had a lot of very funny stuff. We've had clever stuff and interesting stuff but people aren't as funny as they used to be. I think comedy departments of BBC and ITV don't want to admit that.
GM: I think I counted the other day on Netflix here in Canada there were 13 different shows either from or about Monty Python. So it's available to a lot of young people.
JC: It is, but when we did the big show at the O2 Stadium for ten performances – this is three years ago – young people came and loved it but they didn't know about it until their parents took them to the O2 Arena. So I don't quite understand what's going on. People often think that I know what people's reactions are; well, I know what the reaction is to people in a theatre. If I'm in front of people in the theatre and I can see them rolling around with laughter, then I feel very happy, but the rest of the time I don't really know who's watching what on television because nobody tells you.
GM: You were never a standup comedian, but this show you're bringing here is like standup comedy, isn't it?
JC: Yes, it is, actually. You're quite right. I wasn't, but I became a sort of standup comic when my wife was awarded $20 million in the divorce because it was the safest and most reliable way of earning money and I got to like it because there's something very real about being out there on stage, standing in front of lots and lots of people and making them laugh. You know, if you make a movie, you make the movie and about a year later you show it to the audience. And on television, you have people reporting what the viewing figures say; you don't really know how much they liked it. So the theatre's so real. If I can go out and make people fall about with laughter, I go back to have a glass of wine in a very happy mood.