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Profile: John Cleese

The Oxford Union

John Cleese’s latest tour titles say it all. The dryness of Alimony Tour (referencing the financial implications of his very public divorce) and Last Time to See Me Before I Die are not exactly tastefully coded. A founding father of British sitcom with the cult classic Fawlty Towers and a writer-performer of the comedy group Monty Python, Cleese’s Wikipedia page is almost bottomless. This is the kind of man who, when asked for a form of identification to claim his shoes in a Miami hotel two weeks ago and failing to have anything else to hand, tries to use the picture on his autobiography (the member of hotel staff, as if under the employ of Basil Fawlty, rebuffs with “I’m sorry, that’s just not good enough”). An old hand with public speaking, the shrewd Cleese knows his audience – notably calling it close with the grievers who need the laughs during the televised memorial speech for fellow Python Graham Chapman (which features the infamous line: “Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard! I hope he fries”). For his appearance at the Oxford Union, he reads the room, and decides that this time his listeners don’t need anything remotely resembling a pick-me-up.

Without even the hint of a high knee kick, or a return of the carrot suit reportedly worn by Chapman years ago at his own Union appearance, Cleese enters the chamber and settles into the cheerful topic of his speech: ‘Why is there no hope?’. Firstly, no one knows anything about anything. When heads of department at the BBC assembled to talk about the newly commissioned Monty Python, according to Cleese, six out of eight thought it was dire. He scoffs at the memory – “these are people who are supposed to be excellent in their field, but they haven’t a fucking clue!”. On Fawlty Towers, one producer must now kick themselves for the note: “get them out of the hotel”. Even the medically trained know nothing; in America, the third biggest cause of death is medical errors, like “two jumbo jets crashing out of the sky every twenty-four hours”. Cleese pauses at our quiet reaction, before a big, wheezy, uncontainable laugh escapes. It’s just hilarious, really.

“We’re always trying to pretend to everyone else that we’re more important, more knowledgeable, more intelligent, more sexy, more insightful, more breathtakingly nice and talented than we actually are”

Why else is there no hope? Our own bolstered egos, apparently. “There is nothing less impressive than meeting someone who is trying to create an impression”, Cleese remarks. “We’re always trying to pretend to everyone else that we’re more important, more knowledgeable, more intelligent, more sexy, more insightful, more breathtakingly nice and talented than we actually are”. This builds nicely into a commentary on our political elite, and John Cleese has never shied from liberally ripping politics in the press. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, but nor should the basis of this system be the moneyed 1%. “Politicians are keen to change society, thus leaving themselves unscathed”. Power is a camouflage: “people want power in order to feel better about themselves, in order to compensate themselves for conscious and subconscious inferiorities – it’s not that rich people are greedy, they are rich because they are greedy”. He then quotes President Donald Trump – “It’s not the money, that’s just the way of keeping score” – and to this asks, “well, what is the game?”. A very enjoyable and entertaining speaker, if not exactly reassuring, it is a shame when Cleese wraps up and concludes that unfortunately “there really is no hope.” Again, we fall to silence. Again, John Cleese laughs.

“At the very beginning of three years in Cambridge, I saw these clowns, tucked thumbs into trousers and trying to stand like Winston Churchill, looking utterly ridiculous”

“So,” the President of the Union interjects, trying to pick up the mood. The questioning begins, and John Cleese has something to answer for. Three years ago, he has seemingly called the Oxford Union “one of the snottiest, stuffiest, most stuck up places you will find”. Apparently however, there is no need for apology, and instead he should be congratulated: “I was talking about Cambridge Union!” Wisely deflecting, he recalls how at “the very beginning of three years in Cambridge, I saw these clowns, tucked thumbs into trousers and trying to stand like Winston Churchill, looking utterly ridiculous”.

Artful dodging is far from John Cleese’s usual style, however. Usually unafraid of confrontation and an unapologetic critic of modern day journalism, he is asked if there is the chance of reform, and to the open relief of the press row, he believes so. However, he also makes it clear there is a way to go yet. Cleese talks about the “thieves’ honour” of Fleet Street, and The Godfather-esque hush ups from high ups. There is scarcely any coverage of newspaper tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s divorce, despite his wife’s alleged affair with Tony Blair – “a huge piece of gossip, couldn’t be any bigger”, but “that’s the power someone like Murdoch has”. 80% of British press is monopolised by three groups of billionaires, and newspapers “decided they were wonderful because there was no feedback that they weren’t”.

And now for something completely different. I am rushed through swinging doors and sat down next to the man himself in the cushy chairs of the Union bar. Already, people are crowding and popping questions, but Cleese, an unfazed old-hat of the fame game, unblinkingly thanks and handshakes and quips.

Eventually some space is made, and I begin. An overnight scholar in John Cleese interviews, I know that he is always reading voraciously. He tells me how he is currently reading Black Box by table tennis player Matthew Syed, whose radio show he is appearing on tomorrow, which is about “the importance of feedback and getting accurate feedback – otherwise you’re like a guided missile who’s not getting any instructions”. When I ask how he personally deals with disappointment, and he says that it’s a case of “biting on the bullet. We all want to be told we’re wonderful, but 99.9% of the time it isn’t true”.

At a Google Talk interview, Cleese was incredulous that during dinnertime conversation, biologist Stephen Jay Gould didn’t have any answer for which question he would ask to God, if he could ask anything at all. He still is when I bring it up again. What’s his, then? He pauses for a second, considers, and says “Is there any purpose in our lives?”. When I ask why, he elaborates: “people who believe in a materialist universe and that’s all there is, but there is very little of this kind of information out there. I think there’s some very good evidence for survival after death, but most people assume that’s not possible because we don’t have a theory to discover it”.

“Benny Hill and Monty Python – not really the same humour, is it?”

Moving on to talk a bit about comedy, I ask if he understands why Monty Python is held up as quintessentially British, and if there is any knack to British humour. “Yes, I think so, but I say that because as I go around the world, so many people of other nationalities tell me they love British humour. It’s as though there’s some flavour to it, and I think it’s two things – irony, but also silliness”. This goes back to a time before TV skits: “Even in Victorian Times, Edward Lear was writing nonsense poetry – there is always a bit of a British sort of playful, childish silliness and I think that’s rather healthy, because there’s a lot of cultures that don’t have that…” Although he is a little confused when people lump together British comics: “Benny Hill and Monty Python – not really the same humour, is it?”.

Does he have any funny stories from student life at Cambridge? A far cry from his blasé manner now, his student self was apparently “too serious”. “I didn’t spend enough time exploring other possibilities. I was rather dutiful and went to lectures that weren’t worth going to, and I spent a lot of time polishing essays that didn’t really matter.” I ask about the experience of recording his new radio show, and his voice lights up. He forgot about the announcement today, only hitting headlines few hours ago. “It was wonderful, because it was sitting in a nice, friendly little room. It’s very intimate, and there’s very little stress because studio time is not very expensive, so if you overrun that doesn’t cost a fortune. There’s an intimacy about radio that you never have on the television, where you have lots of people fixing mics on you. On radio, it doesn’t matter if you haven’t shaved, because the real question is, are the words any good?”.

Rushed to wrap things up while a long queue builds behind us, I flick through questions and land on my final one – what’s the weirdest question you’ve been asked? “On stage, I was in Norway and a man said ‘If you were a component part of an aeroplane, what component part would you choose to be?’”. He still laughs a little thinking about it, and how it was “wonderfully silly”. I ask if he had an answer, and it turns out he did. “I choose a joystick. I was laughing so much at the silliness, so I had a lot of time to think”.

So according to John Cleese, the world is a lost cause. There is no hope after all. We are all done for, defeated, and doomed. But right now he doesn’t care, and we probably shouldn’t too – we should all just continue to enjoy it, and whatever dastardliness life and John Cleese has in store for us next.

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