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John Cleese on Creativity, His Favorite Scripts, and Why Life of Brian Is the Best Monty Python Film

The legendary British comic and writer revisits 10 years of his storied career

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John Cleese - 10 Years, 10 Questions
John Cleese – 10 Years, 10 Questions

    Some artists have one or two projects that follow them around for life, but then you have artists like John Cleese. To boil the British comic and historian down to just one particular thing is next to impossible — and much easier said than done. Everybody seems to have their own thing they associate with the UK icon. Whether it’s his comedic turns (Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda), his work in genre fare (Time BanditsErik the Viking, 007), or his more recent children’s output (Nearly Headless Nick in Harry Potter or the King in Shrek 2), Cleese has been a fixture of pop culture for decades — and counting.

    With his slightly sinister, warm smile and his twisted comedic sensibilities, Cleese is like your grandfather who always says naughty things at the dinner table. Stuff that you just can’t help but laugh at, but stuff that will also get you into trouble for laughing at later. And while he’s no stranger to saying things that most wouldn’t dare to say (whether he’s asking Taylor Swift if her cat is a “proper cat or damaged” or he’s calling out what he feels like the problem with modern-day comedy is), it’s all a part of the undeniable John Cleese charm. Hell, you’d probably be let down if he acted any other way at this point.

    At 80 years old, Cleese shows no signs of stopping. In fact, he’s just published a new book, Creativity, which explores the concepts of being creative. On the surface, it seems like there’s not much to it, but what Cleese manages to do is dig deep to find what one can associate creativity with, particularly how your unconscious never stops trying to solve a problem, even when you’ve stopped thinking about it. And being creative isn’t limited to merely “creative types.” As he points out, anyone can find ways to be creative in their respective field — whether you’re a writer or a scientist or a doctor or even in the military.

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    In celebration of the new book, Consequence of Sound recently spoke with Cleese as part of our 10 Years and 10 Questions series. Together, we discussed his new book, its inspirational ideas, how Monty Python went out of its way to avoid comedy clichés, how he knew it was time to end Monty Python, finding the rhythm within Fawlty Towers, how he feels about A Fish Called Wanda, hanging out with the Muppets, playing Robin Hood, and what he enjoyed about being in the James Bond films.


    1969 – MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS

    flying circus John Cleese on Creativity, His Favorite Scripts, and Why Life of Brian Is the Best Monty Python Film

    Monty Python’s Flying Circus

    Do you think Monty Python’s Flying Circus worked so well because everyone involved had previous experience writing sketches for TV? 

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    Yes. I think it had been a great help that in 1966, [David] Frost, who was very smart in this area, gathered together a group of the best and most interesting writers [for The Frost Report]. A large percent of them were quite young. So, Frost got a good group of people together, and it very much helped that we new each other. And then when the Pythons came together, five of us had already worked together on The Frost Report. We sat at the writer’s table.

    And then once Python came together, you all had that built-in connection and already knew how each other worked.

    We knew how each other worked, and we also shared agreement about the clichés of comedy presentations that we wanted to avoid. We didn’t know how we were going to avoid them, but we didn’t want to have punchlines to sketches followed by three pieces of a small band going “DA-DA-DA-DA-DA-DEE,” which is almost what had happened for the previous three or four years.


    1975 – FAWLTY TOWERS AND MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL

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    fawlty towers John Cleese on Creativity, His Favorite Scripts, and Why Life of Brian Is the Best Monty Python Film

    Fawlty Towers

    How important was it for you to get the rhythm and the musicality just right for Fawlty Towers? Because when you watch it, there’s a musical element to how everything flows. Was that something you have to set out to find, or does it come up organically in the writing process?

    I don’t think I was ever conscious of looking for a rhythm. It’s just instinctively what I felt was right. I had never taken any writing courses. I never read any books about comedy. It was all based on my simple experience of doing things and then performing in front of audiences and finding out what worked. And with Fawlty Towers, I was really just exploring a fundamental idea, which is that in farce, you try to lay down the key ideas at the very beginning, in a way that does not draw attention to them too much so that people don’t start anticipating the plot. And then you just allow the clockwork to run and the logic of those various elements to run together until you come to a final conclusion. And Connie [Booth, his co-creator and then-wife] and I soon found that it seemed to work best if we had part of one story, but one or even two subplots that headed towards the [finale] that resolved them all.

    So, it was all just instinctual.

    Yes. A lot of it was just instinct. This feels good. This does not feel good. And that’s where the unconscious can often guide you in a very wise way. It feels good. It doesn’t feel good. That doesn’t convince me. I don’t think this character would do that at this point.

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    monty python and the holy grail lost sketches archive

    Monty Python and the Holy Grail

    Now jumping to Holy Grail. You’ve said that you consider the best and most important Monty Python film to be Life of Brian, and yet here in America, people tend to cite Holy Grail as being the best Python film. Do you have a theory about why Americans tend to lean in that direction?

    I think I’ve got an idea. I think the point about Holy Grail was that it was completely silly. I think if you had to say, “Is there some message in Holy Grail?” … I think you would have to say no. (Laughs).

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    It doesn’t really.

    It doesn’t make any particular point, but it is very, very silly. And I think that people who had never seen that kind of comedy before found that it ignited some tiny part of themselves that had never been stimulated before. And it was a part of themselves that they liked although they had only just discovered it. And it was a part that afterwards they never quite lost. It was about a particular kind of sense of humor that people didn’t know that they had which started them off.

    Read ahead for stories on Life of Brian, Time Bandits, and The Muppets


    1979 – LIFE OF BRIAN

    1605320 3x2 xlarge John Cleese on Creativity, His Favorite Scripts, and Why Life of Brian Is the Best Monty Python Film

    Life of Brian

    What makes Life of Brian so special for you?

    With Brian, I think we had a much better story, which from a writer’s point of view is a good thing. But it was also about something important, like people’s attitudes towards religious leaders. I mean … that very first scene where they’re saying, “Blessed are the cheesemakers and Blessed are the Greek.” “Well, which one?” “Well, I didn’t catch his name,” that sort of stuff … it’s asking a very good question.

    How much do we know about the Sermon on the Mount? I think Mark is the first person to write anything down, and that was in the early 60s A.D., and Jesus died about ’33. So, it was at least 30 years later. Now most people – even in those days when their memory was better – would’ve had difficulty remembering the exact phrasing of something they’d heard 30 years before. So, it’s raising all those valid questions about the actual sources of a religion.

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    Of the three narrative Python films, it’s certainly the best structured.

    Yes, yes. The best structured absolutely. But it’s also about something. You could say it’s an examination, making fun of the way some people follow religious ideas or religious leaders. You can’t say something like that about Holy Grail.

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    You see, Life of Brian had fallen into place almost magically. Although we probably wouldn’t have agreed on what religion was, we all seemed to have the same ideas about what religion ought not to be. And because of that, when we were writing about it, we were all coming from the same standpoint, which we wouldn’t have done if we had to write it from the point of view of “What is religion supposed to be” as opposed to “What is it not supposed to be.”

    So, I think that that was a large part of the fact that there was a very harmonious atmosphere while we were writing. We pretty much knew what it was about, because at the end of the first month of writing — we used to get together for a month and just write and then go off and earn some money [laughs] and then sometime later we’d get back together again — I remember Michael Palin read out the scene with Pontius Pilate and Barabbas and all that stuff. And I remember thinking, Now we have a movie.

    Once I heard that scene, I could see the shape of the movie. So, that was a marvelous moment.


    1981 – TIME BANDITS AND THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER

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    Time Bandits

    Time Bandits

    What do you remember about doing Time Bandits, where you briefly popped up as Robin Hood?

    I remember going up to Epping Forrest in Essex, North of London, and I remember meeting what I think in those days were called the dwarves. I remember David Rappaport, the leader of the dwarves who shared my agent, and I remember how extraordinary it was that the first day it seemed very strange to be surrounded by dwarves. And by the second day, it seemed like the natural, common-place thing in the world. And I thought, How quickly one adapts. And of course, they were great fun to work with.

    And I thought I had a very good scene. I loved the conversation of Robin Hood saying things like “Have you met before?” That sort of slightly royal bullshit talking like that, I thought that was very good. So, I just remember it was an extremely pleasant experience, and I was very sad when I had heard that Rappaport had killed himself. One didn’t suspect it. He just was the most delightful.

    And it’s strange because, even though you’re barely in the film, you also basically get star billing.

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    Well, that was the guy who put it together, whose name was Dennis O’Brien. He offered me that Robin Hood part, and I heard about two years later that Michael Palin had written it for himself. But at that time, I think because of the movies I had made, I was probably better known in America than Michael at that time. And that was why Dennis offered me the part. And I didn’t know that. I just read it and thought it was a great part.

    The Great Muppet Caper

    The Great Muppet Caper

    That same year you also turned up in The Great Muppet Caper

    Oh, that was wonderful. Well, I got to know some of the Muppets people because they came to London, and the guy who ran ITV, a fellow called Lew Grade, gave them a time slot when adults could see the show. Like early evening, 6 o’clock or something. No one in America would do that. To Americans, it was just a children’s program.

    So, they moved to London and shot it at Elstree and did a lot of shows here because it went out at a slot when adults could see it, too. I got to know Frank Oz very well. A good friend who is, you know, Miss Piggy. And obviously I knew Jim Henson a bit, although I didn’t spend time with him socially. And I got to know the gang, and I thought they were lovely.

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    So, when they asked me to be in the film, I went and shot a lovely scene with Joan Sanderson — and it was fascinating. I just thought they were marvelous people. But the interesting thing was — the one fault that I thought they had — was they spent more time worrying about the absolute perfection of the puppetry or the Muppetry and not quite enough time sometimes on the script. That’s the only fault I could find.

    But I thought they were a marvelous bunch of people. I thought they were great. And it’s a very good scene.

    Read ahead for stories on Meaning of Life, A Fish Called Wanda, and Fierce Creatures


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