Ponder a hilariously dark world with John Cleese
If the news of the day gets you down, the fate of the world appears dire, and the human condition seems so — well, inhumane — it’s time for a laugh with John Cleese.
Cleese — of the surreal British comedy sketch troupe “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” creator of the TV series “Fawlty Towers” and Oscar-nominated writer of “A Fish Called Wanda” — is bringing his show “Why There is No Hope” to Madison with a Nov. 18 performance in Overture Hall. Jonathan Suttin, morning show host of Madison’s 105.5 Triple M Radio, will be onstage with Cleese to give an introduction and moderate an audience Q&A.
“Monty Python” ran from 1969 to 1974 and spawned three feature films, securing the series’ place as a 20th-century cultural touchstone. Four decades later, the delightfully cynical, gentlemanly sardonic Cleese is still very busy. He just wrapped up filming for the British sitcom “Hold the Sunset,” where he plays a man in his golden years trying to rekindle a romance with an old girlfriend — an endeavor that becomes more complicated when the woman’s middle-aged son moves back home.
He expects a second memoir to follow his 2014 autobiography, “So, Anyway …,” which documented his childhood and youth (but stopped short of the Monty Python years).
And he’s putting down new roots in Nevis, an island in the Caribbean — a move that he says is a way to escape the British press.
Cleese has long mixed politics and comedy. He does not mince words when criticizing world leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Theresa May or U.S. President Donald Trump, whom Cleese has described on Twitter as a “sleazy, corrupt, egotistical and mendacious sociopath.”
Cleese spoke to the State Journal from London by phone in late October, before the U.S. midterm elections.
State Journal: Are we speaking to you at home?
Cleese: Yes, I’m sitting in a little flat — my wife and I have two flats, about 60 seconds apart. As you know, I was basically financially skinned by my third ex-wife, and so we bought a very pretty little flat in a very, very nice part of London, called Sloane Square, not far from the famous store Harrods. But it is very small. It’s the most we could afford at the time. So subsequently I bought a tiny little flat just 60 seconds away. And when I’m thrown out of my flat for snoring, I come here. I have a little room here, a tiny little room with a bed, and a sweet little kitchen. And sometimes I come here to write, when there are too many interruptions going on. My wife and I talk all day and have dinner together.
(The late comic actor) Peter Sellers said the best plan is to live next to your wife. It’s very good, because she’s like me: She’s not an only child, but she behaves like an only child. Only children are very generous, except about space. They like their own space, so this works very well for us.
State Journal: Tell us about your upcoming tour.
Cleese: It’s an idea I had over 10 years ago, because I began to see the sheer ridiculousness of most of the life on this planet. And I got more and more examples, and eventually I decided I would write them down. I did it for a little place called Esalen (Institute) in California, around Big Sur. It’s a place a lot of people go who are interested in psychology, religion, therapy and that kind of thing. I did the speech there and it was enormously successful. The guy who runs the place said to me afterwards, “The more you destroyed people’s hopes, the more they laughed.”
It’s very important to realize just how insane this world is, and how little chance there is, really, of ever having a proper, intelligent, kind and well-organized society. (Laughs.) As you can tell, it amuses me...
(The speech) has the effect of cheering people up, because I say that it is so hopeless, there’s no way we can turn this into a paradise or a Utopia, so we’ve got to handle what we’ve got, and let’s just be nice to each other.
One of the things I like so much about this place I’m going to live, which is Nevis, is that people are very happy there, because they don’t have enormously high expectations of high income. They live in a place where there’s a very good climate, there’s very good vegetables and fruit and fresh fish, and they all get on very well. There’s minimal crime on the island. And people there are very happy living a very simple life. When I was there at the beginning of this last year, I thought, “I think I’m going to join in on this, because I see everyone in London striving so hard.”
One of the worst things is that the values that went as organized religions tend to fade away also have the effect of making money all-important. That’s what’s changed in my country. It wasn’t always about making money. In the old days somebody might say, “I’d love to run my own restaurant, and have regular clients, and give them good food and create a really nice communal place.” Now nobody wants to open a restaurant — they want to open a chain, and make a million pounds.
State Journal: You have only a handful of stops on this tour in the U.S. and Canada.
Cleese: Yes, (from California) I will come up to Madison wrapped up, swaddled like a babe. Then I head to down to Charlotte (North Carolina) and back to Nevis. … The nice thing about doing this show is that it’s never a definitive show. You can always improve it the next evening.
State Journal: You are quite active on Twitter (with nearly 5.7 million followers). Why does this format appeal to you?
Cleese: It appealed to me originally because my very good friend Stephen Fry and I share a mutual contempt for the British press, which is deeply corrupt, and is the worst press in Europe. There are polls carried out by the European Broadcasting Union that make this very clear. And when they write nasty things about us, there used to be a feeling of powerlessness that I found very, very strange and unpleasant.
But now, if they have a go at me, I can have a go at them. And frankly … I can usually put them down harder than they put me down, and that means they back off. So you don’t feel quite as powerless as you used to.
At the same time, sometimes I sit down in the evening and I start tweeting. I can tell if some of my regular Twits, as I call them, are on the line, and we have lovely conversations going. They talk, read jokes and point out things to me or tell me facts I didn’t know. It’s a nice feeling for me to know there’s a little community out there, and I’m in contact with them.
I don’t have the lightest interest in the others. Facebook seems to me people running their own gossip column, so they can be famous in their own gossip column. I don’t understand that. It’s a mystery to me.
State Journal: Are you planning another book after “So, Anyway …”
Cleese: Yes, but I think the best time to focus on a book is when I’m not quite so active. There are several things I want to do that involve moving around in the moment. There’s a couple of shows that I’m writing that could finish up on Broadway, which involves going to wherever the writers are. One of them I might actually appear in. So when I am not as mobile as I am now, which probably is not long, because I’m 79, then I’ll settle down more to full-time writing. But at the moment I haven’t reached that point yet. And also, if I was going to write a book right now, I’m not quite sure what it would be about.
State Journal: Tell us about “Hold the Sunset.”
Cleese: (It’s) written by an old friend of mine (Charles McKeown), who was in the Monty Python repertory company when we were out in Tunisia shooting “Life of Brian.” I’ve known him for ages, and he’s written something quite different from what I normally do. Everybody in England thinks that I must be like Basil Fawlty (the dour hotel owner from “Fawlty Towers”), so it’s quite nice to play the complete opposite. In fact, I was very amused that my wife said to me the other day that what she liked about it is that it’s the first time she recognized me on stage as the man she lives with.