“Well, I’m in lockdown, strict lockdown,” John Cleese tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast from his home in London.
He’s just arrived back in the U.K. after spending the first few months of his coronavirus quarantine in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Monty Python co-founder was waiting on a Canadian work permit, but when the movie he was supposed to film there got canceled anyway, he decided to fly back home. “Now I’m not even allowed to cross the street,” he says.
At 80 years old, Cleese somehow remains busier than ever, from performing his first international live-stream performance—titled Why There Is No Hope—in an empty London theater this past week to maintaining his prolific Twitter account, on which he frequently takes aim at President Donald Trump.
Unlike some American comedians, Cleese says he has no trouble finding Trump funny. “The hypocrisy is so one 100 percent hypocritical that you laugh,” he says, “almost out of astonishment that he would actually make such a brazenly untrue claim.”
The funniest piece of Trump-centered comedy he’s seen recently is the clip that Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show made of Dora the Explorer intercut with the president’s “Man, Woman, Person, Camera, TV” nonsense. “I thought that is really good because it makes him look foolish,” Cleese says.
Over the course of our conversation, Cleese peppers his intellectual arguments about the fate of civilization with hilarious showbiz anecdotes about working with Steven Spielberg, Kevin Kline, and of course his mates from Monty Python. And he gets unexpectedly sentimental about his comedy legacy nearly 60 years after he started making people laugh for a living.
Highlights from our conversation are below and you can listen to the whole thing right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Why Monty Python was never overtly political
“It made fun of a lot of social behaviors, but it didn’t particularly go after politics. And that was partly because when we started Monty Python, the English had just had about 10 years of satire and they were fed up with it. And we were a bit fed up with it. So we kind of deliberately didn’t go into those areas. Or if we did, we went into them in a silly way. I think the key to Monty Python was its sheer silliness.”
On the evolution of what’s ‘acceptable’ in comedy
“It’s changed so completely, because, for example, we were never allowed to say ‘fuck.’ I mean, that was absolutely unacceptable. Now nobody turns a head. That’s a huge difference. But you could make jokes. There’s plenty of people who are PC now who have absolutely zero sense of humor. I would love to debate, in a friendly way, a couple of ‘woke’ people in front of an audience. And I think the first thing I would say is, please tell me a good ‘woke’ joke. What they don’t understand is that there’s two types of teasing. There’s really nasty teasing, which is horrible, and we shouldn’t do it, full stop. But the other type of teasing is affectionate. You can tease people hugely affectionately and it’s a bonding mechanism. All humor is critical. You cannot get laughs out of perfect human beings. If you’ve got someone up on the screen who is perfect, intelligent and kind and flexible and a good person, there’s nothing funny about that. So we only laugh at people’s frailties, but that’s not cruel. You can laugh at people’s frailties in very funny and generous ways.”
On people who were offended by the crucifixion scene in ‘Life of Brian’
“I don’t feel there’s anything in there that I want to apologize about. I remember doing a BBC interview with a very nice Christian, who was a correspondent at the BBC, and he was so upset about the crucifixion. I’ve always wondered about crucifixion. Do we believe Christ’s teaching because it is a very, very, very beautiful teaching? Or do we believe Christ’s teaching because he suffered? You put Dick Cheney on a cross, I would eventually feel sorry for him as the weeks passed, but it wouldn’t make me any more likely to agree with his opinion.”
“If I’ve touched people in some way like that, that’s all I want. I don’t think they’re going to give me a Nobel Prize.”
What he wants his comedy legacy to be
“In the last few years, I’ve realized that comedy is more important than I thought. When I was in Sarajevo about three years ago, they told me about the siege there when the Serbs were up in the hills lobbing shells and shooting at them with telescopic-sighted rifles as they crossed the street. They used to wait till after dark and go to an underground garage that they converted into a cinema and they used to watch comedy, a lot of it Monty Python. And they said, ‘We felt better afterwards. It lifted us somehow.’ Nothing had changed in the real world. And I began to think about that, when I meet people after my stage shows and men of 70 say to me, literally with a tear in their eyes, ‘Thank you for making me laugh for the last 40 years.’ It’s very touching. Women say something different. They say, ‘Thank you for helping to form my sense of humor.’ These are enormously touching compliments. If I’ve touched people in some way like that, that’s all I want. I don’t think they’re going to give me a Nobel Prize.”
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