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 Bandits, Erik 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.
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
Do you think Monty Python’s Flying Circus worked so well because everyone involved had previous experience writing sketches for TV?
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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…
1983 – THE MEANING OF LIFE
Did you know Meaning of Life would be the final Python film? And were you relieved?
I didn’t know it would be, but the process of writing it was one of the reasons [why it was]. With The Meaning of Life, we could never figure out what it was about. And we went on and on writing it without doing anything other than writing the occasional good sketch. But we never came up with anything that gave us an idea as to what the film should be. So, it became another sketch film, and some of it’s very good. But I felt that was a slight step backwards.
And I found that I was disagreeing, particularly with Terry Jones, about what the contents should be. I thought Graham [Chapman] and I had written some stuff … We wrote some stuff about a mad mullah. A mad Islamic cleric. And we thought it was very funny, but it got voted out. And other stuff got put in, like, for example, the sketch about the clock being handed down through the trenches in the first World War that I didn’t think was very good. And I suddenly thought to myself, At 40 — whatever I was then … 43 or 44 — I’d now like to make my own mistakes rather than other people’s.
So, that’s why I never wanted to write another one with them.
1986 – CLOCKWISE
You’ve said Clockwise was the best script you had ever received. What about it appealed to you?
The structure of it. I just thought it was beautiful. Here is a man who has the most important speech of his life, and he can hardly get to the place, and when he does, he’s dressed like a clown, and he’s in a strange state of mind. [Laughs.] He’s not entirely sure of what he’s saying, and I just found it terribly funny.
I think it echoed one of the funniest passages in any novel I had ever read, and I’m thinking of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. There’s a speech at the end of that when he’s a little bit out of control. And, of course, here is someone going out of control, which might be funny, but is much, much funnier if it’s in a very important situation for him that he gets it right. And then the fact that he’s not getting it right is much more in jeopardy and is much funnier.
I imagine some of that success is the result of how much you were in tune with the script.
Well, that’s a great compliment because it all came from Michael Frayn, who is one of my heroes, and he wrote probably the most successful farce of the last 50 years, which is Noises Off.
1988 – A FISH CALLED WANDA
Jumping to something you did write, do you look back on the experience of A Fish Called Wanda fondly?
Well, I look back on it kindly, and I always remember that it was fun to write. But there’s always two stages, for me, when I’m writing something of any length. At the beginning, I’m enthused by ideas. And then I have a period of uncertainty about whether I think the script is going to work. And some days I think it will, and other days I won’t. But I have faith. I keep going. And there’s a certain point where you think, Actually, this is pretty good. It can’t actually be a bad film. And at that point, you start enjoying it much more, because by then you’re improving something that you haven’t lost confidence in.
Is the film something people still bring up to you a lot?
No, not a lot. I know it’s well respected in America, and I know that people are fond of it. But they don’t tend to ask me questions about it. Or if they do, they’re more the sort of tabloid questions like “What was it like kissing Jamie Lee Curtis?” People aren’t really interested in the process, and I think the process is the most interesting thing. And, of course, where many critics in England fall down is they don’t have a clue about the process. With the result, they’re entitled to say whether it was good or bad. But when it comes to praising things or blaming things, they’re not entitled to that because they don’t know what the process is. They don’t know how things happen.
And you play a character named Archie Leach, which is Cary Grant’s birth name. Is it true that this was because you wanted to have the chance to play a Cary Grant-type character?
I suppose it was partly that, but it was also a little joke. I didn’t know that so many people would recognize the name Archie Leach. I mean, I only had just discovered it myself. So, it was just a little nudge to people who knew that. But it was more to do with the fact that I was playing someone a bit closer to myself and the sort of characters that I normally play.
I was always rather proud of [Grant]. I always thought he was a rather splendid man. He was a Hollywood man I would’ve loved to have met. And also he was born about 20 miles from where I was. He was born in Bristol, and I was born just South of Bristol. And everyone in Bristol knew that Cary Grant was from Bristol. So, there was a slight sort of homey feeling about it all.
You’ve said one of your only regrets from your career is that you made Fierce Creatures as sort of a spiritual sequel to A Fish Called Wanda with the same cast. Why is that?
I think the mistake was using the same cast. It was an attempt. It’s still not a great film, but it’s a better film than people thought at the time. Especially in Britain, because it was about the effects of endless marketing thinking. And a lot people get that now. They didn’t at the time. So, I think what I was trying to do was to show the effect of a really nice organization that’s not primarily to make money.
Because zoos are not a terribly good way to make money, but I think they’re a wonderful part of education for kids and adults. And I think anytime you go to the zoo and look at these magnificent or odd creatures, and feel some sense of connection with them, I think that’s a very healthy experience, and it’s one that people don’t get unless they can afford to go to Africa on a safari.
Read ahead for stories on 007, Rat Race, Harry Potter, and his latest book…
1999 – THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH
In 1999, you entered the James Bond universe.
For Bond, I did four days’ work over four years. It was not the center of my life. But because it gets such enormous public attention, people sort of treat it like it was far more significant than it was in my life.
Was there any pressure when you came in with Desmond Llewelyn, who you later wound up replacing as Q?
Well, you see in the first one, he was there. I wasn’t Q. I was R. But then the dear man died in an accident. So, it wasn’t as if I was replacing him in the sense that he was around without anything to do. So, that second one, I thought I was much better. I had a little more hang of the writing of it. And I thought it was well written, and I found it very nice to play. And I thoroughly enjoyed working with Pierce [Brosnan], who is a lovely guy to work with. He’s totally professional and also totally relaxed and a lot of fun.
I was very disappointed when that finished. I would’ve loved to have done some more Bond movies, but of course they wanted to get rid of everyone who was over 40. And you see the trouble is, when you have a hugely successful film, the American way of thinking or the Hollywood way of thinking is that the next one must make even more money. And what they discovered was that they were getting huge box-office returns from the far East, where what they really liked were the action sequences.
So, the action sequences got longer and longer. So, the action sequences became ridiculously long, and the plot became absolutely imperishable. And the humor was simply dropped because the vast majority of audiences had no idea it was humor.
2001 – RAT RACE AND HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE
Like Clockwise, another script you loved was Rat Race.
Yes, I did. What I liked about Rat Race was that some of it was enormously funny. And what I liked about [Jerry] Zucker was that he was trying to be really funny. Now, the trouble about trying to be really funny is if it misses, like several of the scenes with Whoopi Goldberg, then you fall further. And it just is mildly amusing.
But I thought there were scenes in it that were tremendously funny. And I thought that my part, just my part, was just beautifully written. I think that the stuff at the very beginning, when I tell them the planet is going to be destroyed and they’re going to have to carry out the human race without any other help, and then he’s just playing a practical joke on them, I just thought that was wonderful.
But there were sections of it I didn’t think worked. But I thought there were other sections that were just howlingly funny. And critics, for some reason, don’t like movies that are patchy like that, while I would much rather see a movie like that where some of it is absolutely hilarious than to see a movie that is consistently mildly amusing.
And that’s why sometimes if you can make a romantic comedy, you see the romance, which doesn’t have to be funny, can carry a lot of the emotional moments of the film. Whereas if you just try to do something that’s just outright funny, if there’s a weak moment, it will shine through because there’s not the same cohesion of the various parts.
That same year, you also popped up in the first Harry Potter film. Do you feel that introduced you to a whole new generation at all?
Well, it did in a strange way. Because the younger people now don’t know me from Python or Fawlty Towers. They know me as the voice of the king in Shrek or Nearly Headless Nick [in Harry Potter], where as far as I remember, I was on screen — if you added the two movies together — for about 40 seconds. I mean, as far as my body of work in quotes is concerned, it was completely trivial.
2020 – CREATIVITY
I like how the overall theme of Creativity is how you manage to prove that anybody can be creative.
Yes, I do believe it. And to some extent, I proved it. I mean when I’ve been in small groups of people and been able to suggest these ways of working to them, some of them … I remember a young military officer was astonished. He had no idea that he could be creative. But I told him it’s quite simple, and it’s all boiled down from a lot of experience.
You know that nice quote about “I’m sorry that it’s such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one”? If you really thought about something, you get it really clear in your mind. You really see how the little elements of it are connected together. So, what I feel is that I had the time to write a shorter book.
You see, if a psychologist had written a book like that, they would’ve said something like, “Also, if you travel a lot in your youth, you’re more likely to be creative.” Well, that’s kind of interesting, but unless you can move backwards in time, it’s no fucking use.
On that note, you recently said you can’t wait for the book to make its way into the hands of 13-year-olds. Was there any part of you, while you were writing it, that had wished that something like this book had existed when you were that age? Or do you think your work may be a bit better because you had to find it all out on your own?
Well, I think you figure it out. I think many writers and musicians and artists, they figure out their own ways of doing things. But I think what I’ve done is I’ve made some of them conscious or more conscious or more articulated. I mean a lot of writers know that they don’t go straight to the desk and sit down. They make coffee, they readjust their pin board, they sort their socks. They do almost anything rather than getting down to write. And they probably think it’s silly, but that’s the way they do it. But what they’re doing is they’re moving into a slower way of thinking. And you can’t do that just by sitting at your desk. So, if you do little things like sharpening your pencils, it’s just a way of changing the speed of your mind. You edge it towards “Tortoise Mind” and away from “Hare Brain.”
And how long will you let an idea sort of bounce around your brain before you write it down. Do you have a general rule of thumb for that?
I don’t really, no. Because it depends on whether the idea comes to you fully formed or whether it’s just a hint or a hunch that sends you in all sorts of directions. And some of the people who have written very well about the history of science, I’m thinking of Karl Popper who was probably, to me, the best philosopher of science … He said, “People don’t just look at dates [and then immediately have a theory]. They have a hunch.” Well, that hunch is coming from their unconscious. It’s not coming from outer space. If they’d been working on something for a long time, their unconscious may have noticed a pattern that their conscious hasn’t noticed. And so it comes not as a neatly typed out theory, but as a hunch. That’s how scientists work most of the time.
It comes when you’re not looking for something.
Exactly! Like a lot of scientists feel like that idea, you know the one that makes them famous, comes to them out of the blue. And some of them almost feel like they don’t deserve a Nobel Prize because they didn’t have much to do with it. [Laughs.] It’s as though God just said, “Hey, here’s a good idea.” And they didn’t really deserve it. It’s extraordinary, but that’s how some of them feel. But that’s the nature of the unconscious. It gives them a gift, but you’ve always got to put the work in first. You’ve got to sit at the desk and try to write the sketch and get the punchline out for four hours, and then you get it in the morning. Or you might work for 20 years being an astrophysicist, and all that time when you’re not working hard, your mind is still turning the information over. The unconscious mind is incredibly powerful.