John Cleese on Monty Python: 'There's So Much That's Just Silly'

The troupe member explains why the O2 reunion worked and why 'that's it' for the landmark British comedy troupe

John Cleese Credit: Andy Gotts

It took some advice from Eddie Izzard to help John Cleese relax enough to enjoy Monty Python's recent reunion run. "When you relax, you get funnier, but then you break up," the comedy legend says, using a Britishism for forgetting a line. "Eddie Izzard said to me backstage, 'Don't forget, they've seen you do it many, many times. When you do it wrong, they love it, because it's special. Only they get to see that.' I thought that was very profound." After that, Cleese wasn't shy about encouraging breakups, taking a card containing Terry Jones' lines from him during the group's "Crunchy Frog" sketch just to see his comedy partner forget his lines and laugh along with the audience.

Earlier this year, Cleese and his fellow surviving Pythons – Jones, Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam – performed a run of 10 shows at London's O2 Arena that they dubbed "Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go," a fittingly dry nod to both the absence of founding member Graham Chapman, who died in 1989. (It's also a reference to their ages: Cleese turned 75 in October and reports with a hearty laugh, "When I did wake up that morning I thought, 'Fuck, I am more than three quarters of a century old!'") Although the group had reunited under less-than-happy circumstances – it was being sued over a royalty dispute regarding the musical Spamalot – it found the group still having fun with one another onstage, revisiting and rejiggering sketches from its Monty Python's Flying Circus series. leading up to its final round of Life of Brian's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." A video release of the group's farewell performance, also titled Monty Python Live (Mostly), came out this week.

In the years since the group had last performed together at the Hollywood Bowl in 1980, Cleese co-wrote and starred in the 1988 movie A Fish Called Wanda, and exploited his robust accent doing voice work for everything from Shrek to narrating Winnie the Pooh. The writer and actor (who views his career in that order) has also recounted his pre- and post-Python life, right up to the O2 shows, in a recently released memoir, So, Anyway....

When Cleese looks back on it all with Rolling Stone, he still marvels at the success of the reunion. "It was an extraordinary, almost one-off occasion," he says. "You could only compare it to a rock concert, where people go for the experience." 

Your book ends with the reunion shows, and you looking out at the throngs in the audience, asking yourself, "How is it possible that I'm not feeling slightest bit excited?" Why is that?
The key word is "excited." I was feeling happy. I was having a good time. But I could never believe that I was about to perform in front of 16,000 people, which would normally tighten you up and sort of get your adrenaline going. There was none of that at all, and I thought it was extraordinary. I couldn't quite explain it. Most of it was to do with the extreme benevolence of the audience. But the feeling also told me that I've never rated acting as interesting as writing, and I've always thought of myself as a writer-performer rather than the other way around. So, I think it was a reflection of that. I think I've done enough performing now.

What was the reunion experience like for you?
Well, Python has always maintained a great fan base in America. People here love Python and they're very enthusiastic about it. In Britain, it's not like that. The press have generally sort of consigned us, or rather, dismissed us as historically, vaguely interesting, but not anything of great importance. You never hear people going on in England about the influence that Python had on other comedians in the same way that you do in America. The press in England is so negative. The general tone of the papers is, "Well, they're not really as good as everyone said anyway." When you've been living in that atmosphere and when the BBC themselves have not put the shows out, literally, for 20 years, you think of yourselves as, "Well, we know there's people out there who love us still, but we're passing."

So when there was this extraordinary vote of affection and confidence in us by the sales of the tickets, we were completely surprised. Python fans are extraordinarily decent people, and they've got a wonderful sense of humor. When the place was filled with 16,000 of them, the atmosphere is so warm. That relaxes the performers. It's like playing a sport: The more relaxed you are, the better your timing is. You get funnier, and then the audience likes it even more. It's an upward spiral.

What sketches did you most want to include in the program?
Eric asked us for our favorites and, I think, there was only one that we just couldn't work in, the Gumby brain surgeon. Everything else I suggested made it. I'd never done Anne Elk on stage, so I was pleased to do that. It took a little time to figure out how to play it; Laurence Olivier said he needed six performances in front of an audience before he knew how he was going to play a part and, I think, with comedy, you need more like 15 or 20 before you really know how to make the best bits work. But other things, for example, like the "Argument Clinic," which I always enjoy, it was just amazing how fast we remembered that — because it is quite a difficult one to remember.

You wrote that one with Graham Chapman. What was it about you two that led for confrontational sketches?
Yes, we often wrote sketches with "emotion" in them. Eric tends to write very clever, verbal stuff with very little emotion in it. And Jones and Palin, it was always very hard for us to know who'd written what, because sometimes they'd work together in the same room, and, progressively, they worked more over the telephone. They tended not to have so much emotion in them and ours were more, essentially, visual. Gra and I liked variety in sketches where there were just two people.

In some ways we were very, very different. People on a team should be good at different things. I was good at being in the engine room and sort of driving the thing forward, and I was quite good at plot and development. Gra was tremendously good at suddenly throwing in a line or idea that would add an unpredictable twist to what we were doing. You'd suddenly think, "Yes, that's what we needed," and we'd go back and forth [for] a few lines, cross them out and then go off in a different direction.

Also, he seemed, instinctively, to know what the audience was going to laugh at. In the early years when you're a writer, you think, "Is this funny? Are people going to laugh at this?" I learned that if Gra laughed at it, the audience would. He was a sort of perfect sounding board.

Which sketch stands out as one Graham encouraged?
When we were writing the "Cheese Shop," I kept stopping and saying, "Gra, is this really funny?" He would puff on his pipe and say yes, it is. Otherwise, I would never have got the end of it. I never knew how funny it was until we read it out the first time, and Michael Palin laughed so much he slid off his chair and onto the floor. Then I knew it was funny.

What do you miss most about Graham now?
When he was sober, he was a fine performer. He was very good at physical comedy, like at wrestling himself. He was also a very good film actor. I don't think any of us could've done King Arthur or Brian as well as he did.

He was very funny to have around, but most of the time he wasn't quite present. My mental picture of Gra is of him peering at his watch and stroking his sideburns with his mind clearly on something else. But that was, I think, how he sometimes managed to stand slightly outside of a skit and then throw something in that was totally unexpected.

It was nice to say goodbye, but it was going back — it was not going forward.

In your book, you say that BBC Comedy producer Michael Mills greenlit the show that became Monty Python's Flying Circus without you so much as presenting him with a concept. Why did he believe in the six of you?
In those days, people got promoted to head positions because they had a lot of experience as producers and directors. So they've done an enormous amount of comedy very well; they'd lived with it for years. Michael was a very experienced guy, so he must've just looked at us and thought, "These guys are talented and I'm going to trust them." But it was an extraordinary act of trust, and I can't think of another one like it in the history of comedy — and yet, what resulted was a remarkable creative and original show. There's a lot about the idea of creativity in there, which current executives could learn from.

Do you remember his reaction to the pilot when he finally saw what you were doing?
No, I don't. I know that there were people like the head of one of the BBC departments who didn't like it at all, but he was not a terribly bright man. His name was Tom Sloan. People liked him, they just didn't think he was very smart. Then when the heads of department met to discuss Python, they were really quite negative about it. Something like six out of eight of them said we had a death wish and they didn't think that the show was ever going to survive. It just goes to show that here you have the BBC and one of the better production units in the world, and here you have the heads of department — and three quarters of them have no idea that they're sitting on something that's going to change comedy history. That's always the problem that you have with creative people: There's not a large number of executives who know what they're doing.

One of the first sketches you wrote, in the second episode, was "Flying Sheep," which transitioned into you and Michael Palin speaking French with a diagram about how a sheep could become a plane. How did that happen?
At the time, the Concorde [jet] was in the news a lot, because of the cooperation between the English and the French to produce this superfast aircraft. So the idea that the sheep could fly went from sheep flying to sort of airplanes flying. The Anglo-French Cooperation of the Concorde influenced that because it was in the papers all the time. There was a topicality to it but it still works, doesn't it? It's silly, there's so much of it that's just silly.

In your book, you talk about revising the Dead Parrot Sketch, because the shop owner's replies weren't convincing enough. Do you remember how you punched that up?
We rewrote it twice to get that bit right, because my bit – the insistence on the parrot being dead – we wrote that with a lot of help from the thesaurus. But getting my responses right, that took a little time 'til we get in the groove; what happens is you flounder around for a bit and then somebody will go, "That's it. That's something. That's right." It can take time, and I think really good comedy does take time. Also, direct anger is very seldom funny — but ineffectual anger makes us laugh.

How emotional was it to say goodbye to Python? Was it hard at any point?
At lunch, the day after the final show, it was really surprising that no one felt regret and no one seemed to be the slightest bit sad, and I think the reason was that we've all gone off in completely different directions that energize us. It was nice to go back and say goodbye, but it was going back — it was not going forward. Having had what I call in the book "a sweet goodbye," we could say, "Well, that really was satisfactory." These things often don't work and this, for some reason, did work. Now we have plenty of things to look forward to, which have nothing to do with Python. There was no regret or sadness.

What's next for you? You've said you want to make A Fish Called Wanda into a musical.
When I have paid off the alimony [from his recent divorce], I will be able to be able to put aside a large number of months –because the gestation period of a musical is very, very great – and my daughter and I will do a second draft on the show's book, start thinking about the music. But we can't do that until I can take four or five months off and not have to worry about income. 

In due course, there's some documentaries that I would like to make as well. But I think I'll have to do that in America, because I don't think English [production] companies want to deal with the sort of subjects that I'm interested in: Death and religion and also why very rich people want to have so much more money than they could ever spend. I mentioned it to the guy who was running [British television channel] ITV a couple of years ago, and his eyes just glazed over. I think he just saw me as a comedian, not someone who can actually address those kinds of things. I would always address them with humor, but that doesn't stop me from saying interesting things.