It’s a busy year for comic legend John Cleese: touring with a new one-man show, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the inimitable Monty Python troupe and hawking a remastered set of Fawlty Towers DVDs. Perhaps not surprisingly, given his immortal portrayal of slow-burning, silly-walking hotelier Basil Fawlty, Cleese also has some feedback to offer the hospitality trade. A familiar face in film (A Fish Called Wanda, the Harry Potter, James Bond and Shrek franchises) and television (Will and Grace, Cheers) for decades, Cleese shows no signs of slowing down as he turns 70. Rolling Stone recently caught up with Cleese by phone from Los Angeles.
Tell me about the Fawlty Towers DVD set. I understand it has new commentaries and new interviews by you.
That’s right. I did it last year. The BBC said to me, “Would you like to put commentaries on them?” I said, “I think that might be interesting. What are you going to pay me?” Since I’ve discovered you need this stuff called money, because you exchange it for food, you know, clothing. And they said, “Well, we can’t pay you, but what we can do is give you a hotel for a few days.” And I said, “That’s a good deal.” So they gave me a hotel [room] that is literally 30 yards from the recording studio. It was very, very interesting to see the shows again because there were some of them I literally had not seen for 20 years.
Did you deliberately hold back Fawlty Towers stories in anticipation of one day getting complimentary lodgings?
No, I’m not clever enough to do that. One or two of my Python colleagues would do that sort of thing, but I think the truth is I can’t be bothered. Occasionally I hold things back because I do want to write an autobiography eventually when I’m too old and broken-down to do anything else.
Since you mentioned that you were staying in a hotel for this: knowing who you are, do hotels these days seem to give you better service?
[Laughs] No, not really. I will tell you frankly that I’m pretty appalled by most of the hotels that I’ve stayed in. They seem to me to have gotten worse.
Two of your most famous Python sketches — the Cheese Shop and the Dead Parrot — also featured disgruntled customers. I wonder whether you’re really a consumer advocate trapped in a comedian’s body.
That’s a good point! Yes, I think you got me won.
Given the stereotypical perception anyway of British hospitality, do you think Fawlty Towers encouraged tourism to Britain or do you think it scared people away?
I tell you, Hyatt used to show those to their employees as training films, on the basis of, “Watch this; whatever the characters do, do the opposite.” That’s absolutely true. In the one-man show I’m doing at the moment, one of the lines I say is that the basic British hotelier’s motto is: “We could run this place properly if it wasn’t for the guests.” I think that that’s the kind of feeling: that the guests are the people who come in — they mash the process up, otherwise everything would run smoothly.
I’ve got to ask you about your name. Is the plural of Cleese also Cleese — like at your family reunions, do you get a lot of Cleese?
Well, you know that it was originally Cheese, don’t you? It’s a story I’ve told many times. It’s absolutely true. My dad was born in Bristol in 1893 and his name was Reginald Francis Cheese. His dad was John Edwin Cheese, who was the white sheep of his family. He did not like the rest of his family; they were in the baking business. We don’t know much about them because he left them and came to Bristol and settled there and became a sort of lawyer’s clerk. And we really don’t know what happened to the black sheep Cheeses, but my dad had to go to the First World War in 1915. Well, he didn’t have to — he volunteered — and he changed his name — changed the H to an L because he was fed up getting teased. Now, I don’t know what he achieved by that because when I was in school, I was always called “Old Cheese.” So I suppose if you had a plural of Cheeses, what would it be? A round of Cheese? A tray of Cheeses, maybe?
I’m not sure, but I want to point out that you just used the phrase “black sheep cheeses.”
Very good. Also incidentally it’s rather strange, given the dairy nature of my name: my closest friend in school was a fellow called Barney Butter. We lived literally 10 miles from Cheddar.
And you don’t think this was some kind of divine signal?
Well, I think it was. I think God was preparing me for the fact that about 15 years ago, he made me unable to digest dairy of any kind.
Let me ask you about the Monty Python 40th reunion activities. How has all that been going?
It’s been very, very pleasant. Very nice to see them all again. I think because we’ve all gone off in different directions, there is less sibling rivalry when there used to be. And after all, when you’ve known people over 40 years, there’s a marvelous kind of acceptance of each other. It was a very pleasant business getting together.
I saw an article about the reunion that referred to you as “funny and prickly.” Is that true? Are you comfortable being equated with a humorous cactus?
No, I think you will find that coming from the British press, who have always thought that I was prickly. People that know me don’t, but the British press, of course, have their own reality.
I wonder what you’ve just managed to say about America. That was actually the Boston Globe.
Oh really? Well, people often think that because the characters that I play are angry or rude like Basil Fawlty, that I must be like that. But I think one of the problems with journalists, particularly in England, is that they really don’t quite understand the creative process. And they always think that if you play a character, you must basically pretty much be like that.
So what would it mean to you if someone said, “That’s so Cleese?”
It would depend entirely what they knew me from. People for example who know the therapy books or the psychology books that I co-wrote with Robin Skynner have a completely, completely different view of me than, for example, people that know me from Python or that know me from Fawlty Towers. So sometimes when people come up and talk to me, I can tell almost immediately what they know me from, by the assumptions that they make about me. But these are all, as it were, different dimensions of my own personality and not the totality of them.
Have you ever thought of getting into politics because a lot of what you’ve come up with over the years has been funnier than what we seem to hear these days about the war and the recession and the death panels in America…
I agree; I always point out that Michael Palin is very miffed that he is no longer the funniest Palin.
Any relation that you know of?
Well, we’d love to pin that on him. [Laughs] He’s very insistent that it’s not the case. I used to be vaguely interested in politics, but I realize now how absolutely hopeless and frustrating the process is. And so I simply bless Obama, who seems to me to be operating from a higher level of mental health than any other politician I’ve ever seen. I bless him and I trust him and I wish him well.
You make it sound as though mental health is something you’ve rarely encountered among politicians.
I don’t think you encounter it commonly among anyone [laughs]. The second book that Robin Skynner and I wrote, which is nearly 20 years ago now, was basically about that subject. It has always interested me. I don’t think many people make a conscious effort to operate from a higher level in mental health, except people that have some sort of spiritual practice. I applaud those kind of people. That’s one of the reasons I spent time in California because there are a lot of people I know who are doing some sort of practice with that aim in mind. Not too many in England, I have to say.
Well can’t that be a source of comedy to some extent? In Fawlty Towers with Basil Fawlty it was always, “When is he gonna flip out and lose it?”
Sure, anything… any human activity can be a source of comedy because our egos always take over and spoil it.
Thinking about the Fawlty Towers legacy, are you most proud of the effect you’ve had on sitcoms, Anglo-Spanish relations or on the British hospitality industry?
I know when Fawlty Towers first went out in Barcelona it suddenly disappeared from screens for three weeks and when it returned, Manuel had become Portuguese. I don’t know whether it’s really affected the hotel industry, I was so impressed when Hyatt used to use it for training, but having been in all these hotels now, I just think they’re pretty terrible, most of them. And I’m not aware of it having any influence on sitcoms at all. I’m being quite serious. I mean they were very much little farces, they were 30-minute farces. And that was it. I’ve never seen a sitcom that I recognized in any way as having being influenced by it.
Any idea why in America none of the Fawlty Towers remakes were successful? I think John Larroquette played a character a few years ago called “Royal Payne”: was the show just not funny, or are you funnier than John Larroquette?
I think that the people doing the show always seem to believe that they know how to make it work far better than I would. And although they listen very politely and kindly to the suggestions I make, they then completely ignore them and do the opposite. So I think that’s probably one of the reasons why they never got off the ground.
Did you have any idea while you were making the show that it would be so successful in America? After all, this is the show that once displayed a hotel marquee bearing the anagrammatical phrase “flowery twats.”
[Laughs] That’s right. Well, the BBC was pretty relaxed. One of the reasons the shows are not better known is that they are all different lengths. I believe there’s one that’s 34 and a half minutes. Years ago, somebody sat down and tried to cut them down to a proper length, 22 minutes, a commercial half-hour, and it involved such butchering that the plots no longer made sense. So that was abandoned. So I have to thank PBS for the fact that they’ve been seen in the States at all.
There’s apparently a huge trash heap in New Zealand that has been named in your honor. Does that kind of thing happen a lot to you?
No, it was because we had a running joke when I was touring New Zealand four years ago, about this place Palmerston North, because my assistant christened it the suicide capital of New Zealand. Because if you wanted to commit suicide, it’s a very good place to go to, because once you were there you would never change your mind. Then there was protest from Palmerston North, and then the other half of the population of that place wrote, saying, “He’s absolutely right, it’s a terrible dump,” and then when they got a lot of garbage at some point they called it Mount Cleese. I don’t know if they were honoring me or insulting me, but it made me laugh anyway.
I mentioned the War once. Did I get away with it?
… You did.