I was 17 when Monty Python’s Flying Circus first introduced the world to John Cleese.
In the ensuing years I have followed his career with great enthusiasm, watching and rewatching every episode of that series in which he played such a pivotal part, memorizing classic bits like The Argument Sketch, the Dead Parrot Sketch, The Architect’s Sketch, The Ministry of Silly Walks.
I saw every Python movie two to three times and I could not tear myself away from the manic antics of Basil Fawlty on Fawlty Towers.
Through all of that I could not help but wonder what was going on inside the mind of this brilliant comedic actor.
What makes him tick?
How does he really see the world?
What does he actually find funny?
Many of those questions were answered earlier this month when Cleese brought his Why There Is No Hope tour to Charlottetown.
Cleese, who turns 80 later this year, comes across as an extraordinarily perceptive man with a razor-sharp wit who tells you exactly what he thinks about just about anything you care to ask him.
Take Canada for instance.
Cleese says Canada is one of only two or three countries in the world that are truly sane. He said he actually wrote to Justin Trudeau, whom he’s met a number of times, asking the prime minister if there was any way he could become a Canadian citizen without having to live here when it was “so #@#*#*# cold.”
Certainly Canada is far more attractive to him than the U.K. He no longer lives there for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the current state of the British press which, thanks to unscrupulous leadership, can be absolutely brutal to those who’ve achieved a degree of fame or notoriety. Cleese has been their target more than once.
Cleese waxed philosophical on a number of things, from the birth of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the resistance they initially met trying to bring their humour to the big screen to his marital history, his take on the absurdity of politics in America and the economic necessity of touring to pay the bills.
He reflected on the obstacles he and his cohorts encountered trying to launch Monty Python’s Life of Brian, noting there wasn’t a movie studio anywhere that would commit to seeing the film made. The Beatles’ George Harrison saved the film when he mortgaged his home to raise the money after reading a copy of the script provided to him by his friend Eric Idle, one of Cleese’s fellow Pythons. He said Harrison committed to the project because he really wanted to see the movie.
Supposed experts at the time criticized the film as being humourless but Cleese noted it has since been voted the best British comedy of all time.
Fawlty Towers drew similar criticism from experts but it too went on to become one of the most popular British series ever produced.
Cleese had much to say about people who not only don’t know what they’re talking about but don’t know that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
He referenced Donald Trump as an example.
The people of the United States, he said, did not want a president who is smarter than they are and in Donald Trump they got what they wanted.
Much of what is wrong with the world today can be attributed, he indicated, to people with oversized egos who are driven by their desire to be very rich or very powerful or both.
He suggested the world is plagued by an overabundance of assholes, almost all of whom were male, with one notable exception, right-wing Conservative commentator Ann Coulter, whose image flashed across the screen behind him.
Cleese is getting on, but his ability to hold the attention of an audience and to entertain has lost nothing to time.
Where there is laughter there is hope and Cleese has certainly done his part to bring us laughter.