Making People Laugh Is How Comedian John Cleese Discovered His True Calling

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One of Britain's great talents was educated at Cambridge University and planned to be a lawyer. But then he discovered his true calling: making people laugh.

John Cleese was in the 1975 classic "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." He was also a founding member of the British comedy troupe "Monty Python," which took "stuffy and excruciatingly cautious" British culture and turned it all into a joke.

He also wrote and starred in the BBC sitcom "Fawlty Towers," and the movie "A Fish Called Wanda." And now he's written a memoir, "So, Anyway..."

In it, Cleese writes about his parents and a humble childhood in a sleepy English town; about his comedic roots at Cambridge, where he met his future Monty Python partner Graham Chapman; and about the founding of the comedy troupe that would make him famous.


John Cleese, English actor, comedian, writer and film producer. His memoir is, "So, Anyway..." He tweets @JohnCleese.


On the cheese shop with no cheese:
John Cleese:
"I had a period shooting for 'Python' on film on a boat, and I was extremely sea sick. And on the way home to London, Graham suggested that I might need something to eat and I said I'd fancy some cheese. And so, we started looking for a cheese shop. And we just hit upon the idea of a cheese shop that was actually out of cheese and it struck us very funny. The most satisfactory moment I ever had in five years of doing 'Monty Python' the television is that at the read-through, when I read it out, Michael Palin started to laugh. And he absolutely couldn't control himself. He slid off his chair onto the floor and just lay there rolling around and that, for me, was the best moment of 'Monty Python.'"

On his parents:
"[My father] had a very nice dry sense of humor. I remember once we were watching television and there was a particularly inane dance routine and he said to me at the end of it, I remember he turned to me and he just said, 'I don't think this will ever replace entertainment. Do you?' And it was in that very dry way that he made me laugh, whereas mother had a very different sense of humor, which is really quite black. In fact, surprisingly black because my experience is that that sort of black humor usually appeals to men more than to women, but it was really one of the few areas where she and I were able to communicate and laugh together."

On his introverted personality:
"I think it probably made me a little bit shyer about going in front of audiences, but like anything, people are always anxious in front of audiences. I mean, there's no sportsman that goes out to play in a big game who's not got the nerves running, you know? But the thing that gets you over it is simply experience. The first time you walk out onto the center court at Wimbledon it must be quite bizarre, but if you've won three or four championships there and you walk out, you know, it's another Wimbledon final. So, it's experience gets you over all that stuff."

On people who appreciate his humor:
"You say that there's three generations of people working around you and I'm going to say a most outrageous thing, which is that the people who are attracted to my sense of humor do tend to be fairly bright. And NPR does have some pretty intelligent people working there. If I go to a gas station in Missouri or Mississippi, I don't think I'm likely to be recognized. It's a more intellectual type of humor because it's playing with abstract ideas and Python's got that slightly intelligent side to it that sometimes something that seems completely silly does, in fact, have an idea under it and people who are brighter and better at abstract thinking tend to glom onto that."

On the difference between being funny and being clever:
"I think that there's always an emotional aspect to being really funny. If I think of something that made me howl with laughter, I think of Eddie Murphy crossing the freeway in 'Bowfinger.' Wit is something that's purely verbal and there are some very funny witty people around, I think probably Mark Twain was the best, you know? I mean, Mark Twain said, 'Wagner's music is much better than it sounds.' I mean, that's a stunning joke. But it's wit, do you see what I mean? There's no emotion in it. 'Python' and 'Fawlty Towers' are really about emotion, much more than pure wit. And the people who get quoted in humorous quotations are usually people like Oscar Wilde who said witty things — they're very clever but they're not actually profound in an emotional sense."


WBUR: 'Comedy Is Extraordinarily Difficult': John Cleese On Being Funny

  • "John Cleese is a big, tall, stiff-upper-lipped international symbol of British wit. He's made us laugh in Fawlty Towers and movies including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Time Bandits, A Fish Called Wanda, and, recently, as the exasperated master of spycraft — Q — who gives James Bond some of his best toys to break."

The Wall Street Journal: The Memoirs Of Basil Fawlty

  • "With titles like their 'Contractual Obligation Album' and 'The Final Rip Off,' the British comedy troupe Monty Python have never been afraid to point out that the joke was on you, and it’s almost impossible to believe that Python co-founder John Cleese didn’t undertake his new memoir in a similar spirit."

The Washington Post: Book Review: ‘So, Anyway...,’ A Memoir By John Cleese

  • "John Cleese’s memoir is just about everything one would expect of its author — smart, thoughtful, provocative and above all funny — but it is not what his most ardent fans probably have been expecting, a blow-by-blow account of the making of his most notable work."

This segment aired on December 25, 2014.


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