The term “comedy legend” gets thrown about far too often, but it genuinely applies to John Cleese. Already a seasoned comedy writer and performer in Britain before becoming one-sixth of the pioneering team behind Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1969, he went on to create the brilliant sitcom Fawlty Towers (with then-wife Connie Booth) and conquer the big screen with A Fish Called Wanda and roles in successful franchises such as the James Bond films, Shrek and Harry Potter. His acrimonious and expensive divorce from third wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger forced him back on the road in 2009, as discussed at length during his Opera House appearance last year for the inaugural Just for Laughs festival, but it’s a remarkably chipper-sounding Cleese that talks to Time Out ahead of the Australian tour.
John, despite the unfortunate reason you’ve been forced into touring, has it been fun to do live comedy?
Yes it has, actually, because I was really a film and television person from… well, I think the last time I was really onstage was ’65. When [David] Frost was kind enough to put me on his show in ’66, I became a television person, and then to some extent a film person until 2005.
What happened in 2005?
I was so pissed off with two of the Hollywood studios. I’d written very decent scripts with a friend of mine called Kirk DiMicco [writer/director of Space Chimps], and then the studio came in and started telling us to do things to them that were wrong.
Wrong in terms of…?
Wrong in terms of comedy. I have spent an awful lot of my time doing comedy and I said “with the greatest respect, you have never acted for comedy, written it or directed it, so why do you think you know more about it than I do?” And they said “that’s what we want you to do.” So I walked away from both movies, neither of which have been made.
So with Hollywood out, what made you consider treading the boards again?
I got a phone call that year asking, “Would you like to come to New Zealand to do a stage show?” I last went to New Zealand in ’64 [with the Cambridge Footlights stage show A Clump of Plinths], I think, with Graham [Chapman, Cleese’s longtime writing partner and fellow Python until his death in 1989] and [future Goodie Tim] Brooke-Taylor and all that crowd. So I got my daughter Camilla to write one or two things with me and she turned out to be very good at writing, and I got her to perform a couple of things and the whole thing just sort of grew like Topsy, and suddenly I have a stage show.
Does the upcoming show draw on Just for Laughs material?
Not at all. Just for Laughs was partly based on what I had done in Montreal a couple of years ago, and it included some of the stuff which was written for me by a couple of Canadian writers about my alimony, but we’ve dropped all that. It was a good joke at the time but we’ve done it for long enough.
So what’s the format?
The first half of the show I’m going to get a local radio celebrity to interview me: that way I know I’m talking about things that the audience is interested in, it’s more sort of autobiographical – it’s anything the interviewer wants to ask me about, comedy or my own life or anything. And then the second half I’ll be doing about 30 minutes of prepared material and then question and answer, because people seem to love that these days. It used to rather disappoint me on a couple of my tours that when I did the Q and A at the end and they all said it was the best bit – after I had so carefully written and polished and rehearsed the first part [laughs].
Are there things that you’d find too uncomfortable to talk about?
There’s a line where I suppose that I’d feel it’s a bit too private. A lot of the time there are stories which I would not mind telling, but I don’t want to tell because it’s an infringement to someone else’s confidentiality. I teased [fellow Python] Michael Palin about that when his diaries came out: I said to him, “you know, you put several things in the diaries that I had said to you – I had no idea that was going to become public knowledge.”
You should write a book yourself, get some revenge.
[laughs] I think when I get to my own autobiography I’m going to be fairly careful. I can be very honest about my own stuff but not if it’s revealing private stuff about somebody else, that’s the main limitation.
Did that happen with Graham Chapman’s memoir as well? There’s naturally a fair bit of stuff about you in there.
Well I’m sure there is, but Graham deliberately called it A Liar’s Autobiography because that gave him a certain licence to make stuff up. Also, Graham was quite delusional in certain areas, so I never read the book.
Well, I read little bits here and there but it simply doesn’t bother me.
I imagine that would be true of Python’s history generally, hearing stories that don’t jibe with your memory of an event – especially given how often you’re all asked about it.
Well, now there is a collective history [Monty Python Speaks]. Several of us were against that because we’ve been over it too many times but we eventually allowed ourselves to be persuaded and it actually came out, I thought, extraordinarily well. I started reading it and I thought to myself, with a certain amount of surprise, “this is genuinely interesting.” Sorry, does that answer your question?
I meant more that there must be times where your version of events and, say, Eric Idle’s are just wildly different.
Oh yes, absolutely. One of my friends is a fellow called Stephen Cici, he was a psychology professor at Cornell – the Ivy League college in New York State. I’m a sort of phoney visiting professor there. Steve is one of the world’s experts on memory, and once you talk to him about that for an hour you don’t expect anyone’s recollections to coincide with anyone else’s. [laughs] We all have much, much worse memories than we think.
Well, we humans sure do like to conflate things.
Yes, absolutely, that’s exactly right – you put two things together, and a lot of memory is kind of rational reconstruction of one or two things that you do remember very distinctively, so you work back from that and by the time you tell the story a few times, then the story has become the memory. That was one of the interesting things about the Python book was to discover exactly how differently people were thinking about things at certain times.
Given the breadth of your career, especially with Python, do you ever feel that you’re competing with yourself? The weight of expectation must be extraordinary.
Yes, that can be a problem. It’s like when I made Fierce Creatures, which was actually not a bad little movie – it’s uneven, but with some terribly funny stuff in it – but because it followed [A Fish Called] Wanda, it was perceived as a failure. And that is exactly why I never tried to follow Fawlty Towers.
Do you avoid some of that with this show, since you don’t have 50 years of stand up behind you?
Well, if the stand-up show hadn’t come together, I’d still be doing just stage and television because some of the other work I used to do has begun to dry up. I haven’t had a film in America now since that dreadful Pink Panther one.
With the greatest of respect, you do have an unfortunate habit of being the bright spot in otherwise terrible films.
Well, I’ve made three truly terrible films, I think. I wonder if my list is the same as yours? Do you remember Yellowbeard?
See, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Yellowbeard.
Oh, come on. It’s terrible.
It’s because it was Graham’s baby: there’s some sentimental attachment there.
There’s no discipline there at all. He had a lot of intelligence, a lot of talent and an overactive imagination, but he really was delusional a lot of the time, and had no capacity to organise whatsoever. So there’s those two, and there was one called Isn’t She Great.
Oh, I missed that one.
Oh, I’m glad you did. It’s about [Valley of the Dolls author] Jacqueline Susann. It was terrible too.
I was going to raise The Adventures of Pluto Nash…
Well, I just went into a sound studio for three hours on that and recorded stuff. I never saw it and I never met anyone on it. I heard it was terrible, but life’s too short to confirm it. That’s a good one, thank you for reminding me.