In Conversation With John Cleese.
“I’m a living legend, and I’m a national institution, and I’m a comedy icon, and I’m something else, but I can’t remember what it was”
By Larrick Ebanks
“Hi Larrick, call John at the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami at 15:30 (Mallorca time)” is the memo I received from John Cleese’s people. Whilst receiving personal emails from John saying, “Dear Larrick, how are my ticket sales doing in Mallorca?” I was very happy to hear from the man himself and started to plan my interview with this British legend and national treasure. His legacy and career is well documented on the internet so I decided that I did not want to regurgitate the same stories that have been told before.
John Cleese is almost eighty-one years of age and still hopping on planes all over the world, bringing humour and laughter to the masses. I wanted to know what it is that still motives him to tour and to have a chat about his whereabouts since “leaving” the UK.
As I call the hotel, I am greeted by a friendly, familiar voice that I recognised in tone from our email conversations and it is clear that John is keen to be interviewed. I tell to John that it feels as though we could just as well be in the local pub, having this conversation over a pint. I am struck by John’s sharp wit and quickly reminded that the awards and accolades ‘do not maketh the man’, but that authentic expression is what truly engages and connects us as people.
After exchanging pleasantries, John explains that his trip to Miami is due to an abrupt change to his filming schedule in Canada where the director had to be taken to hospital, so John decided to take a short break to Miami, to avoid the British winter and political circus that is Brexit.
Larrick: Where does your drive come from John? What keeps you motivated and still touring?
John: “Well it comes mainly from the fact that I’ve decided that the world has gone completely crazy, and has been going crazy for some years. And I think the most intelligent thing to do is to separate from it, but there aren’t any nice fincas on Mars”. [Larrick laughs]
John has a valid point, which is one of the reasons why I never watch television to see this madness that he is referring to being played out for the masses.
John continues to talk about political matters with a hint of slapstick humour which makes the topic of Brexit a little easier to digest.
Talking to John, I feel a real sense of how comedy truly affects our wellbeing, and that is a real honour to have Britain’s funny man on the other end of the phone.
John: “The reason why I’m still touring is, when you have to pay 20 million dollars in a divorce, and you’ve been working for the BBC all your life, which is like working for charity, it takes a little bit of time to pay the 20 million off. [laughs] So performing live is the best way of doing it because I don’t understand television anymore and it has a lot of people in charge who don’t know what they’re doing. And the nice thing about being on stage is that you just walk in front of an audience, as they did 2000 years ago in Greece and try and make them laugh”.
“I am quite seriously looking to buy a property in Mallorca at the moment where it’s fairly warm most of the time and where there is a culture that I really like and where I can sit still, and do a lot of writing, which is what really interests me”.
Larrick: Before going out on tour, is there any rigorous training, rituals or rehearsing that is required?
John: “I’ve been doing these shows now for ten years so I’ve written, during that time, a great deal of material. I’ve probably got four hours of very good material. It does take a great deal of discipline, because at 80, although I’m much more craftier than I used to be, I don’t have as much energy as I used to have, so the travelling is the least pleasant part so I also get a lot of rest”.
I mention his down-to-earth approach and how endearing it is, and that of the Monty Python cast in general.
John: “That’s very nice of you to say, but I don’t think it boils down to any moral superiority, I think we are quite intelligent people and we know that we’re good at making people laugh, but we haven’t invented a cure to cancer – you see what I mean? I think there are so many people in show business, particularly singers now, who have no education at all, they think they are incredibly important, while we know we’re not.”
Larrick: I was reading comments about you on social media and people calling you a living legend, do you read any of the comments about yourself?
John: “I don’t really, no! [laughs] I go on Twitter now and again when there’s something on my mind. Yesterday I was spending a lot of time reading about Terry Jones, but the fact is, most of the stuff out there on the internet is not terribly interesting, but sometimes I sit down and tweet in the evenings. I have this nice feeling that there are people out there listening, it’s like having an audience that I can’t see, and I tweet something, and I suddenly see there are a lot of people love it.
As I re-affirm how modest he is and that he is a legend, John interrupts my flow…
John: “ I’m a living legend, and I’m a national institution, and I’m a comedy icon, and I’m something else, but I can’t remember what it was. [laugh]
We both laugh at this lighthearted comment that shows that John does not take himself too seriously.
Larrick: Is there a script that you turned down and wished you hadn’t?
John: “ Yes, ‘The Remains Of The Day’ in which I would have played the butler.
(The part Anthony Hopkins went on to play alongside Emma Thompson and James Fox).
Larrick: Any others?
John: Yes, I had to miss ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ starring Steve Martin and Michael Cain which I was very sad about.
Larrick: Really! What happened there, John?
John: “What happened was that my second marriage was in such a mess and I just finished filming ‘A Fish Called Wanda’, racing all over the world to publicise that and I thought I can’t accept this film, I have to go back to London and find out whether my marriage is over. So I went back and found out that it was. [laughs] The other one was The Birdcage, they wanted me to do the Robin Williams part.
Our conversation runs way over the 25 minutes granted for this interview, during which time John’s wife has now entered his room with some cough medicine and a cup of coffee. John shares with me that her nickname is Fish, I ask if this is a reference to ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ perhaps?, We both laugh as he explains that she is an excellent swimmer and has been mistaken for Daryl Hannah from the movie ‘Splash’. John then tells me that Fish also speaks dolphin, as she breaks out into a high dolphin screeching sound in the background. We all laugh together.
As we start rounding up the interview, I ask John if he believes in an afterlife and God?
John: “Yes I do, and that’s not religious at all, it’s a pure matter of science and if you read anything by Bruce Greyson, you will be persuaded that there is simply stuff that you can’t explain in words.
Larrick: And your final thoughts on Terry Jones?
John: “Very sad. We suddenly heard about his dementia and I met him at a funeral about a couple of years ago. I think he recognised me, but there was no normal communication in words, and so it wasn’t a surprise, it was a shock, you know what I mean. But I think people liked my comment at the end, two down, four to go.
We exchange our goodbyes as John invites me to come and say hello backstage when he is in Mallorca.
I conclude the interview by telling him that the world is a funnier place with him in it.
John Cleese is live on stage in Palma on April 16th 2020