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Bullet Points: John Cleese

On his difficult mother, his knack for physical comedy and Monty Python’s quarrelsome creative process

Author Chris Wright

cultureWhen reading John Cleese’s new memoir So, Anyway…, there’s a temptation to hunt for clues about how the events and people in the book shaped his approach to comedy. This would be true of any comedian’s life story, perhaps, but in Cleese’s case the urge is much more pronounced, largely because he and his collaborators changed the way we laugh at the world. The most obvious example of this, of course, is “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” the anarchic, utterly original 1970s sketch show, which was recently reprised in a reunion tour. Here, Cleese provides a few insights.

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• ON CHILDHOOD INFLUENCES
“Sometimes, the things that frighten us the most are the things we find the funniest. There was a certain amount of anger in our house, so anger used to make me laugh. Also, it wasn’t always easy to talk to Mum, so I’ve always found lack of communication terribly funny—like Basil [in “Fawlty Towers”] trying to make himself understood to [hapless Spanish waiter] Manuel.”

• ON HIS UNUSUAL PHYSIQUE
“One of my teachers called me ‘six feet of chewed string.’ I was so weak and ungainly. The odd thing was, I had good hand-eye coordination, so as long as there was no strength required, I could do some things well. I was no good in a rugby scrum, but I could play table tennis. As I got older and had a little more control over my body and limbs, I taught myself to be a good physical comedian.”

• ON ARTISTIC DIFFERENCES
“I made a lot of films and shows, and I don’t remember having heated arguments in any of those. It was Terry Jones and I [with Monty Python] who had a propensity for locking horns. You want conflicting ideas—that’s what leads you to new things—but when it becomes a conflict of personalities, it’s destructive. Terry Gilliam disagreed; he thought personal conflict was part of the creative process, but I think that works against him.”

• ON THIS YEAR’S PYTHON REUNION
“This was the first time we’d done anything together since the Hollywood Bowl, in the 1980s. As always, we had a laugh, there was a lot of joshing—it was like a slightly upper-class version of a soccer changing room. For me, it was a moment of great satisfaction. It was just a nice thing to do, to get together one last time to say goodbye to our fans. I’m very proud of them. If I had to back one set of fans against another, my money would be on ours.”

This month, Cleese will promote So, Anyway… through a series of one-man stage shows.

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