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How John Cleese got his accidental start in comedy

Known for his work in Monty Python, on “Fawlty Towers” and in various movies, comedian and writer John Cleese was originally on a path to becoming a lawyer before finding himself “accidentally” in a comedy troupe. Jeffrey Brown talks with the British performer about early influences, advice for young comedians and his new memoir, “So, Anyway”.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next tonight: the making of a master comic.

    Jeffrey Brown is back with that.

  • JOHN CLEESE, ACTOR:

    I wish to complain need to complain about this parrot that I purchased not half-a-hour ago from this very boutique.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All these years later, fans of the zany, brainy "Monty Python's Flying Circus" can recall favorite skits.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And the players as well, very much including John Cleese, the minister of silly walks and so much else.

    Post-"Python," a TV show on BBC from 1969 to 1974, the movies that grew from it, Cleese created and starred in the classic sitcom "Fawlty Towers."

  • ACTRESS:

    Why don't you hang the picture now? Well?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Yes, all right, I won't do the menu. I don't think you realize how long it takes to do the menu, but, no, it doesn't matter, I will hang the picture now. And if the menus are late for lunch, it doesn't matter. The guests can all come and look at the picture until they are ready, right?

  • ACTRESS:

    Lower.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And in a number of films, most famously perhaps "A Fish Called Wanda."

  • JAMIE LEE CURTIS, Actress:

    I love the way you laugh.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Oh, I love you. You're funny. How could a girl as bright as you could have a brother who is so…

  • KEVIN KLINE, ACTOR:

    Don't call me stupid.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Jesus Christ!

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    His new memoir, "So, Anyway…," is the first of a projected trilogy. And it looks back to his pre-"Python" life, a lower-middle-class child of an insurance salesman father and a difficult, often distant mother, through to Cambridge, where he began as a law student and almost accidentally found himself in a comedy troupe.

    We talked recently at the Miami Book Festival.

    It doesn't seem like an obvious biography for someone who would grow up to entertain people around the world, or does it, as you look at it?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    No, it doesn't at all. And I honestly regard so much of my life as an accident.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Your rise is at a moment when satire in England especially was taking off, was kind of exploding. Why was that? What happened?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Well, what happened was that England had been a very, very stuffy country.

    If you think of what America was like under Eisenhower and then multiply it by 10, people didn't make jokes about the prime minister. It was considered disrespectful, if you can believe that climate.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    And when I was at Cambridge, a show came to Cambridge, "Beyond the Fringe," the funniest show I have ever seen in my life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Quite a group. They had a great impact on you.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Incredible impact, because they were doing jokes about politicians, about the Church of England, about the death penalty, about nuclear disarmament. They were making wonderful jokes about serious subjects.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You write about comedy being harder than drama. Why do you think comedy is so hard?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Because, first of all, it's got to be original in a way that drama doesn't have to be original.

    There are certain dramatic themes that just repeat and repeat and repeat, whereas comedians have got to come up with something really that's a little bit fresh every time, because you can't laugh at the same joke a second time. And then, secondly, it's got to be so precise before it works.

    Everything in comedy's got to be exactly right, which is why making a comedic film is kind of a difficult process, because, for most of the two years of shooting it and editing it and reshooting and all of that, it's not quite right. And it's only when you just at the end, you put the final polish on it, it becomes really funny again.

  • KEVIN KLINE:

    You're really sorry?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    I'm really, really sorry. I apologize unreservedly.

  • KEVIN KLINE:

    You take it back?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    I do. I offer a complete and utter retraction.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I saw that your best advice to a young comedian is steal.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Steal. Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Just out and out…

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Out and out steal. Steal people's material, because — I don't necessarily mean steal a specific joke, but steal a situation, steal a character.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Style?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    A style, because by the time you do it yourself, your own personality will have imprinted itself on the original thing you have stolen.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    And it's too difficult to start right from scratch and try and be funny out of the blue.

    So the first few things I ever did to get into the Footlights club room, which got me started at Cambridge, they were all — all things that I had stolen. And I say to people, if you love an actor or a comedian, just watch and watch them and watch them. And the key thing is watch them until you're bored. When you stop laughing at them, then you can see the mechanisms. You can see how they do it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It just — it occurs to me, we're sitting having a serious conversation about comedy. It's a serious subject, in a way, right?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Well, it is and it isn't.

    I mean, the examples are funny, but when you start analyzing night like that, it's not essentially a humorous thing to do.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Do you think of yourself as a funny person? Or is that a stage person?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    It's just a part of me. It's just a part of me. When I'm with certain people, I'm much funnier than I am with other people. It's more a function of their personality actually than anything.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The kind of brainy humor or sophisticated humor, perhaps, even if it's silly, it almost — you look back on a lot of "Monty Python" and "Fawlty Towers," and it requires sometimes the audience to know the references, right

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    That's right. And I think the hard thing for young comedians now is that the majority of the young people in the audience out there don't have the wide range of references.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That's what I was wondering. So, is it harder now?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    It's harder now. You can't really do that stuff.

    Now, it's like the Latin lesson in "Life of Brian," when I catch Graham "Romans, go home" on the wall. And I correct his grammar and make him write it out.

  • ACTOR:

    It says, Romans, go home.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    No, it doesn't. What is Latin for Roman? Come on. Come on.

  • ACTOR:

    Romanus?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Goes like?

  • ACTOR:

    Annus.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Vocative plural of annus is?

  • ACTOR:

    Anni?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Romani.

  • ACTOR:

    Eunt.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    What is eunt?

  • ACTOR:

    Go.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Conjugate the verb to go.

    That is something that was hilarious to an earlier generation. And I don't think it means anything at all now. I made a reference on Joe Mars' show to Latin the other day.

    And it was though the audience went, what's that, you know?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But, somehow, people still need to laugh.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Oh, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Humors goes on.

    So, this story is going to continue? It only takes up to…

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Oh, yes. It just takes us up to the beginning of "Python."

    And some people said, well, we thought there was going to be much more about "Python" in it. And I said to the publisher, have we misled? And they said, no, no, if it had been about "Python," the book would have been called "Monty Python by John Cleese." And there would be a lot of stuff to do. It was all "Fawlty Towers," "A Fish Called Wanda."

    There's the psychiatry books. There's the manager that sells training films. So, that will be the next one. And then the third one will be called, "Why There Is No Hope," because I have decided there isn't.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That's it?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    That's it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There's no hope?

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    No hope for planet at all.

    But I will be gone before the planet is gone, so it's your problem.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    On that very cheerful note.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, anyway, John Cleese, thanks so much.

  • JOHN CLEESE:

    Pleasure. Nice talking to you.

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