John Cleese did a pretty good job of explaining his comedy formula during last month’s Monty Python reunion at New York’s Ziegfeld Theatre. “Graham (Chapman) and I wrote sketches where people started out fairly calm,” he said, “and finished up shouting at each other.” Some might argue that Cleese’s contributions to Python were a little more complex than that, but it’s essentially the nuts and bolts of his genius. The silly walks made him famous, but there are few things in this world as perfectly hilarious as John Cleese losing his temper.
During the reign of Monty Python’s Flying Circus—originally broadcast on the BBC from 1969 to 1974—Cleese was the ensemble’s volatile nucleus. He wasn’t the cast member who responded to chaos with a befuddled, dazed expression. He was the one who exploded in anger with little or no provocation, whether howling inconsolably about being sold a dead parrot or interrupting a scene to shriek incoherently, and for no apparent reason, about the “filthy bastard commies, I hate ’em! I hate ’em! Aaargh! Aaargh!” He continued his blitzkrieg of comedic fury in the 1975 BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers, in which half the fun was just watching the veins start throbbing on Cleese’s neck. In one episode, he attempted to put German tourists at ease with some horrific Nazi jokes, and then justified his behavior by shouting “I’m trying to cheer her up, you stupid Kraut!”
Forty years after he first became a comedy star, Cleese is no less venomous or quick to anger. In his latest one-man show, A Final Wave to the World (or The Alimony Tour, Year One)—currently touring the West Coast, with performances tonight and tomorrow in Scottsdale, Arizona—Cleese eviscerates his ex-wife, Alyce Eichelberger, who inspired (at least financially) his return to the stage. At various points during the show, he compares her to the Orcs from Lord of the Rings and describes her as “the special love child of Bernie Madoff and Heather Mills.” Even at 70—he celebrated the milestone birthday in late October—Cleese seems as bewildered and outraged by the world as when he was a young Python.
I called Cleese before he embarked on his American tour, which he promises will continue through 2010, or at least as long as it takes to pay off his alimony, which is in the ballpark of $20 million (so your odds of seeing him onstage are pretty good). Moments after he picked up the phone, Cleese announced that he’d just witnessed his very first chipmunk. “I might have seen them in zoos before,” he told me, “but I’ve been in California for fifteen years and I’ve never seen one until this morning.” When I pressed him for details (convinced that this was just some Pythonesque joke I hadn’t yet figured out), he admitted that he likes chipmunks because they remind him of rats, and went on to explain that he’s owned several pet rats, who have a nasty tendency to develop tumors during infancy and die young. Time and time again, he told me, rats have broken his heart.
How do you respond to something like that? The interview hadn’t even officially begun, and Cleese had already rendered me speechless.
Eric Spitznagel: It’s a little strange to be talking to you. You were indirectly responsible for a pretty big adolescent moment for me.
John Cleese: Am I? And what would that be?
When I was a teenager, you were the reason I first told my parents to fuck off.
Wonderful! Tell me, was it because of Life of Brian?
No, it was a Flying Circus sketch. The one with Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion talking about burying live cats. My parents told me it wasn’t funny and I just flipped out.
(Laughs.) I love it. Are they still around?
One of them is.
You should send them some of the press from the 40th anniversary, and then say “See, I told you so!”
(Laughs.) I think I might. You’re never too old to tell you parents to suck it.
I had the same argument with my dad about the Goon Show. I can still remember the absolute delight when I found a really good review of the Goon Show in the arts section of Punch magazine. I took it over to him with this sense of triumph. “See?”
Is that what you had in mind when you were writing for Python? Were you hoping to create a rift between parents and their offspring?
Absolutely. That was the main purpose of the operation, yes. The secondary purpose was to cause a surrealist movement in the United Kingdom. But that failed miserably, of course. I suppose one out of two isn’t bad.
Python nostalgia seems to be much more prevalent in the U.S. than in England. Are your fellow Brits just jealous?
They are, yes. (Laughs.) England is a fairly envious little country and it’s embodied in the press. They don’t like anyone being more distinguished than they are. So they will acclaim you in the beginning of your career, but after that, it’s a pretty negative process. They try to cut you down to size so that they feel bigger than you are. I hardly ever get that feeling with American journalists but I always get it with English journalists, or at least the older ones.
That’s surprising. I always thought the U.S. was the world leader in resenting the success of others.
I think it’s because in America you always get the sense that if you fail, you can just pack up your things and go somewhere else and try again. But in England, it’s so geographically small that if somebody succeeds here, it reduces your chances of succeeding.
You took the Proust Questionnaire recently. When asked what you consider to be the most overrated virtue, you said “loyalty.” Was that a not-so-subtle jab at your Python pals?
Oh, I said that rather flippantly. I didn’t intend it to be directed towards them. I just think that sometimes we hang onto people or relationships long after they’ve ceased to be of any use to either of you. I’m always meeting new people, and my list of friends seems to change quite a bit. And there are some that I simply fall out of contact with because I don’t see them regularly anymore. The friendship finally gets down to one lunch a year and a Christmas card. You can’t pretend that’s a very close friendship, even if there’s a lot of history there. I think that one of the mistakes I’ve made professionally has been hanging on to old friendships long after that relationship has run its course.
You turned 70 a few weeks ago.
Yes. Thank you for reminding me.
Sorry. Were you not ready for that particular birthday?
No, I was ready for it. I don’t feel old. Well, not mentally at least. My right knee has been reminding me that I’m not 25 anymore. I think I’m going to have to get one of those replacement things. But otherwise I feel very good, especially knowing what they’re doing in the wonderful world of medicine. I hope to be around longer than people expect. I’ve heard all sorts of claims by biologists about the possibilities of stem cells and I’m rather hoping that these claims are justifiable.
You’re holding out for science to make you immortal?
Not immortal necessarily, but I think stem cells may change things more than people think. If it works, it means that I can go on being quite active in things like films and television and so forth. If it doesn’t work, then it probably means I should concentrate on autobiographies.
You seem pretty confident. You’ve promised that you’ll be doing your one-man show for at least the next seven years.
Yes, but that’s out of legal necessity. I have to find a way of earning a million dollars a year for the next seven years. So I really don’t have much choice in the matter.
You may be the first person to use alimony as a justification for cheating death.
(Laughs.) Yes, I suppose so. I rather like that. It’s a very simple, conventional show, so it won’t take a lot out of me.
Is this show entirely about your divorce?
Oh no, no, not at all. It’s about my life in comedy; working with Marty Feldman, and Peter Sellers, working with the Pythons, doing Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda, all that stuff. The bits about my divorce are mostly in the beginning.
From what I’ve heard, you seem a little bitter about your ex-wife.
I hope it doesn’t come across as bitter. I can see the funny side of divorce, believe me. I find the whole thing rather absurd. Because Alyce and I didn’t have children. She brought no assets and no income to the marriage. I think it’s because of the nature of American law here in California. It’s not sexist in any way, it’s just slanted against the breadwinner, whether that breadwinner is male or female. And I suppose it’s not surprising when you think about how emotionally hopeless most lawyers are. It’s why they’re drawn to a system that is fundamentally and deeply paranoid. So why should it be a surprise that they fuck up something like marital law? When I was in therapy, which I was in for many years on account of my relationship with my mother, I learned that most of the people in therapy are either lawyers or barristers. (Laughs.)
Your ex-wife was a psychotherapist, right?
Yes, but as it’s been widely remarked, professional therapists are the people least good at looking into themselves. I think a lot of psychiatrists go into the business because they know they need help at some level, and then they get to a point where they think, “Well, I went through my training analysis, so I am now, for all practical purposes, perfect, and I do not need to do any more work on myself.” Once you get that, you have a pretty disastrous personality.
Was Alyce constantly trying to analyze your problems?
Um. (Long pause.) Well, she certainly offered criticism. (Laughs.)
Did she ever get it right?
I wouldn’t say so, no.
If you had to psychoanalyze yourself, what exactly is your problem?
(Long pause.) I would say that I began with a very edgy, very driven personality and after a sufficient amount of therapy over many, many years, I managed to become rather relaxed and happy. But there’s no question that during the Python days I was edgy. I was not happy very much most of the time.
You’ve been called the dark Python. Does that seem about right?
I think that’s just plain ignorant. (Laughs.) If you knew two or three of the other Pythons, you would realize that several of them operated from the dark side. Terry Gilliam believes that without Sturm und Drang you can’t produce good art. I think I also bought into that notion at one point in my life, but then my therapist—he was a wonderful old guy who was not only Viennese and Jewish but actually knew Freud—he said to me, “This belief of yours, John, that good art comes out of struggle. Tell me, did things happen easily in your family?” (Laughs.) I laughed for about five minutes.
You’re telling me that your parents weren’t especially funny people?
Not in the slightest. When I visited my parents as an adult, and I suggested going to the movies that afternoon, it was as though I suggested we invade Manchuria. (Laughs.) The sheer amount of anxiety that this would cause. Father went to the window to check the weather, and Mother started to worry about whether we’d go to the movies after tea or before tea. (Laughs.) So once I realized that this was familially bred into me, that it had nothing to do with how funny or not funny I was, I now believe that the less Sturm und Drang there is, the better.
But yet you still have a very dark sense of humor.
Oh yes, my sense of humor is still very, very black. I like to make jokes about death, for example, that for some reason make people quite nervous. But it’s because I’m not particularly scared of death. I certainly don’t want it to arrive yet because I’m having such a good time. But I don’t have any doubts that I’m eventually going to die. I think it’s hilarious the way so many people stick their heads in the sand, trying desperately to pretend that they’re not going to die, that somehow they’ll be the exception.
You gave an expletive-filled eulogy at Graham Chapman’s funeral, in which you basically said “Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard.” Do you have something equally shocking planned for your own funeral?
Oh yes. I plan to record a posthumous announcement, settling a few old scores and telling a few people in the congregation exactly what I think of them. I will be dead, but I will still be keeping them on their toes.
Please tell me that you’ve already recorded this.
Not yet, no. I don’t feel like there’s any immediate rush. Unless I have an accident, I think I’m going to be around for a bit longer.
You announced on Twitter that you were considering committing suicide on your birthday. Obviously that didn’t happen.
Yes, but I do that sort of thing all the time.
(Laughs.) No, no. Talk about my own death. Three years ago at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Canada, I did this gala where I basically announced that I wanted to go out on top, and I thought there was no more spectacular way than to kill myself at the end of the show. And the audience voted on how I should be offed, whether I would be stoned to death or shot by a Spanish firing squad. I ended up being beheaded.
In all seriousness, if you committed suicide, how would you do it?
(Long, thoughtful pause.) Well, I rather liked that bit I did for Meaning of Life, where a guy was executed by being chased over the edge of a cliff by naked women. If I had to go, I’d prefer it be something like that. Actually, any sort of death would be preferable to voting Republican. (Laughs.)
Thank you for bringing that up. I was waiting for a segue to talk about Sarah Palin. I need another reason to get into a screaming fight with my parents over something you’ve said.
(Laughs.) I cannot wait to help you with that.
During the last presidential election, you called Palin a “nice-looking parrot.” Has your opinion of her changed now that she’s written a book?
Not at all. I still think there’s something parrot-like about her. Whenever she goes on television, she just repeats the phrases that have been carefully taught to her by Dick Cheney.
Do you think she’ll try to run for President in 2012?
No, I don’t. But I think if she runs, and I hope she does, she will destroy the right wing of the Republican Party. And I’m rather looking forward to that. I think the right wing of the conservative party, the real conservatives here in America, are the maddest group of people I’ve ever seen in my life. They make the left-wing fringe look almost normal.
You’re being facetious, right? You don’t actually think all conservatives are clinically insane?
I wrote a book with Robin Skynner called Life and How to Survive It, which is essentially about mental health and what it means to be mentally healthy. I think what you’ve got on the right of the Republican Party is a group of people who are very prejudiced, and are very emotional about their prejudices, without by and large having many powers of analysis or introspection. When Obama was elected to office, he just caused them to feel crazier and crazier, because he’s clearly so much saner than they are. The response of most people to feeling crazy is not, “Oh I must be crazy, so therefore I should try to become saner.” It’s actually to become even more crazy.
Isn’t there a danger in deifying Obama? That’s what the Republicans did with Bush and it didn’t turn out so well.
I’m not saying Obama is right on everything. Of course not. He may be wrong on a number of things. But what I do know is that he behaves like a very, very sane man almost all the time. When I see Dick Cheney on television, receiving awards for what he did with Rumsfeld, or Sarah Palin trying to pretend that she has any rational political ideas at all, (laughs) I think it’s one of the funniest things you can see in the free world.
That’s a pretty big compliment, coming from somebody like you.
When you’ve been doing comedy for forty years, you really do know most of the jokes. And even if you don’t know a specific joke, you can pretty much guess what it’s going to be. I don’t laugh at performed comedy as much as I used to. I get more giggles out of Palin or Cheney than anybody else. (Laughs.) There’s so much free entertainment if you just know where to look.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com)