JOHN CLEESE: WE FELL IN HATE WITH PALMERSTON NORTH

Megha Kehar
john cleese in the

John Cleese (centre) in the "Growth and Learning" skit from 'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life'.

All these years on, the irreverent humour of the Monty Pythons continues to inspire new comedic talent to be shocking at the most inappropriate of times.

A case in point -- John Cleese’s expletive-fuelled eulogy at the funeral of fellow Python Graham Chapman:

"Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries. And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me if I didn't, if I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him, but mindless good taste.”

Between 1969 and 1974 Cleese was the designated angry young man of 'Monty Python’s Flying Circus' TV series.

Looming tall at 6’5”, his vertical advantage lent him well to playing risible, authoritative roles. The voice of semi-reason in an imaginary absurdist world.

In this world he was the long-legged minister of silly walks or a disgruntled customer who had foolishly bought a dead parrot.

In 1975, he personified Basil Fawlty, the surly hotel owner in BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers.

Arguably, there are a few things as joyous as witnessing Mr Fawlty losing his temper with little or no provocation. After all who hasn’t trashed their car with a tree branch. We’ve all been there.

The comic genius, now 73, went on a one-man tour in 2009. He named it The Alimony Tour after he was ordered to pay his third wife $20 million in a divorce settlement.

Mr Cleese, I have to admit I am a bit excited.Oh don’t be, don’t be. Megha, how do you get the name Megha?

It either means rain or cloud, depends on when you ask my mother.

(Laughs) My wife’s a bit like that. The answer you get depends on the direction of the wind at the time.

It’s the 30th anniversary of 'The Meaning of Life.' It was different from other Monty Python movies because it returned to the sketch comedy format. Were you looking to do something different or was it a culmination of different ideas?

We couldn’t agree on anything that resembled a story. We spent an enormous amount of time on it. This was after we’d produced 'The Life of Brian,' which I think is our best film. I think 'Life of Brian' is not just very good consistently but it’s also about something important so I think that is our best work. It was recently voted the best British comedy of all time, which is not a claim that I would make.

So we were about to have a break because we had been working very hard on that. We all wanted to get away and not get back together for a year.

The guy who was managing us whose name was Denis O’brien (Cleese clarifies that’s Denis with one ‘N’) said to us if you make another film rapidly you will never have to work again and to a lazy lot like us that was a pretty big carrot dangling in front of us.

So we hurried off and started writing but we could never find a theme and we just went on and on writing and then we’d take a break a couple of months and get back together again and we just absolutely could not come up with a story or a setting even a period or place.

There were terrific arguments about it – we couldn’t think of anything. So eventually we said lets go off and do what we do in Life of Brian. Lets go off to the West Indies for two weeks. We did the whole draft in the two weeks starting from the sketches that had already been written. I remember saying to the others, “Why don’t we just pack it in. A nice holiday for two weeks, go back, say we worked incredibly hard but still couldn’t come up with an idea”.

And there was quite a lot of approval for this idea.

And then Terry Jones appeared at breakfast one day saying he had spent the evening the night before figuring out how the different sketches that had been written at that point fell into sort of different time sequences and could be regarded as birth, childhood, adolescence and early adulthood and all this kind of thing. When we looked at it we thought well this makes some sense and we agreed on what would go where.

We realised there were one or two holes in the time sequence so we had to write pieces that would fit in and it was eventually made but the trouble with the sketches is there’s no momentum from one scene to the next. Each scene stands on its own. Twenty per cent of it doesn’t work and you also can’t agree on which 20 per cent. Whereas if you get a good story like 'The Life of Brian' or 'A Fish Called Wanda,' the story really carries the thing through. I felt that 'The Meaning of Life' had weak sequences in it and the Pythons didn’t agree on which they were.

Cleese in 'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life'.

Do you have any favourite songs from 'The Meaning of Life?'

Personally I thought that 'Every Sperm is Sacred' was really good. I thought Terry Jones did a really good job on that one. But my favourite song was Eric’s 'The Galaxy Song.' I like that even better than 'Always Look on the Brightside.'

I really like that song too. You kind of walk away feeling rubbish yet somehow liberated. It gives you a perspective on how little you are, how meaningless your life is, when you think about it in relation to the vast expanse of the universe.

You’re absolutely right because once you realise that all these egotistical concerns that we find our lives full of -- are we going to fail, is this work going to be good enough, have I upset X, Y or Z, do I feel angry, and all that sort of stuff -- if you let that stuff go, get away from these sort of egotistical impulses life becomes, I think, very calm because you start living in the moment. And the key to the meaning of life is not about understanding something intellectually; it is definitely to do with being able to live in the moment.

Indeed. You said in an interview once, “If I had not gone into Monty Python, I probably would have stuck to my original plan to graduate and become a chartered accountant, perhaps a barrister lawyer, and gotten a nice house in the suburbs, with a nice wife and kids, and gotten a country club membership, and then I would have killed myself.”

Did I say that about Chartered Accountancy?

Yes.

Interesting. I think it’s probably more true of law. I actually got a law degree and a had a place in a very posh suburb in the city of London. I think I would have been quite good at law but I think I would have found it ultimately very empty.

No, I think there are other things I could have done. I could have easily been an academic psychologist. In other words, working in a university and doing experiments rather than the sort of psychologists who work clinically with patients and I think I would have happily done anything to do with animals whether it was out in the wild, conservation or working in a good conservation zoo like Taronga Zoo.

And I have a feeling that it would have been fascinating to have worked in a huge department store because you would have learned so much from everything -- from alarm clocks to wardrobes to food. Things like where it was sourced, why is it good, who made it better than somebody else and so on. I just think that would have been absolutely fascinating. You would have learned so much about life.

I’ve wondered that about people who work in department stores. It would be interesting to just watch people and be able to observe their aspirations through what interests them and why, where they want take their life and so on.

That’s right. That’s exactly right. You learn an enormous amount from interaction with people just if you’re a good observer.

'With all Monty Python movies, what I find amusing is how the style of humour tends to swing wildly between really dry and witty to ridiculously preposterous. Was that intentional or just a manifestation of different Python personalities coming through?

I think it’s just going wherever our energies carry us on a particular day. When you’re doing stuff you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what it is you’re doing in a theoretical way. It’s very simple for me. The only purpose of doing something is to make people laugh as much as I can. It’s just as simple as that and I realised years ago that being clever in comedy is much much easier than funny.

People get a lot of respect, particularly from journalists, because they do “clever” comedy. The answer is No. Clever comedy is quite easy to do provided you’re reasonably intelligent. It’s being funny that’s the difficult bit. So that’s always been an up for me and I have a more of a baffling sense of humour because on the one hand I can read very dry literature and by that I mean that there’s no knockabout in it.

I’m thinking of somebody like James Herbert. That’s a bit of a knockabout in terms of the images he conjures up. Then there’s Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. That’s wonderful written humour. Then there’s dryer stuff like American writer Ring Lardner but I also adore French farce provided it is done well (and it usually isn’t). Doing it skillfully and made to look completely believable requires a great talent on the behalf of the actors. That knockabout stuff makes me laugh more than anything else.

At the same time, I spent 20 years writing pieces that taught people management and sales skills. That kind of comedy was just observational. That was about what people did in the course of selling or interviewing people or taking a decision. It was easy to make those audiences laugh because they recognised what the jokes were but if you had shown those films to the general public they wouldn’t have got half the jokes because they don’t know what the great mistakes are when you’re selling. And all those different styles appeal to me almost equally.

The first time I watched your eulogy to Graham Chapman I remember thinking, “Ooh that could have gone quite badly”. How did you know that it would be so well received?

I didn’t. People seem to think that we know whether things are going to be very popular or funny or not. The answer is we don’t. Very frequently something we thought was very funny doesn’t work and sometimes something that doesn’t strike us as being particularly funny gets enormous laughs. I did 54 stage shows in Australia at the beginning of last year and several laughs in the show, which I thought would slightly amuse the audience, turned out to be the biggest laughs. The answer is you really don’t know. I think I’ve reached a point where I have some idea of whether something will be received with some laughter but whether it’s a little bit or a lot I really don’t know.

You once said that, “If you ever do want to kill yourself, but lack the courage, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick”. What brought on this resentment and utter hatred for this little place in New Zealand?

(Laugh) Just occasionally when you’re on a tour you get a town that’s particularly depressing. When you do have that the best thing to do is to hate it and to enjoy hating it because then you don’t get depressed. And all of us at that particular occasion and at that particular time fell in hate with Palmerston North and although it kicked up a fuss at the time there was a second slew of letters that came to us from people in Palmerston North saying, “You’re absolutely right. It is a dump”. So the opinion in Palmerston North itself was divided 50/50.

What is your favourite British comedy of all time?

I haven’t watched a lot of comedy recently because I stopped watching English television a decade ago.I think the last people who really made me laugh were The Young Ones – that was about 25 years ago.

Do you have any thoughts on Peter Capaldi being named as the Twelfth Doctor?

Oh yes! I worked with him once. He was absolutely delightful. It was a long time ago and it was one of those management training videos but I thought he was a delightful young fellow I was very pleased.

'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life' is now available on Blu-ray for the first time.