John Cleese Revisits His Pre-Monty Python Time in New York

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Photo: Bobby Doherty

“What I remember,” John Cleese says as he peers outward from center stage at the Schoenfeld Theatre, “is, during our first rehearsal, a lot of people in the very back, moving around.” It was exactly 50 years ago, in the fall of 1964, and the Schoenfeld was called the Plymouth. Cleese and six university friends had staged a comedy revue that had gone on tour; renamed Cambridge Circus, it was transferring to Broadway. Those people agitatedly milling around “were the investors. And after the first rehearsal, they told us they wanted us to change about 20 percent of the show.” Never mind that it had toured to New Zealand and back; it was rewritten, “and was better for it,” Cleese admits. When it opened, it received good reviews in nearly every paper except the New York Times (“a series of irrelevancies that fall flat”). Cleese recalls watching the opening-night party disintegrate as that review came in. The show closed in three weeks, reappearing briefly in an Off Broadway house. But before long, Cleese was getting regular work on the BBC; within five years came the premiere of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which he and five friends sicced dead parrots and the Ministry of Silly Walks upon the world. 

Cleese’s warm memories of the run constitute a significant slice of So, Anyway …, his new making-of-a-comedian memoir. New York then, he says to me, “was wonderful — the sense of anonymity — and Americans simply worked so much better than Britain did. Service was better; things were more efficient.” One of his co-stars was Graham Chapman, who became his writing partner and fellow Python. He also met the young actress Connie Booth here; she became his first wife and, later, co-star in Fawlty Towers, the intricate BBC sitcom that just may be the funniest ever aired. Sizing up the Plymouth-now-Schoenfeld, he remarks, “If I were coming in here for the first time now, I’d like this.”

We head up four steep flights to the dressing rooms, occupied by the stars of Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play. (Coincidentally, it’s a comedy about Broadway actors who dread a forthcoming Times review.) Cleese is pretty limber at 75, though he has a new hip and knee; no more Silly Walks for him. We stop in to visit Megan Mullally, who greets him delightedly: Cleese played her love interest for a season of Will & Grace, and she’s said that he was her favorite guest star. Mullally notes that she, too, has a history here. “I saw my very first play in this theater, and it was Equus, and it was the very first time I’d ever seen a penis. Peter Firth. He was my firth!”

Cleese laughs, and they spend a few minutes reminiscing. “I have another wife — a nice one,” he tells her. “Do you remember that lunch we had, and I was telling you about that phone call …” 

Mullally pauses, trying to be diplomatic about his ex. “Yeaaah, she didn’t seem … too great.”

“I got rid of her,” Cleese responds. “It cost me $20 million.” Mullally bugs her eyes theatrically. “If I’d known you had $20 million, I’d have divorced Nick and run off with you!” That’s Nick Offerman, Mullally’s husband; his show, Parks and Recreation, isn’t so big in the U.K., and Cleese hasn’t seen it. “Nick’s famous now!” she explains. “He’s a big celebrity! Everybody likes him way more than me.” Then, as they swap e-mail addresses, Cleese starts thinking aloud about a screenplay he has in the works: “There isn’t a great woman’s part — oh, there’s a policeman! Can you play a policeman?” “Fuck yeah!” says Mullally, sounding eager. They kiss good-bye, and Cleese and I wind our way back downstairs.

It’s a strange thing, being a Python in 2014. The series wrapped 40 years ago, after just three and a half short seasons. (Apart from an epilogue, Cleese’s book ends at the first taping.) It was a middling success until it was rerun, sporadically on the BBC and relentlessly on American public TV. “PBS told me that it more or less saved their bacon,” Cleese recalls. “But it was never going to get on proper television, because the lengths of the programs were wrong.” ABC briefly tried, but to make room for ads, “they cut out punch lines! Or cut lead-in lines and left punch lines. Those people had no idea what they were doing.” In the ensuing case of Gilliam v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., the Pythons won. “What’s coming through in that book,” Cleese says, “is that almost any time I’ve done anything that’s been at all new, most of the people in charge have not got it, and the critics have not got it, and most of the general public have taken a little time to come around.” The general public eventually did, so much so that Python history is now part of the course of study for the British citizenship test. In America, Python fandom is a kind of comedy secret handshake: If you meet someone who cracks up at a mention of Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, you know you’ve found a comrade.

We head over to the Hotel Algonquin’s bar to talk, and Cleese mentions that he’s a huge fan of James Thurber, who regularly stayed upstairs. On the street, two fans in quick succession stop and ask to shoot selfies with him. He is polite and smiles, but declines: “I don’t do that.” He says he’s still surprised by how many people chew over the old shows. “This summer, a group of people in Sweden put on three Fawlty Towers onstage, in the open air, about a thousand seats. And people left their homes and paid money to see stuff which they had at home on a DVD, done well.” He throws up his hands, raises his eyebrows. “I have no idea! No idea why they’re doing it. But we’re trying it in Australia next.”

Last year, the Pythons — having declined to reunite for 30-plus years, their resistance intensifying after Chapman died in 1989 — had a seven-figure legal bill to pay off, owing to a rights lawsuit. A producer friend remarked that a one-night stand at the O2, the 20,000-seat arena in London, would clear their debt. Tickets sold out in 44 seconds, and nine more nights were added.

A comedy greatest-hits show would seem even more paradoxical than a staged Fawlty Towers. When the Pythons did it at City Center in 1976, Cleese recalls, “the first time, I came on to huge applause, and then played the sketch to complete silence. It rattled me. And then the sketch finished and there was tremendous applause. And I said to a stagehand, ‘What’s going on here?’ And he said, ‘Look through the gauze in the curtain.’ And I did, and I could see the lips in the audience moving — they were doing the dialogue of the next sketch that was going on. And I began to think, What is the point of this? And he said, ‘You’ve got to see it like a rock show. They want to share it with you. They can hear the songs better at home, but it’s about experience.’ I used to think of the audience as a sort of object that had to be made to laugh, and now I’m much more aware of their importance.”

He’s working on another book, on creativity, and thinking about a follow-up memoir of the Python years and a stage version of his 1988 movie A Fish Called Wanda, which he’s planning with his daughter Camilla. “We’ve written a rather good first draft. The problem with musicals is that they have the longest gestation period of anything. There’s no point in starting if you then have to go off and get money. So I’m waiting till I can afford to take four or five months off.” Plus that movie he mentioned to Mullally — “but I’m too old to make it; I have to write it for Hugh Laurie or someone” — and a French farce that he’s translated and wants to put onstage in London. He is active enough, he says, that he’s drifted away from TV comedy. “I don’t watch very much now,” he admits. “I read — you know that curse, ‘May you live in interesting times’? Well, these are interesting times, and I don’t feel I have a grasp of what’s going on. Any more than I grasp why the Swedes would leave their home to watch Swedish Fawlty Towers.

*This article appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.