Funny-walking, parrot-returning comedy deity John Cleese is headed to New York for a Monty Python reunion on October 16, after the premiere of IFC’s hilarious warts-and-all documentary: Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut), airing on IFC October 18. Logan Hill spoke to him about the new Fawlty Towers Remastered DVD set, out (October 20), his recent ugly divorce, Monty Python’s even uglier breakup, and his apocalyptic new work in progress “Why There Is No Hope.”.
What age are you, Logan?
Well, I have a rule not to date people less than half my age, but I guess it’s okay to be interviewed by one.
Another difference between you and some of the other Pythons.
Entirely right! [Sixty-seven-year-old Terry Jones just fathered a child with his 26-year-old girlfriend.]
How are you holding up? Sounds like you’ve had a rough divorce. You’ve called your ex “the special love child of Bernie Madoff and Heather Mills.”
I went through a very unpleasant divorce and discovered just how hopeless the American legal system is. There are a couple of occasions when I began to realize just how bad the damage was going to be. For me, most of the things people know me from —Fawlty Towers or A Fish Called Wanda — are things I’ve been able to write on spec because I had enough money to live. Now I have to pay one million dollars a year until I’m 76. So that means I have to organize my life around earning the first million dollars every year. And the normal sources of income for people like me are drying up. There aren’t as many film and TV parts — and you can do interesting documentaries but they don’t pay anything. So I’m doing one-man shows and other things …
Like interviews like this, to sell some Fawlty Towers DVDs.
Yes, that’s a big help. I’d always hoped that, at this stage in my life, I could live on the royalties and do the things I really want to do.
It’s a large settlement.
Well, the absurd thing is, my wife brought no assets or income and we had no children. And yet she seems to have finished up with a lot more than half of the money. That’s the insanity.
Can you laugh about something like this?
You know, as they always say, it depends on whether you see life as a tragedy or a farce.
You’ve often made terrible things seem hilarious. Basil Fawlty was a jerk.
Well it’s like in W.C. Fields — he’s just about my favorite comedian, but if you actually met that character in real life, I don’t think you’d like him. Basil’s awful. He’s a terrible, shallow creature, completely obsessed with class. Ah, but he is funny. We laugh at Basil because, although he behaves appallingly to other people, a lot of the time it’s because of his fear that Sybil will get very angry. We also feel sorry for him. When people behave badly out of fear, it’s much funnier than if they were just behaving badly because that’s their default mode.
And we recognize our own worst impulses in him?
Oh, yes. I think that there’s an enormous number of people in England who, given enough stress, behave very much as Basil does. That marvelous book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman has this tremendous phrase: “Stress makes you stupid.” So the more stress you put on the protagonist in the farce, the stupider he gets. That’s one of the delights of it. They make worse and worse mistakes.
You’re speaking to me from a hotel right now. Are you a double celebrity among hoteliers?
Yes, most of the hoteliers I encounter are aware of Fawlty Towers, but it doesn’t stop them being terrible hoteliers. I mean, this place that we’re in at the moment, the Radisson … well, the accountants try to save a few pennies and meanwhile they absolutely ensure that somebody like me never comes back.
They’re greedy. Earning a reputation gets completely forgotten in the rush for quick short-term profit, which is the great sin of American business. I am often quite surprised at how poor the service is in even the most expensive chains, but I always exempt The Four Seasons, because I do think that’s a marvelous chain. But this Radisson, it’s a mess. The wastepaper baskets! There’s far too few wastepaper baskets, and when you do find them, they’re always hidden away. Like they are objects of shame. I have by me now a tiny little wastepaper basket which contains a billowing plastic bag that makes it almost impossible to get anything into the bin. But that’s so the maid doesn’t have to touch it. The hotel is run for the benefit of the staff rather than for the customer.
Like Fawlty Towers. Maybe you should open your own hotel.
I think it would be a tremendous thing to do, and I may produce some training films again, because most people are absolutely clueless, but I like projects that have ends to them. With TV or a movie, you work on something for two years or six months and at the end of it, you move on. I would not be good at something that required year after year of attention.
That’s a big point of the new documentary on Monty Python. The other Pythons were angry when you quit the show a year before everyone else.
Two things: One is I did not like the fact that we were repeating a lot of our material, even if other people didn’t notice; the others didn’t care. They were having a good time. I think if one was playing “I’m the pure artist,” I would win on that one. The other thing was that I was carrying the alcoholic [the late Graham Chapman]. That seems to get forgotten in all of these discussions. They were completely blind to an extraordinarily important point, which was: I was the guy who was having to work with the alcoholic. They never said, ‘We’ll share part of that burden with you. I’ll write with him one day a week.’ This is never mentioned. It was ‘Oh, John was rather difficult … ’
How bad was it?
Well, I never knew what he was up to, because alcoholics — I now know quite a lot of them — they are all, I’m afraid, basically liars. The words are almost synonymous. There were two types of days: days where I did 80 percent of the work and days when Graham did 5 percent of the work. He was basically lazy, but he had two great qualities: He was the most extraordinary sounding board and he was capable of coming in with very good off-the-wall ideas. But he was very lazy.
In the doc, Terry Gilliam bashes your respect for psychotherapy.
I think Gilliam was so frightened of what he’d discover if he ever explored his own conscience. He is completely unbalanced, as are many of the Pythons. He is notably unbalanced.
You were the first man to say “shit” on the BBC, and possibly the first man to say “fuck” at a funeral — Chapman’s. What do you make of the controversy over an actress saying “fucking” on Saturday Night Live recently?
I think the older you get the more you begin to realize what a madhouse we live in. People get upset about things that don’t matter at all and people don’t really get upset at all about things that matter a lot. You’ve got a rotten, rickety old legal system that anyone with money can manipulate — and nobody goes around saying this; they go around worrying that somebody said “fuck.” I mean, frankly, it’s pathetic and so completely half-witted that you give up any expectation of any kind of rational behavior of any kind, in any way, as you get older. It’s a madhouse. There are small pockets of sanity, but the rest of it is irretrievably second-rate at best. So when these things come along now, I just shrug.
On the Fawlty Towers commentary you say it’s harder to laugh now.
You laugh less at entertainment because you’ve seen most of the jokes before and you can guess where the new ones are going. It’s not like when you’re young and you discover Buster Keaton or the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields or Eddie Izzard or Bill Hicks. What you begin to see is how funny life is. You turn Sean Hannity on and there is wall-to-wall insanity. They have absolutely no idea what clowns they are.
As you get older, are people getting stupider?
It can be depressing. But you have to let go of the idea that this can ever be a decent and rational place. I already have quite a lot of material for a new show I will call Why There Is No Hope. I’ve tried it out. A friend said it was fascinating afterwards because the more I destroyed people’s hope that this could ever be, in any way, a rational planet, the more they laughed.
Could you give me a preview?
Well, I’m a funny kind of professor at Cornell, and there is a psychology professor there called David Dunning who discovered that in order to know how good you are at something, it requires almost exactly the same skills and aptitude as it does to be good at that thing in the first place. In other words, if you’re a really good tennis player or mathematician then you know how to tell how good you are. But it also means if you’re absolutely no good at something then you lack exactly the skills to realize your idiocy. It explains why so many idiots out there have no idea that they’re idiots.
Do you run into this in comedy?
You find this particularly with scripts. I wrote a really good script for Disney, and the woman in charge wanted to make changes which were completely and utterly wrong. She had the confidence of the truly stupid. Then you look at the Republican Party: Here are people that are so out of touch with reality that it could be screamingly funny if it weren’t so dangerous.
As politics gets more childish, does satire get harder for you?
Yes. Take Sarah Palin — so many Republicans love her. I suddenly realized that in order to actually understand that someone is not very bright — or to be brutal, that they’re rather stupid — you really have to be more intelligent than them. Most Republicans aren’t smarter than Sarah Palin. It’s true.
If there is no hope, you must not trust Obama.
No, I have real hope for Obama, because I think without the slightest doubt he is operating from a considerably higher level of mental health than we’re used to in our politicians. I think that’s what frightens the shit out of Republicans. Because if you put very mad people in a room with very sane people the mad people start feeling madder, do you see what I mean? Whereas, if you put mad people in together — if you put the Gestapo in together — they’re all sort of reinforcing each other’s madness and everyone’s happy.