Without a doubt, John Cleese was the star attraction at last week’s 23rd annual Banff Television Festival. A founding member of the groundbreaking Monty Python's Flying Circus troupe and creator and star of the brilliant if short-lived television series, Fawlty Towers, Cleese, 62, was in Banff to receive the Sir Peter Ustinov/Comedy Network Award for lifetime achievement in comedy. He held the festival audience in thrall, whether cheekily accepting his award (“I wouldfirst like to thank me... without whom none of this would have been possible”) or relating how he used to cheer his ailing mother, who died recently at 101, by offering to hire a hit man to rub her out (you had to be there; the joke was actually affectionate). The next day, Cleese sat down with Maclean’s Calgary Bureau Chief Brian Bergman. Excerpts:
Maclean’s: What goes through your mind when, as happened yesterday, you sit with an audience as they look at clips of your work and you hear the delight and laughter that ensues?
Cleese: It’s pleasing and it’s reassuring. Because anyone who has tried to make an audience laugh is very aware how embarassing it is when they don’t.
Maclean’s: Yet you’ve said you’d be happy to be purely a writer and not perform. Wouldn’t you miss that affirmation?
Cleese: Not really. I don’t feel the need to act at all. Except that it is so much better paid than writing. That’s the ridiculous bit.
Maclean’s: Like many successful comedians, you seem to have a very serious, even sombre side. Why do you think that’s such a common trait?
Cleese: Most comics I know are a bit depressed, and often quite manic as a defence against that. A lot of them mellow as they age. But when you meet them young, they are edgy. Humour can be a way of keeping others at a distance.
Maclean’s: Is itfor you?
Cleese: Not anymore. There was a certain amount of depression in my family. It came down to me through my mother. But I’d like to think I’ve worked my way through that.
Maclean’s: You’ve talked fairly openly about going through psychotherapy. How has that affected your comedy?
Cleese: It’s made me less compulsive about working, and so probably less productive.
I hope I’ve learned more about myself, which also means learning more about other people. So I have more insight in writing character comedy. I’m probably not as inventive as I was through that Python period, partly because once you do comedy for 40 years, you know most of the jokes. You don’t get excited by things as much and it’s harder to come up with anything that’s genuinely original.
Maclean’s: Do Britons and Canadians share a certain comic sensibility? Canadians, after all, “got” the humour of Monty Python quicker than Americans.
Cleese: That’s right. You know, one of Spike Milligan’s great influences was Stephen Leacock. I also think Leacock is absolutely wonderful. There may be a shared sense of the ridiculous. Temperamentally the Canadians I know seem very similar to the British, though more relaxed, and less interested in class distinctions.
Maclean’s: Rage is a common thread in your comedy. Is there something inherently funny to you about rage?
Cleese: Yes there is. There’s something inherently funny about any emotion that takes people over. The two things I have tried to laugh at over the years are rage and failure to communicate. My mother was capable of huge rages. And I don’t think I ever communciated with her. We could laugh together, but that’s as far as it went.
Maclean’s: Why do you think series like Monty Python and Fawlty Towers have such enduring appeal?
Cleese: Fawlty Towers was very well written. Connie [Booth, his former wife and costar] and I produced quality scripts, largely by virtue of spending six weeks on each one. Today, no one spends more than 10 days on a sitcom episode, and most do it in a week.
Maclean’s: As you get older, are you fussier about the work you take on?
Cleese: Yes. At 62, you have a limited amount of creative time left. And there are so many things that are more interesting than doing comedy. I’d much rather travel, or read, or spend time talking to certain people. Then there’s always the point that we’re going to be dead soon. E3
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