A back-and-forth with the FAWLTY TOWERS frontman.
We sat down with legendary comedian, writer and actor John Cleese to discuss life, love and lessons.
So, John, I’ve just finished your autobiography − entitled SO, ANYWAY. . . − in which you talk about being a teacher. You sound like you were a pretty good one, what advice would you give to student teachers listening to this?
Well, what I think I would say is really try to think your subject through so that you’re not just trotting out what you’re taught. The cleverest guy I knew at Clifton was called John Lloyd, and I asked him once, because I liked him very much, I said ‘you’re much cleverer than me, why?’ And he said ‘I don’t know, but when I try to understand something I just lie down on the bed and think about it till I’ve understood it’. I think a lot of us read something and take it in, but we don’t really think it through, we don’t think of all the consequences and all the connections. I think if you do then you know the material so much better, you can be more flexible and more interesting.
The other thing is you’ve got to start from the kids – I was married to a psychotherapist who was supposed to be very good with kids and I remember once she was talking with someone, a little kid who was about eight, and I thought, she’s using words he can’t possibly know. So you’ve got to start, like I do if I’m doing a speech, with the audience. What do they know, what are their expectations? When are they going to get bored? What’s going to annoy them? What is going to interest them? It’s different for everyone, I think the teacher has got to go in and look at the kids and think: how do I get their interest?
But the best bit of advice I was ever given was by a tutor who I thought was a genius, who taught three of my kids, and he said always start where the energy is. You must find out what their interest is, something that grabs them, start with that and then start working outwards. Don’t start by having an agenda, which you then try to cram into their mouths regardless of whether they’re interested or not.
I found amputating a hand was extraordinarily effective. I always obviously amputated the non-writing hand, but I only had to do that a couple of dozen times and I got enormous respect from the boys.
Actually the only other thing I did for them sometimes if they needed to spell something, which is annoying in English because lots of things aren’t spelled as they should be, I always used to say write it out a few times and I always remember that I misspelled a word on the blackboard. Woolly. I misspelled it and the boys pointed it out – ‘it’s two L’s sir!’ – and so I said fine, I gave them something to do and I wrote it out a hundred times on the blackboard. They thought that was fair!
Do you advise jetting off to a nice sunny place for anyone considering writing a book?
I realized, I’d only done about twenty thousand words, and I thought I’ve got to make a big effort, I thought what am I going to do? I’m going to go to Australia, which I adore, Sydney, which is my favourite city, and stay at the Four Seasons hotel, which is brilliant, and then I’m going to look at the opera house out of one window, and I’m going to look at the Sydney Harbour bridge out of the other window and I’m going to go to the very good coffee shops and drink coffee and I’m going to write forty thousand words. That’s exactly what I did. Forty thousand in four months. But of course it was a delight to get up in the morning because the sun’s out and we British all know about that. I just adored it. And I have to tell people, I think if you’re doing anything creative the absolutely disastrous thing is interruptions, they are so much more disruptive than you ever really realise. So there were very few interruptions there because people weren’t after me all the time, I didn’t have any of those awful things called friends who wanted to come and spend time with me, so it was a delightful plan. But I think you’ve got to do that, you’ve got to cut yourself off. When I wrote the first draft of A FISH CALLED WANDA, I wrote it in two and a half weeks. I had it in my head, but I wrote it in two and a half weeks by going off to what we used to call a ‘health farm’, and I just lived the book. First thing in the morning I got up and I would go and sit at the desk and see what I’d written the previous night, and I ‘d make a few corrections and I’d go in, have a little wak, have some breakfast, come back, make a few more corrections, have another walk…and that way you’re just thinking about it for the whole time. It’s obsession, but it works.
When the Pythons went to the West Indies to write LIFE OF BRIAN, we went for two weeks, and everyone said lazy bastards, you won’t do a thing! We wrote the thing in two weeks. The first draft. And it was because, as Terry Jones said, we didn’t have to take the kids to the dentist. We could just obsess.
Stephen Fry says at the beginning of his autobiography that he wishes he could be as bitchy about people as Rupert Everett but he’s just too polite. Was that a concern of yours? Did you have to self-censor?
I think the most unpleasant thing in an autobiography is when you feel that people are settling scores. I was accused of that by just a couple of critics, out of a large number, and I don’t think I was doing that. There are certain things in retrospect that make me angry and they were often things that teachers did to me at school which they oughtn’t have done as teachers which didn’t make me angry at the time, but which in retrospect I think was wrong. And then there are other things where I try, because I have enormous affection for Terry Jones, I tried to explain the kind of quarrels, verbal quarrels, that we had about material. And when I started to think about it I suddenly realized, all we ever fought about was the script. We never squabbled about who was going to get what part, because as writers we always knew who should be performing what. But we used to get quite upset about scripts because we couldn’t agree about whether something was good enough or not, or how something should be developed. I was thinking it should go in one direction, Terry would think it should go in another. But it was never personal, it was always us caring too much about the material and getting too worked up about it. We used to argue about ridiculous things. I remember a long argument once, somebody said oh this dormitory should have a chandelier – oh no, not a chandelier, a dead stuffed farm animal with a light bulb screwed into each one of is feet. And somebody said well that’s funny, obviously a sheep, and somebody said, 'what do you mean a sheep?' 'Well it’s got to be a sheep.' 'It’s not funny if it’s a sheep, it needs to be a goat!' 'A goat? A goat’s not funny. . .' This went on for twenty minutes. People were going out getting quite angry. I remember thinking this is mad! Absolutely insane. It’s obvious it’s got to be a goat. What are they all arguing about? And we did settle on a goat.
You talk about being naturally a basically shy person and the challenges involved in performing. Do you have any advice for shy people in getting on in life?
I remember about ten years ago, and this got a lot of attention at the time in the press, they did a survey in America and they asked people what was the thing that they dreaded most, and the top of the list was public speaking. The second, and I’m not joking, was dying. They are all the more scared of getting up and speaking in front of an audience as they were of snuffing it! Which is insane! But when you get up, somebody once said there’s a good evolutionary reason, because when you were out on the plains, if you suddenly found everyone one was looking at you, you were probably in trouble. So we might be hard-wired to feel a little uncomfortable when everyone’s staring at us. You don’t stare at an actor, you watch an actor, but it’s exactly the same as staring at him, and if people stare at you that can be aggressive. So there’s a whole lot of deep reasons, but the fact is getting up in front of an audience makes most people nervous. Getting up and trying to make people laugh is much worse than just talking, because if you fail you feel such a prat. It’s so humiliating to try and make people laugh, that’s why comics talk about dying. I think the thing to do is to think out as carefully as you can what you want to say, and always think, is this of interest to the audience or is this boring? Because when people get up to speak they are usually go on too long. And very frequently what they are really doing is about themselves and preening themselves, it’s their moment of glory in the public eye, you know? It’s their hour in the sun, people have to sit there and listen to what they have to say. Try not to bore people! Say are they going to be interested in this? No, this is just a story to show how smart I am. Cut it out. That’s the key thing. You’ve got to start like if you were a teacher, what’s the audience, what do they want to hear? What are they interested in? What’s going to put them off? Start by thinking about that.
Sense of humour is very much more subjective than we think. When I’m in America I’m always amused when Americans say to me, 'Oh, we just love British humour, you know, Monty Python, Benny Hill. . .' I want to say well actually those are probably separate categories. Not that what Benny wasn’t a very funny man, but it’s not exactly Python humour. So there’s lots of different types of humour and lots of different sensibilities. So a lot of the time it’s very hard to generalize about humour, although people do.
Python people love silliness. I’ve heard so many cab drivers say to me when I first started, they like it, they say 'I sit with my son and my daughter but my wife sits in the kitchen saying "I don’t know what you see in that rubbish."' It was at that stage, the daughters liked it, but it was the mums who probably hadn’t been as well educated as the daughters just didn’t get what it was about. My mum couldn’t understand it at all! No idea what it was about. And I have to tell you some of the executive didn’t understand what it was about. The guy that was in charge of light entertainment called Tom Sloane, he was the senior executive, he got into the elevator with the director Ian McNorton and said, 'I hate it! I have no idea what it’s about.' So, it’s all very subjective and there are people trying to say something is funny, something is not funny – or they say it’s an old joke, well it all depends if you’ve heard it before! If you haven’t heard it before it’s not an old joke, do you see what I mean?
Tell me about your fascination with animals. I heard you’ve owned a few.
Well, lemurs I’ve always been in love with. I should have married one, as I’ve said many times. So actually I’d rather have my fourth wife than I would a lemur. Just. They are the sweetest little things. I used to go back and look at a black and white ringtail lemur in Bristol when I was sixteen. I would go to its cage and watch it because I thought it was the sweetest, cutest little thing. And then I got asked by Gerry Durrell’s zoo, by his lovely widow, would I go and do a documentary about a release of captive-bred lemurs into the wild? To improve the gene pool of a native population. And I got associated with lemurs. The goats thing is much more reasonable because Jenny and I went to a place called Oman, which is somewhere in the Middle East. I couldn’t find it on the map even after I’d been there. Oman has got lots of rocks, it’s rock-rich. If you like gravel, or rocks of any size, cricket ball size, or large ones that you can’t quite push. And then they’ve got mountains. They’ve got lots and lots of rocks. It’s a rock-rich country. But they don’t have a great deal of entertainment. We went out and discovered that we could feed the goats, so Jenny stole all the stuff that people had left on their breakfast tables and put them in baskets and we went and fed the goats. A goat came up to us that looked as though it hadn’t been put together properly. But Jennifer fell in love with it, because it was so strange and cute. So she started feeding it three times a day and then we decided we liked goats so much, that we would get a little house, which we’d been thinking about for some time, a country retreat in Bath, Salisbury or somewhere and we would get a garden and we decided we would have goats. I’ve had goats when I’ve had money, many years ago, when I had some money, I had a ranch in California and I had a llama, I had alpacas, I had fifteen cats or something like that, I just loved having animals. I’m completely soppy in a rather contemptible way and absolutely obsessed with the three cats we have at the moment.
I’ve got a tabby that weighs eight kilos! It’s a Mane Coon, but he has a tabby marking. And he’s got a brother who’s 10 kilos. The brother is now bigger than my wife. In fact I have to tell you this, when I got back a few days ago, I caught her in bed with him. I don’t know what one does about that. Probably nothing, I think one has to be discreet. Anyway, there he was lying there . . . and I had a word with him.
What I like about cats is that they don’t pay any attention to what you say, do they? Whereas dogs: oh, they are like awful little Nazis. They are like, 'Oh master! Who should I bite next master?' 'I want you to pat me on the head and who should I bite?'
Do you always get recognized when you’re out in public?
I used to pretend to have fits before anyone knew who I was. It was quite entertaining because I would do all sorts of strange twitching in my right arm and it would take on a life of its own, extend and twitch into all sorts of strange things and I would suddenly turn to someone who was staring at me with her mouth open and they’d look away and stare out of the window. Once you become well-known you can’t do things like that because the fun was the anonymity. But I actually travel on the underground a lot, but the great thing is that no one ever recognizes me. They don’t expect to see you, you see. You just get on and sit there quietly. Last time I travelled I went a long way, about twelve stops, and I wondered if anyone would recognize me and one person did. It was about fifteen yards down the carriage. No-one else paid a moment's attention, which is lovely!
Do you consider yourself a romantic?
With Jenny I’m very romantic and she’s very romantic with me. We are just extremely silly the whole time. We are romantic in the sense that we always think of things, you see I bought her a tea towel in Salisbury cathedral this morning that had cats all over it, that sort of thing. And I lit a candle for her. So those little things, which I think are really nice. And I really believe in them. I think it’s the way girlies like it. It’s very easy for men not to do that kind of thing, and I think the constant affirmation of affection is wonderful in a relationship.
I always remember a story I was told by a Finnish lady, we were in a coach I think going around Lapland or something to visit Father Christmas, she said this is what a Finnish man is like – the wife says, 'Oh, you never tell me anymore that you love me', and the husband says, 'I informed you when we first got married and should circumstances change, then rest assured I will inform you.' But there is a certain type of English person who if he said 'I really love you' to his wife he’d think he was getting awful embarrassing soppy, and go and wash his mouth out. I think, no, those little signs of affection are enormously important. All my friends, we’re not a bunch of chauvinist pigs at all, but the one thing that we don’t understand, but we all say quietly to each other because we don’t want people to think we’re chauvinists, is – why do women talk so much? I’ve now understood it, because the act of talking to someone is an act of connection. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, I think a woman of my generation would rather have a row than a stony silence. Because there’s a connection of some sort. I think that constant confirmation of the connection is a very positive thing.