Comedian John Cleese embraces his misfortunes with grace.
“Everything is going wrong at the moment,” says Cleese, calmly phoning from an airport in Washington, D.C. “We were on an escalator, and a woman in the middle of the escalator fell onto the person in front of her, who fell onto the person in front. It stopped, and we couldn’t get off, forward or backward. You can’t build that into your schedule.”
It’s the type of situation that might happen to Basil Fawlty, the miserable hotel owner played by Cleese in his classic TV series “Fawlty Towers.”
But this minor mishap is taken by the towering performer in stride, much like many of the challenges revealed in his new autobiography, “So, Anyway…” The book follows Cleese’s modest upbringing in a sleepy British town to his raucous comedic triumphs as co-founder of the iconic troupe Monty Python.
“You can tell from the reviews, particularly the British ones, some people reading this book don’t think it’s funny at all,” he said. “I think it’s got some of the funniest stuff I ever wrote.”
That’s certainly saying something, coming from the man who penned and performed in such cornerstones of absurdist humor as “The Ministry of Silly Walks” to paragons of wordplay such as “Dead Parrot Sketch” and “Argument Clinic.” Not to mention Cleese’s oft-quoted features “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Life of Brian” or his Oscar-winning caper “A Fish Called Wanda.”
As part of a Rainy Day Books author event, Cleese will discuss his acclaimed career (which also includes contributions to the James Bond, Harry Potter and Shrek franchises) and answer audience questions Wednesday on his first-ever trip to Kansas City.
Q. A lot of your comedy revolves around language itself. What entertains you about language?
A. It’s just trying to find the right word, the right phrase to catch the essence of the situation, hopefully in a humorous way. You might be amused to know that I write with a little Paper Mate yellow plastic mechanical pencil, which I throw away when I get to the end of the lead. It’s got a little India rubber on one end of it, which I rub the words out with.
Low-tech, you could call it. I find great pleasure in rubbing the phrase out and tinkering with it. That’s a very satisfactory moment when you feel you’ve completed the picture.
What does the book’s title “So, Anyway…” mean to you?
I had one or two titles in mind. I thought I could antagonize everyone by calling it “Surrounded by Fools.” But I might use that on the third one. I noticed people who tell stories, when they do it very badly, they always lose track of the point of the joke. Suddenly during some digression, they stop, their eyes go blank, and they say, ‘So, anyway…’ It was a little joke about people telling stories badly.”
I always envisioned you as an alpha male, but your recollections of growing up are anything but that. Has that surprised readers?
One of the London papers — I think it was the Standard — said I came off in the book as surprisingly gracious. The reason the journalists were surprised was your reputation in England is largely created by the press, and it’s mostly fictional.
They decided years ago that if I played Basil Fawlty, I must be like Basil Fawlty. Whenever they can get the word Fawlty-esque in there, they will. So people get the impression I am very curmudgeonly and short-tempered and morose. My friends would say that’s absolutely not true at all.
Was it cathartic writing about your life experiences?
I’ve had so much therapy that I got over most of the emotional charges that remain from those experiences. I was very seldom affected. I think when I was writing about how unexceptional I was with girls at Cambridge, my spirits took a bit of a dip there for a couple of days. But I can’t think of anywhere else.
Mostly, it was very pleasurable. When you’re as old as I am, you realize nothing matters very much. You cannot capture that angst you used to feel sitting around wondering if you were in the right profession or being dumped by another girlfriend.
You say in the book, “Great artists may merely be ‘influenced by’ other artists, but comics ‘steal’ and then conceal their loot.” Do you spot a lot of modern comics who steal from Python?
No. In fact, I’ve always been rather surprised they haven’t stolen more. It’s more people telling me they’ve been influenced by Python. So many of the “Saturday Night Live” people have told me how influenced they were. I’ve been surprised how little copying there’s been. Normally, when something is successful, people race out to imitate it.
But I remember Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, who did a couple of successful sketch series for the BBC, they said: “When we got into Python territory, we would deliberately back off. We knew we should go in another direction.” Although people say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I have not seen much imitation.
What is Python’s most underrated sketch?
There’s a joke in “The Meaning of Life” which Terry Gilliam ruined because he directed the sequence, and the camera was racing around at top speed, so people weren’t listening to the dialogue — there was a lot happening visually. It was the best joke that we ever wrote. It was someone talking about the meaning of life, and after studying the subject, he’d come up with two things.
One was that people were not wearing enough hats. The second was a straight description of what I thought at that time was the basis for spirituality. It was very, very serious. There was a pause at the end where the guy delivered these words of wisdom, then somebody said, “What were you saying about hats?” It was all about people being distracted by inessentials. I thought it was a wonderful joke, and no one has ever laughed at it.
I recently watched “A Fish Called Wanda” again, and it seemed as fresh as “Python” or “Fawlty Towers.” Did you have a sense while making these comedies they’d stand the test of time?
No, it was the last thing that occurred to me. As I say in the book, my aim was to make people laugh as much as possible. I didn’t want anyone to say how clever my comedy was. I wanted them to say how funny it was.
What is your least-favorite interview question?
Why was it called “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”? It’s a long and tedious tale. Not a very amusing one. It’s not offensive or anything, it’s just a dull answer.
Do you have any connection to Kansas City?
None at all. But I’ve always been utterly bewildered by the fact that Kansas City is not in Kansas. If anyone told me that New York City was in Colorado, I’d be very surprised. It’s a bit of mislabeling, isn’t it? A typing error, perhaps?
What’s the last movie or TV show that made you laugh out loud?
It was about two years ago when I was on a cruise. I was a guest lecturer, and I went to another lecturer and watched him talk. He’d just written a book on Sid Caesar, and he showed a couple of clips from “Your Show of Shows.”
I was out of control. I haven’t laughed like that for a very long time. And here was this stuff from 1958. Before that, there was a scene in “Bowfinger” where Eddie Murphy was crossing a freeway with traffic. I thought that was unbelievably funny.
But I haven’t seen much recently that had me falling about.
You write that your sole aims in life are “Not to fight in a war; not to have to give birth; and not to work in finance.” Any others you want to add to that list?
I’ve been lucky to have avoided working in politics. I think that must be deeply unrewarding. Most other things I find rather interesting. How interesting it must be to be in the FBI. How much you must learn about human nature.
What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
I have absolutely no idea. So I guess I get thrown into the chasm of death.
Vivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books hosts “A Conversation With John Cleese” at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Midland, 1228 Main St. Each paid patron receives an autographed copy of “So, Anyway…” More at RainyDayBooks.com.