October 16, 2000

Cleese Discusses Differences in British, American Humor

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Cornellians received a glance into the life of actor-comedian-writer John Cleese, A. D. White Professor-at-Large, last Friday following a showing of the Monty Python cult classic, Life of Brian.

Cleese discussed his film, as well as American humor and British humour, during a question-and-answer session in Bailey Hall.

Last appearing on campus in February 1999, Cleese’s return marked his second visit to Cornell as an A.D. White Professor-at-Large.

Life of Brian, a comedy about a contemporary of Jesus Christ who accidentally becomes a Messiah, has grown in popularity over time, according to Cleese. Upon its release in 1979, the movie received critical reviews.

“Universal [Studios], Disney and Warner Brothers all passed the opportunity,” Cleese said, noting that no American studio would produce it. “They said it was too English.”

When the movie opened it was banned by many religious groups — including some Lutheran and Catholic sects — because of the controversial final scene. In the finale, the lead character, Brian is crucified with a group of prisoners, singing “always look on the bright side of life” while hanging from the cross.

The crucifixion scene “wasn’t intended to make fun of Christ,” Cleese said.

Rather, “I think it is possible for us to laugh at death,” he added.

On the other hand, Cleese expressed his disapproval for excessive violence and profanity in recent movies, such as in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction. Himself notorious for eliciting outrage among audiences, Cleese maintained that he intentionally used shock sparingly in Life of Brian.

Cleese noted that American and British viewers respond differently to the film.

For instance, Americans thought the Judea faction in Life of Brian mocked actual Middle Eastern terrorist groups. Conversely, British audiences saw a witty connection in that scene to feuding groups in contemporary English politics.

The British, Cleese said, are more prepared than Americans to respond to the film’s (British) humor.

“British are more in love with pure silliness, and the Americans are more in love with one-liners,” Cleese noted.

Many may think this humor, characteristic of Cleese’s Monty Python films, is a result of acting. Cleese attributes the final product of his work, however, to talented writing.

“If you want to understand the Monty Python group, understand them as a groups of writers,” Cleese said.

An actor and writer for Life of Brian, Cleese recalled many terrific fights over the film’s material. Notably, he could not recall a single quarrel that revolved around acting.

“As writers, we instinctively knew who should play what part,” Cleese said.

Scenes such as Brian’s Latin lesson, administered by a Roman soldier after he wrote graffiti in improper Latin were a product of the movie’s script, not impromptu acting, he noted.

“I think there is a tiny bit of arrogance in improvisation,” Cleese said.

He wondered, “Are you really going to come up on the spot with something better than what the writers have spent four months doing?”

Cleese’s film credits include A Fish Called Wanda, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Time Bandits and Fierce Creatures. He will next appear as R in an upcoming James Bond movie, and he will also be featured in a film based on the best-selling novel series, Harry Potter.

Archived article by Lizzie Andrews