April 2, 2003

Getting to Know John Cleese

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When John Cleese enters a room, he effortlessly commands attention with a quick smile and a glance looking down from his gangly 6’6″ frame. The A.D. White Professor-at-Large spent an hour with local media yesterday, waxing humorously on wildly divergent topics ranging from comedian W.C. Fields to the recent decline of comedy to children’s author Roald Dahl. Also present was James Curtis, author of a new biography on Fields.

“Professor-at-Large — a wonderful phrase, [as if] they bring me here in a cage,” Cleese began in his typical half-mumble which could make almost anything sound funny.

The actor, comedian and former Monty Python member, best known for his ’70s BBC television work, is currently visiting Cornell to discuss the comedy of Fields, participate in several classes, talk at Cornell’s Parents Campus Visit weekend and do a live broadcast for NPR. His recent film roles include the two Harry Potter movies, Die Another Day and Rat Race.

With Oscar season just over, Cleese said he finds it interesting to look over past Academy Award winners.

“I think sometimes you need a bit of time to tell how good a movie is,” he said, noting that many of the most memorable films of past decades are not Oscar winners. “That’s particularly true of comedies.”

“There’s a lot of sentiment in the awarding of the Oscars … and politics,” he added.

Ask a random college student, and that person has probably seen a Monty Python sketch or two. Cleese said he thinks that of the Python films, Life of Brian is the best, although in America “most people prefer [Monty Python and the Holy Grail], which I think is more flawed.”

Although Cleese has spent much of his life writing and performing silly walks, cartoonish skits and physical gags, the Cambridge Law graduate does not take humor lightly.

“Comedy’s never taken seriously,” he said. “I think you have to be very intelligent to realize how important it is.”

One gets the impression, also, that Cleese spends a good amount of time analyzing comedy itself — what works, what doesn’t and why. He guesses that there are possibly 15 perfect comedies, citing as examples The Ladykillers, Dr. Strangelove and Some Like it Hot.

“It’s probably harder to make really great comedies than really great dramas,” Cleese explained before spending a generous amount of time discussing the current state of comedy.

Regarding Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which many critics consider a modern classic, Cleese simply said: “I hated it,” noting that Harold Pinter had written similar dialogue 30 years earlier.

“If you eliminated the F-word, it would be a silent movie,” Curtis added.

Cleese said that today he sees “masses of talent, but I do see two things that worry me. I don’t think there are many writers out there who are good at structure. [Secondly,] the Hollywood studios [are] aiming more specifically to younger audiences.”

“Now if you have a setup, the payoff is in the very next scene,” he continued. “I see a general lessening of subtlety.”

He recounted that during the writing of A Fish Called Wanda, he “got very depressed at what [comedies were] successful” at the time until he saw Tin Men and Roxanne, “very good comedies indeed.” Cleese was then able to begin writing the film.

He called the trend he sees in comedy “a slow process.” Cleese observed that one or two great comedies come out every decade, but that “I think they got spread out a lot more in the past couple decades.”

A recent example he cited is There’s Something About Mary, which he called “very funny but doesn’t have the evenness of tone of the great comedies.”

Cleese touched on his classic ’70s series Fawlty Towers, which he co-wrote with then-wife Connie Booth, to demonstrate his method of writing comedy.

“I much prefer meandering into it. If you establish certain things about the story clearly at the start, the audience can predict the nature of the story. … I prefer to keep it looser and vague. [Booth] and I used to try to hide the plot points [in Towers].”

He also emphasized the importance of story and structure in comedy.

“The one [element] that you cannot succeed without is story. If we’ve got a great story, even inadequacies in other departments will produce a good film,” he explained.

Cleese’s major interest during this visit is Fields, about whom he lectured with Curtis last night.

“[Charlie] Chaplin was dealing with the great social issues of the day … Fields was grappling with flypaper and dogs and small children … everyday annoyances everyone has to deal with,” Curtis said.

Cleese also commented on the Professor-at-Large program in general. Asked his opinion, he replied that “you’d have to ask other people” whether they find it worthwhile.

“I love the idea in principle that people come here who are perhaps practitioners rather than theoreticians,” he said. “In the arts, on the whole people are theoreticians.”

Cleese mentioned that earlier in the morning he had been working with “social scientists” at Cornell, calling the experience “the best two and a half hours I’ve had this year — perhaps this decade.”

And when asked whether he would consider teaching full-time, he said, “You know, the answer is really yes — if I could afford it on an academic salary. As you know, actors are absurdly overpaid.”

Cleese’s current projects include an upcoming role in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and a screenplay adaptation of Dahl’s The Twits which he is currently writing with “a very interesting young fellow,” Kirk De Micco.

Cleese hinted that “there’ll be elements” from some of Dahl’s other books incorporated into the story.

In recent years, besides working on side projects such as hosting business training videos, Cleese has had small roles in several big-budget Hollywood productions. He said that is because “it’s all I’m offered.” Also, he added, “I don’t like making movies these days because you do do 14-hour days.”

For Full Throttle, he said, he finally got to his big closeup in a scene at 2:15 a.m. after a full day of work.

“I don’t really enjoy that very much,” he said. “My career was based really … on stuff I’d written myself. That supply of work more or less dried up.”

Cleese ended by reflecting on life in general, and what else from a man who has made fun of, analyzed and studied life in its various dimensions from every conceivable angle?

“When you get to my age, you know that everything is cyclical,” he said, citing Fields’ rise and fall in popularity. Cleese laughed, saying that in his native England the words “napkin” and “serviette” often cycle in terms of popularity.

Cleese, 63, will be on campus until April 5 in his fourth visit to Cornell since 1999.

Archived article by Andy Guess