April 13, 2006

Cleese Dines With Becker Residents

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A surprised murmuring emerged above the din of silverware, glasses and trays at the Carl Becker House dining room last night when a tall, distinguished looking gentleman in a navy blue blazer, gray polo, jeans, and loafers (no socks) politely cut into the snaking line of hungry students. The murmuring was not in protest – any student there would have been more than happy to let Prof. John Cleese be first to reach the cheese ravioli. Cleese joined Prof. David Dunning, psychology, to speak yesterday on the topic of “How Well Do We Know Ourselves?”.

Cleese is best known for his roles in such films as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and, more recently, as “Q” in James Bond, 007: The World is Not Enough, and of course, as Nearly-Headless Nick in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It seemed most of the students neglecting their trays to gawk at the professor were there for this reason. They came with posters, with DVDs and a plethora of memorized quotations.

“I am a diehard Monty Python fan,” said Brin Rosenthal ’09, giving a fellow student a high-five. “I couldn’t miss this opportunity – it is his last appearance.”

One lucky group of students sat at the table with Cleese and Dunning. Jeffrey Ellens, assistant dean of the Carl Becker House, had presented the dorm residents with a challenge several weeks before. Each contest participant read two articles focusing on the topic of Cleese and Dunning’s presentation and responded with several thought-provoking questions.

The students with the 10 best questions earned a place at the table with one of the most diversely talented, intellectually gifted, and downright hilarious men to ever grace Cornell’s campus. Nemo Ashong ’08 was one these lucky students.

“I was mainly interested in his effect on people; things that he’s done other than what I previously knew him for,” Ashong said. “I thought it would be beneficial if I could spend some time with him, and see what he could pass on to me.”

Cleese made a point to include each student in the dinner conversation and told stories with interjections from his good friend Dunning. His contagious laughter echoed across the room, and a mischievous twinkle in his eye gave the impression that he was truly enjoying himself, brushing elbows with Cornell students.

Cleese, who studied law at Cambridge University in the early 1960s, never intended to become an actor. His mother once told him he could do whatever he wanted, as long as he got a law degree first. The plan changed when Cleese joined the Footlights, a theatre club at Cambridge. With no formal training, he joined the club not because he was necessarily interested in acting, but because he liked the people. Fortunately, his decision to pursue acting instead of law did not affect this relationship.

Cleese described his acting career as “pure fluke” and in answering a student’s question about his passion for acting, said that he had none at all, and went so far as to say that filming “is so atrociously boring.”

One might ask, “Why does he still do it?”

“By and large,” Cleese said, “It’s fantastic to be out in front of an audience, learning.” And, of course, he loves to make people laugh.

Throughout the talk, Dunning and Cleese worked off of each other’s ideas, more like two friends carrying on an animated conversation rather than giving a talk in a crowded, college dining hall on the psychological basis for self-perception and overconfidence. One was able to forget this unique location for intellectual discussion until Cleese and Dunning began to struggle to be heard over an oblivious talking student.

Cleese, in a fitting fashion, good-naturedly said, “I find myself wanting to know what’s he’s saying.” About 10 seconds after every member of the audience had turned silently to the offender, he noticed.

“Oh, don’t mind us,” Cleese said, “We were just eavesdropping.”

The talk covered many topics, with both Dunning and Cleese giving real-life application to psychology. Dunning addressed current research about the way people perceive themselves in a wide variety of tasks and situations. Studies have found that self-ratings are far better than actual performance. In fact, other people are often better predictors for an individual’s performance than the actual individual. Both Dunning and Cleese attributed this “overconfidence” to the absence of negative feedback, a necessity to improvement in any and all aspects of life – from education to entertainment.

Dunning spoke of Carol Weck’s theory about people. There are two ways to perceive oneself: One, you are what you are, a finished product, with no possibility of change and no room for failure, or two, you are what you can do – it’s all up to you and your effort. Cleese encouraged students to try their hands at everything and to assume things will go wrong; that way, it will be much less of a shock when they do. He said that a person who takes risks will succeed far more than someone who is too afraid of failure.

This Saturday, his narration of “Peter and the Wolf” will be his last public performance as an A.D. White Professor-at-Large. The talk came to a close all too soon. After signing several autographs and posing for cameras with students and his signature grin, Cleese was out the door. So too, end his term at Cornell.

Archived article by Molly O’Toole
Sun Contributor