April 20, 2009

Pythons and Politics: Cleese Visits Cornell

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Even before he opened his mouth, British actor and screenwriter John Cleese was already exercising the craft that lifted him to fame — making the audience laugh.
“He is part comedian. He is part psychologist, part master-teacher and fully, a public intellectual,” said Provost Kent Fuchs as he introduced Cleese, whose serious nods to Fuchs’s words enticed laughter from the 700 audience members in Statler Auditorium.
But Cleese never ceased to tickle the audience’s funny bone throughout the hour-long public lecture. “We should tell you something, just to make sure the sound’s alright,” he began, referring to his microphone clipped on his coat. With a stern face, he then proceeded to utter a long chain of completely unrecognizable words, enticing more giggles, before he became articulate again: “… can you hear me?”
Thus began the public lecture, in which Cleese was interviewed by Prof. Elizabeth Mannix, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Management and vice provost for equity and inclusion. The pair discussed a variety of subjects, including Cleese’s career, psychology, politics, education, creativity and humor.
Cleese has been Cornell’s A.D. White Professor-at-large for eight years since 1999 — two years longer than the normal term. In 2006, he was re-appointed as the Provost’s Visiting Professor. Fuchs yesterday said that Cleese had just verbally agreed to extend the three-year term.
The screenwriter, actor and comedian first attended Cambridge University to study science, but later decided to study law instead.
“Law was kind of easier for me because I am fairly precise with my use of words and can think in categories, which is what all [lawyers] do,” Cleese said.
Cleese’s career in movies did not start in the most conventional way. He never took a drama lesson and only discovered his talent in creating sketches when he joined the Footlights comedy group in Cambridge.
“How many people really know what you want to do in life?” he asked, to which only a few hands were raised. “I think it’s amazing when someone knows and just goes for it … I have never known what I want to do. All I know is what I want to do for my next project.”
Cleese, however, has always been fascinated by psychology since he was a child. He said that several BBC documentaries on psychology left deep impressions in his young mind, including one in which a cat was offered a saucer of milk and alcohol. The cat first went for the milk, but after being prostrated by the experimenters, it started drinking the alcohol instead.
“[Psychology] fascinates me! The most interesting thing in the world,” he said while pointing at his brain, “is how this thing works and why it does the things it does.”
Cleese also related his most famous project, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, to his interest in psychology: “I’m fascinated by how human beings work in groups. The funny thing about the Pythons was it was democracy going mad. I mean, no one was in charge and it’s very unusual, I think, to get a great group of people to work satisfactorily when no one was in charge.”
The Pythons group was mentioned several times during the hour-long conversation. Cleese maintained that he is always a writer before he is a performer, and perhaps this also rings true for the other Pythons.
“We’re six writers who happen to perform our own material. We always squabble and fight about the material but we never have [a problem with] casting,” he said. “The great thing about being on the Python group is the script.”
Mannix commented that Cleese always seemed to play the “angrier” character in the show, to which Cleese responded: “Well I think the English are terribly funny when they’re angry … because they absolutely don’t know how to do it.”
“They equate being angry with losing their temper,” he continued. “Anger has absolutely nothing to do with losing temper. Anger is an energy which, if you can control it, it gets a lot done. If you lose your temper, you dissipate the anger until you make a fool of yourself … In England, to be angry is almost to lose your face. It’s a huge cultural difference.”
Before Cleese could further elaborate, the microphone malfunctioned again.
“Oh, come on,” sighed Cleese, who then removed the mic, took a few steps to the front of the stage and gently tossed it to an audience member. “I’m giving this to you. Can you burn it please?” He then lifted his head and addressed to whom he called earlier “Mr. Technology guy”: “You can go home now.” The audience erupted into laughter and applause.
For the rest of the lecture, Cleese often stood at the edge of the stage and projected his voice to the audience. “I used to have to do this in theatre anyway.”
Cleese then continued to explore the cultural difference between the two countries: “If you get famous, people here get so respectful to you in this country. There’s a kind of reverence, which is quite sickening,” Cleese said. “In England, if you’re famous, everyone’s so envious. If you want to be really popular in England, you need to have a big public failure.”
Cleese then related this reverence to American politics: “The problem in America is that you have a head of state who’s also the top political guy.”
Cleese explained that in England, one can be quite rude to the prime minister without insulting the figure head of the nation, the Queen. Americans, on the other hand, are “much too respectful to the president,” said Cleese, who went on to say that George W. Bush would not be able to survive a single press conference in England.
“It’s pathetic!” he exclaimed. “This is the most important country in the world … It’s embarrassing because we want America to be great. There is emotion when I said that that because in the 60s we looked up to the U.S. as a beacon, because it was a smart place.”
“Eight years of this rubbish,” he continued. “The Brits were asking, “where is the American’s sense of outrage?”
Cleese also spent a considerable amount of time discussing creativity and how it should be balanced with critical thinking.
“I can be creative but I also have a critical mind, so when I come up with stuff from the creative side I can analyze it and figure out what works, what doesn’t work,” he said.
He noted the imbalance in the educational system at large, in which the development of the left-brain is emphasized but that of the right-brain is mostly ignored. As an example, he shared his perplexity at MBA entrance exams, which test candidates’ critical and analytical thinking but not creativity.
“It’s a terrible, insane blindspot!” he exclaimed, noting that the most successful people are also often very creative.
Responding to a student’s question on how to train one’s creativity, Cleese recommended creating a space from “the everyday mode of thinking … where you can play. Play has to be separated from ordinary life,” he said. “If you can become playful you can become creative.”
Another audience member also asked Cleese about humor, to which Cleese noted the difference between humor and jokes. He recalled hearing about a group of marines who shared jokes in a long bus trip. Cleese demonstrated how the marines laughed loudly and almost mechanically to every joke: “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”
But humor happens only when people are relaxed and spontaneous. “When people laugh they can have new thoughts. It loosens up the mind,” Cleese said.
Citing another author’s words, Cleese described laughter as a “momentary anesthesia of the heart.” While one has to take a step back, withdraw some sympathy and empathy when he laughs, it is not cruel as we can also laugh at ourselves. “All humor is very so slightly critical,” he said.
To conclude the lecture, Cleese emphasized the importance of following one’s passion: “If you get pull too off-center … then I think you can lose touch with your core. If you can do what you’re interested in, then I promise you, you can have a pretty good life.”
The audience enthusiastically responded to Cleese’s lecture with loud cheers and a standing ovation.
David Bly, who resides in Ithaca, said he has attended events featuring Cleese for the past ten years.
“I think he talks more and more about serious subjects,” Bly said. “Part of his humor comes from his seriousness … [but] within his seriousness, he presents it in a humorous way, which makes it more accessible.”
Many audience members agreed that they came to see the famous comedian, but were left impressed by Cleese’s intellect.
“It’s really great when someone who’s an actor and interested in entertainment on screen turns out to be really interesting and intelligent in real life, because usually it’s one or another,” said Antonia Ruppel, a lecturer in classics.
“When you watch the stuff he’s written, you can kind of tell he’s not doing humor just to be funny. He’s actually very intelligent and smart and there’s a lot going behind them,” Ryan Shedd ’12 said.