There’s no mistaking the voice at the other end of the phone when it comes on the line. It’s a friendly, if slightly haughty, British accent that heralded the dawn of a new age of comedy with the phrase, “And now for something completely different,” and triggered gales of laughter while berating guests and a hapless Spanish waiter at a hotel in the English holiday town of Torquay.
Or, if you’re 10 years old and under, it’s the voice of King Harold in the Shrek movies.
Either way, it’s one of the most important voices in world comedy, and while John Cleese has made a career out of making millions laugh at middle class anxieties and post-Atomic Age insanity with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers, he’s sounding very relaxed over the phone from the Caribbean isle of Nevis.
And why not spend some time in a tropical paradise before kicking off a Canadian tour at Halifax’s Scotiabank Centre on Sunday, May 5 at 7:30 p.m.?
“I’m writing a short book on creativity, which I’m hoping will come out at Christmas,” says the man whose credentials on the topic span a half-century of work in radio, television, film, prose and video games. “It’s very simple, and deliberately so, so that a 12-year-old or even an eight-year-old can read it and learn how to become more creative.
“It’ll take about 45 minutes to read, that’s the main thing I’ve been doing.”
That and basking in a luxurious villa with a view of the golf course and the ocean, and preparing for the upcoming tour titled Why There Is No Hope, the follow-up to his previous visit to the Maritimes in 2013 on the falsely-advertised Last Time to See Me Before I Die tour.
New material, no Monty Python
That show, which ran for a few nights at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, was a comedic reminiscence of Cleese’s life, from his childhood in the sleepy seaside town of Weston-super-Mare through his time at Cambridge where he joined the famous Footlights theatrical club and befriended future Python Graham Chapman. Much of the 1960s was spent working in British TV and radio, where he also encountered Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle. Together they formed Monty Python’s Flying Circus with illustrator/animator Terry Gilliam, whom Cleese had met previously when the Footlights performed in the U.S., during the same trip where he met and married wife and Fawlty Towers co-creator Connie Booth.
As a result, none of that will be in the new show, so those hoping to hear Python material can stay at home with their dead parrots and holy hand grenades.
“This show isn’t autobiographical, at all,” says Cleese, emphasizing the last two words with extra bite. “It starts out by proving that nobody knows what they’re doing and nobody knows what they’re talking about, and we take it from there.”
In a way, Why There Is No Hope is an extension of something else that keeps Cleese busy these days: social media. The comedian is a vociferous tweeter, commenting on current events with wicked wit and pointing out how ahead of the curve Monty Python was, as the world becomes more absurdist in the extreme on a daily basis.
“I was talking to Billy Connolly 20 years ago, and I said it was becoming a race between comedians and the world as to who is more crazy,” he says. “There was a story in the papers the other day that Waitrose — which is a very good shop for food — had to remove some chocolate ducklings from the shelves because of a complaint of racism.
“You wonder how you get from ducklings to racism, and the answer is they were in three colours: white, milk and dark chocolate. And someone decided that was racist. I mean, that’s a Python sketch right there.”
Winston Churchill once said that being fired at, and not being hit, was an exhilarating experience— John Cleese (@JohnCleese) April 10, 2019
I feel exactly the same about being insulted by half-wits
I can't get enough of it https://t.co/gthK0wEvc3
In his view, the role of comedy has changed over the past half-century since Monty Python’s Flying Circus first appeared on the BBC and then gained an even bigger following in North America when picked up by PBS a few years later. At that time, the comedy pendulum swung from conservative old school standups like Bob Hope to the sheer anarchy of the Pythons, while the majority of society walked down the middle of the road.
Now it seems the giant floppy clown shoe is on the other foot, as comedians stand up for the rapidly splintering status quo.
'the moment in therapy when people start laughing at themselves is the moment they start to get better.'
“We used to like people who could laugh at themselves, and there’s not much of that around at the moment,” muses Cleese. “Being able to laugh at yourself is very healthy; I’ve written a couple of books with a psychiatrist who always said that the moment in therapy when people start laughing at themselves is the moment they start to get better.
“Because it means they can take an objective view for a few seconds of their own behaviour. You see very few people who can do that, and so the place is a madhouse. At least there’s still some fun to be had out of it, but I’m going to be dead soon, so who gives a damn?”
Being able to find humour in the darkest of subject matter is nothing new in comedy; even Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler could be mined for laughs by Charlie Chaplin in his 1940 classic The Great Dictator. Monty Python tapped that same vein three decades later when Cleese played Mr. Hilter, a candidate in the North Minehead By-Election with a remarkable resemblance to the late founder of the so-called Third Reich.
“But don’t say that he was nice to dogs, or a vegetarian, because he has to be all bad in the minds of binary thinkers. I find that very foolish, but then I’ve always eaten meat because I don’t want to be like Hitler.”
Cleese’s theatre tour in 2013 led to the best-selling 2014 autobiography So, Anyway..., which he recommends getting in audio book form since he presumes, rightly so, that the material is much funnier coming in his own voice.
With this current tour, he already has a great title in place with Why There Is No Hope, what are the odds that it could lead to a book as well?
“It could, but the thing about doing it live in front of an audience is you’re always creating new material,” he reasons. “I could think of something in the morning, scribble it down, and add it to the teleprompter, because the show is changing all the time.
“I don’t want to have to sit down and memorize it all at six o’clock in the evening, so I have the teleprompter to remind me what comes next. It really is a prompter in that sense; I’m not reading things verbatim. But it really is lovely for when I suddenly come up with a funny thought or a funny idea.”
Cleese says his most recent humorous observations were hotel-related, like the way things you need in a room like wastepaper baskets and electrical outlets are always well hidden. And then there’s the realization that a hotel’s main priority is ensuring its guests don’t jump out of the windows.
“Their entire way of thinking is ‘How do we stop people from leaping to their deaths?’,” says the man who redefined public perception of hotel owners with his iconic innkeeper Basil Fawlty. “Because if they jump out of the window and kill themselves, first it makes a terrible mess. Secondly, it’s bad for the reputation of the hotel. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
“And the third thing is, if anybody gets a photo of the staff trying to take the wallet out of the inside jacket pocket of the corpse, it’s very, very bad PR. But it’s also bad for the hotel, because you’ve checked out without paying. It’s like you have a bank account, they’re thinking, ‘Here’s someone who’s going to try and swindle us, we’d better keep a very close eye on them.’”
Doors for the 7:30 p.m. show open at 6:30 p.m., tickets range from $65 to $134, with a $359.75 V.I.P. package also available. Tickets can be purchased online at Ticket Atlantic, at the Ticket Atlantic box office in Scotiabank Centre, by phone at 902-451-1221, or at Atlantic Superstores.