John Cleese interview: Clockwise, Muppets, writing, stand-up

Chatting about writing, The Muppets, DreamWorks, Clockwise and Charles Crichton, all with Mr John Cleese...

Now out in hardback is John Cleese’s autobiography, So, Anyway. It’s a genuinely interesting read, very much written in his own voice, and he spared us some time to have a chat about it and his career.

Here’s how it went…

Can we start with the predictable stuff first? I always wonder this when anyone writes an autobiography: why do it? Why put your life down in a book, who is it for, and did you enjoy it?

Well, let’s go backwards on that. Yes, I enjoyed it very much. Who is it for me? In a funny kind of way it was for me because some people seem to think that I’ve had a very interesting life, which compared with people who have fought in wars, and been spies, and discovered rivers in Africa, seems to me that my life’s been pretty safe. Even if it’s been varied. You see what I mean?

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You mean in terms of peril?

Yes, yes. I don’t think of myself as a very bold man. I don’t go in for extreme sports or anything like that. The thing that originally really did motivate me was hearing Michael Caine saying that when he had written his autobiography, he had regained parts of his life that he’d forgotten about. And I thought I’d like to do that.

Then I went and asked a New York agent, and said that if I do this, I want to do it for the experience. I’d like to write a book that I think is funny, and I had a couple of comic influences in mind – Three Men and a Boat, Lucky Jim, and even James Thurber. I thought it’d be nice to write about my life so that people who thought it was interesting, and who liked my kind of humour, would have a funny read with little interpolations about comedy and other little aspects. Philosophies of life, that sort of thing.

Does that explain what you don’t talk about in the book then? I’d assumed you’d not gone into much depth on things such as A Fish Called Wanda and Fawlty Towers because you figured those were stories people might already know?

Well, I think when I started to write it, I hit a style fairly early on. And I didn’t know if I was going to do that because I’ve written dialogue all my life. Yet I’ve written just about nothing in terms of narrative, and I didn’t know if I would find that difficult. For instance, I have a feeling that I’d find it very, very difficult to write a novel. I couldn’t do it. It’s an odd thing to say, but I just don’t think I could do it.

But in this case, I think that when I started to tell stories, I could do it alright. And my editor said yes, most people have difficulty with the dialogue and can do the narrative. I could do the dialogue easily, so I though okay, if I can do the narrative…

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Then I found a pace at which I wanted to tell it. I soon realized that I wasn’t going to get through the whole of my life or anything like it. And I didn’t know how long it was going to be, because when you settle down to write the biography of your life, you really don’t know how interesting it’s going to be until you’re actually writing it. Then you suddenly think this is worth doing.

For example, I didn’t write much about cricket, although I’ve had some interesting experiences, because I didn’t think it was particularly relevant. But if I had an amusing tale or some point I had to make about comedy, I thought the people reading this book would like that. If they like my work and think I’m funny, or even if they like the psychology books I wrote, they might be interested in where it all came from. And I thought the most interesting thing was to tell it as honestly as I can, because otherwise, it’s simply an exercise in making money.

The book that would make the most money would be 60% Monty Python and 40% Fawlty Towers, with nothing about anything else.

If you follow the Michael Caine path of course, you have to do a volume two?

Oh yeah.

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Does that interest you? Because you leave this one on a lovely final line.

Yeah, but I think I’ll have a year off. I think the greatest mistake I made a few years ago… I’ve made a few professional mistakes, and I think one of them with Python was going straight into Meaning of Life after Life of Brian, without taking a year off. So I think I should take a year off, and then come back to it.

At one point in your book, you talk about a period of 20 months where you did 80 episodes of TV shows, 41 I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Agains on the radio, on top of TV and film appearances…

It was an intense period of activity, and I think you’ve got to be very careful. Because even those of us who are good at this, we’ve only got a limited spread of talent. And you can easily start appearing too much on television. People can get to the point where they say “I know what he does.” I think it’s terribly good to take breaks.

In fact, one of the reasons I took a break was that I had such a bad experience on How to Irritate People. That was such a bad experience, but in a way, it was good for me, because it scared me away from performing for 18 months. So people didn’t get fed up with me. At one stage, I was doing so much.

I got a sense that there was a certain fearlessness in those 20 months, though. That you were back in the 1960s, and opportunities were landing at opportune moments, so that you attacked them without thinking about whether to take them on or not?

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Well, suddenly something comes along and you think that might be interesting. That’s the only criteria. I was watching these episodes of Do Not Adjust Your Set with Graham Chapman, and we thought these guys are really funny, why don’t we do a show with them? It seemed like a good idea.

But a lot of times things really came out of the blue. David Frost contacting me in New York asking if I wanted to be in a show with Robbie Barker and Ronnie Corbett! You don’t get luckier than that.

You can’t get lucky that way anymore in television, can you? You describe an incident in the book where you’re told to go and make 13 episodes of a TV show without anyone even seeing a script first.

Oh yeah! We were in television at absolutely the best time. I don’t think that there’s ever been a period where there were a lot of executives who knew what they were doing. But I think that there was a period at the BBC when you had the highest possible number of executives who knew what they were doing. And they trusted their talent.

They’d been through comedy, they’d been floor managers, assistant floor managers, they’d been given a children’s show to do, then a bigger show to do. They learned comedy all the way up. I had a young woman as my assistant on one of my films, and she did a terrific job. Then they decided to go around the world, and she went around the world. Then a few years later, she was head of comedy at the BBC! I thought she was very bright, but I thought she’s never acted, or written, and people had in my day. They sometimes were able to make very good judgements about trusting people.

You make the point later on in the book about recently going to see a stand up comedy, where they weren’t telling jokes. The audience was reacting more to them just being there.

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That he was making statements?

Yeah. Do you think that’s the prevalent way of thinking in comedy now?

I think that stand-up’s taken over. There are guys who come up and do strings of gags, but there’s no sort of point of view. Then the northern clubs became the focus of attention because there were stand-up comedians, and all they needed was a microphone, so it was cheap. There was a phase where they became very popular. Then stand-up developed and had a bit more of a point of view, a slice of life. I think that was a very interesting development, because it was unheard of.

I think what then happened was that there was a great tendency in stand-up comedians that when you get a bit worried about your material, you put in more sexual material and more bad language. Because it injects a certain energy. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s funny, but it injects an energy, and it’s better than just lying there dead. You’re still alive by swearing a bit, but that’s taken over a lot of stand-up because there are only a few people who are really funny, I think. I think there is quite a lot of talent, but only a certain amount of it.

So, stand-up has become more about better entertainers than better comedians? Comedians play arenas now with 10,000 people, and that’s a show to me. It’s wildly different to the intimacy you get from 100 people and a microphone.

Yeah. I don’t get the pleasure of going to a huge arena and watching someone on a screen. It’s just like sitting at home and watching them on the television.

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You get a better view on the television.

You do. And I don’t get that. It seems to me to be about a pissing contest. It’s about “if you can fill a 6,000 seat room, then I can fill an 8,000 seat room.” It’s just about ego. It seems to me that the very best comedy, there’s an intimacy to it.

Hence you make the point about using the two-shot in comedy.

The two-shot is what it’s really about. It’s the interaction that’s funny, not the individual. You want the close up here and there, but really, it’s about the two-shot. Comedy at its best is about some sort of intimacy. If I had to play a theatre, I’d like to play a theatre somewhere between 800 and 1000 because those old theatres were created in 1870 and 1880 before the invention of the microphone.

The acoustics worked!

Yeah. And that gives you an intimacy. Doing the O2 [for the Monty Python reunion gigs] was fine because Eric [Idle] incorporated singing and dancing. But I don’t think I’d want to see a comedy in a big arena. And this guy I saw in one was doing really rather crude and sexual material, and they were cheering jokes rather than laughing at them. It wasn’t really funny. I thought it was the opposite of really good comedy.

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I read a biography of Jim Henson earlier in the year, and it was a fascinating book that talked about how he collaborated with Frank Oz. And the book argued that whilst Oz was a perfectionist, Henson just needed it to be right. In your book, you talk about how you had a “perfect” stage show that you felt top of the world, and then the day after you felt depressed because you knew you couldn’t top it…

The stage show? The perfect performance, yeah. I suddenly realised it wasn’t going to happen again, or at least it wasn’t going to happen for another 300 performances. That was depressing.

I knew Frank Oz very well.

You did The Muppet Show, of course.

Yes. And what I felt about The Muppets was that they were so obsessed with making the puppetry perfect that they didn’t spend enough time on the script.

You sometimes see the balance against the script. When I did Will and Grace, it was the only time ever in my life that I thought it was too much balanced in favour of the writers. They would write a scene, and you’d only have a day, or half a day, to rehearse it. Then they’ve come in in the evening, and if it didn’t work, they would rewrite it. But sometimes I felt it would have worked with more rehearsal. If they thought it didn’t work, they didn’t say rehearse it again tomorrow.

It was almost as though the writers had too much power. Normally they have too little, and people worry about reflections and bits of lint. They don’t worry about whether the performance or the script was good.

Can we talk about the film Clockwise, then? You say that was the only time you felt you were offered a top class comedy role, that was there on the page. And yet in the past, you’ve argued that the ending of Clockwise was a bit too harsh. That your character, Brian, should have had a slightly happier ending?

I thought the ending wasn’t right. I talked to Michael Frayn, who’s one of my heroes. And I think I made a suggestion about the ending. He said that he didn’t really think anybody ever learned anything in life. I said “I agree with you, but it’s an artistic convention that they do!”

But he wanted to keep with the ending, and I thought that was the only thing wrong with that movie. The last two or three minutes.

It was true that the only time I was ever sent a truly wonderful script for a lead was Clockwise.

I did twice get offered very, very good parts by Mike Nichols. On one occasion it was to do the Robin Williams role in The Birdcage. And I just couldn’t do it. They had dates for their movie, and I was already committed.

The other time was The Remains of the Day when they wanted me to play the butler. And I thought the novel was so brilliant. Kazio Ishiguro’s understanding of English repression was the best thing I’d ever read about it, and I loved it. Then Harold Pinter [who wrote the original screenplay, but took his name off the project following a rewrite] came along and took all the jokes out. I though it only existed with the humour. Otherwise it was relentlessly down. So I passed on it, and of course Anthony Hopkins gave a wonderful performance, as you’d expect, and people quite liked the movie. But I was never crazy about the script.

Do you regret decisions like that, though?

I think it would have been much better for my career if I’d done it! But I think Pinter got the ending quite wrong. But I believe it worked, and it would have been lovely to have worked with Emma Thompson, who I think is a wonderful actress.

I don’t regret it artistically.

There was one film you were involved with that finally came out last year, which was DreamWorks’ animated film, The Croods. But you were involved with that when it was an Aardman project? Once Aardman lost the rights, was that the end of your involvement with it?

Oh yeah. My recollection is that the great problem with writing it was that Jeffrey Katzenberg [head of DreamWorks Animation] who I think is immensely bright and extremely nice… He’s the only man who’s ever sent me an ex gratia payment. I think he’s terrific. But he makes all the decisions in the organiation. And the trouble with DreamWorks is that everybody is trying to read your script and tell you what they think Jeffrey would say if he had time to read it. Getting the feedback on the script was difficult.

I thought the first draft of the script we did was very good, but it was completely changed. I’m very fond of Kirk DeMicco [co-director], and I met him four days ago in L.A.. He’s now doing The Croods 2. But ours was much less about a family, more about a small town with an inventor arriving. The invention was more to do with a scientific invention, so it was quite a long way away from what they made. But Jeffrey was happy to give me a credit, and I was very happy to take it!

My last question, then. You touch on working with director Charles Crichton on A Fish Called Wanda, after having fallen in love with his Ealing comedies. Why was he so special for you?

The wonderful thing about Charlie Crichton is that you never notice his direction. There are some directors who are very “look at what I’m doing, I’m directing this movie” in their approach. They put shots you notice in their films. I think once you notice the shot, then suddenly, you’re not in the movie anymore. You’re looking at it from a technical point of view.

The thing with Charlie is that his choice of shooting was so perfect that you never noticed a camera move, because it always fitted the script. The moment directors do things to get noticed as directors, I believe they’re stepping outside. The suspension of belief goes out of the window, and I think too many directors try to get noticed. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about telling the story in the most truthful and appropriate way, Charlie never uses a shot to show what a clever director is. He always chose a shot because it was absolutely the right way to shoot that particular scene.

John Cleese, thank you very much.

So, Anyway is out now in hardback, published by Random House.

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