John Cleese

The members of Monty Python went on to plenty of distinguished projects after the group split, but none of them made the lasting contribution to comedy John Cleese did with Fawlty Towers. Comprising a bare 12 episodes—six aired in 1975, the rest in 1979—the show has been enshrined as a high-water mark of the sitcom format. It’s a dizzying farce starring Cleese as the obstinate owner of a seaside hotel, Prunella Scales as his domineering wife, and Andrew Sachs as a hopeless but unfailingly optimistic Spanish waiter. Written with his then-wife, Connie Booth, who also plays the hotel’s art-minded chambermaid, the show is an intricate contraptions in which minor misunderstandings and petty deceptions spiral into major cataclysms, to the never-ending frustration of Cleese’s hyperkinetic snob. Although Cleese and Booth divorced between the first series and second, part of the reason for the four-year gap, the show returned stronger than ever, building to the delirious finale, “Basil The Rat,” in which poisoned veal chops are whisked from bewildered diners, and a rodent turns up in a biscuit tin. Newly remastered by BBC Video, the series has an almost classical stature, ranking with the best-executed farces in any medium.

Monty Python has also been getting renewed attention with IFC’s airing of the six-part documentary Monty Python: Almost The Truth, which hits DVD next week, and a one-off reunion in New York, featuring all five surviving Pythons—Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam—and a cardboard cutout of the late Graham Chapman. Safely returned to his home in California, Cleese got on the phone with The A.V. Club to talk about Fawlty Towers, the joy of seeing the other Pythons, and why they won’t work together again.

The A.V. Club: You and the rest of the surviving Pythons were just honored with a special BAFTA for your work, and Fawlty Towers continues to be cited as one of the best British sitcoms ever made, often the best. It must be gratifying to know that people are still paying attention to these things you did so many years ago. 

John Cleese: It’s gratifying and mystifying. At least I think Python is mystifying. Fawlty Towers, you can at least defend them, because they were these 12 very durable farces set in a setting that everyone could understand. You can pretty much see why they go on being popular. But Python is very strange to start with. There are so many references in there to people who even people in England don’t know who they are anymore. But for some reason, it goes on getting discovered. Terry Gilliam was saying he’s constantly finding young people who are discovering it, and they all seem to be about 11 years of age. 

AVC: At the Q&A in New York, a 10-year-old girl came up onstage and did her version of the Spanish Inquisition sketch.

JC: Oh, that’s funny.

AVC: It’s probably safe to assume she wouldn’t have known what the Spanish Inquisition was otherwise.

JC: No, that’s right.

AVC: What really stands out watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers is the quality of the writing. The comic rhythms carry you through even if you don’t get the specific references.

JC: Thank you. I like that word, “rhythms.”

AVC: In the cheese-shop sketch, for example, it’s the rhythm of the endless list of cheeses that’s funny, rather than their particular characteristics.

JC: Oh, that’s good. I always remember going into the local delicatessen with this notebook and just standing there writing down the names of all the cheeses in the cheese display cabinet. [Laughs.] One of the shop assistants watching me with a very suspicious look.

AVC: That must have seemed rather odd.

JC: We used almost all of them! I made a couple up, like Venezuelan Beaver Cheese, but I think most of them were genuine.

AVC: How was the Python reunion?

JC: Very, very good. I think there was always a certain amount of sibling rivalry between us, and we used to irritate each other in one way or another. Jonesy and I were always locking horns about material when we were doing the television series, but it’s 30-odd, 40 years ago, so there’s a very mellow atmosphere now. I think the sibling rivalry has diminished very largely. I found myself thinking something I never thought I would think again, which is what fun it would be to work with them again. It’s not going to happen. Gilliam is interested in making movies and not really anything else, and Eric Idle does a great job recycling material for us, which is much appreciated, but I know he doesn’t want to create with us again. So it won’t happen, but I must say for the first time in a long time, I was thinking it would have been fun.

AVC: As time went on, and you all developed your own projects and were used to being captains of your own ships, it seems like it became more difficult to come back and submit to the will of the group.

JC: I think that’s exactly right. I had enjoyed Life Of Brian so much, and I was disappointed with The Meaning Of Life as an experience—not that there aren’t some terrific sketches in it, but we never were able to agree what it was about. We just had a framework into which we were able to fit some very good sketches. I was outvoted on some of the material, and that was 1982, so by that stage, I was over 40 years of age, and I sort of thought, “Well, I’ve reached a point where I want to be captain of my own ship,” as you put it. 

AVC: Both Holy Grail and Life Of Brian have an unusual attention to historical detail, which doesn’t seem necessary for the comedy, and Brian even has a pretty coherent storyline.

JC: Yes, it is remarkably coherent for us, because that’s not our strength.

AVC: There are sketchy bits within it, like the haggling and the Sermon On The Mount, but they’re very well integrated into the context.

JC: I agree with you. It’s interesting, you see, the Brits like Life Of Brian much the best, and the Americans prefer Holy Grail. I’ve never quite understood it. What I would say is that the first 45 minutes of Holy Grail are really, really good. I think it’s a lot less good after that—well, not a lot, but it’s not as good after that. Whereas I think Life Of Brian has the advantage of being about very important things, very good moments there where we kind of sum up in a few sentences the way that religion is normally practiced. 

AVC: There are many situations where it’s tempting to shout, “Yes, we’re all individuals!”

JC: [Laughs.] And the following line, which is “I’m not!” And they all go, “Shhh.” A very complicated joke. It makes no sense, in fact, but it sounds as though it does. 

AVC: You mentioned the occasional friction between you and Terry Jones. In the British documentary Fawlty Towers: Re-Opened, he says he thought of you as a “traitor” for leaving Python to do a conventional sitcom. He’s being a little tongue-in-cheek, but still…

JC: Yes, I think he did feel that. He and Graham, I think, were very upset with me when I didn’t want to do any more, and with two very good reasons. One was that I was carrying the alcoholic. In the documentary [Almost The Truth], because of a slight mistake in the cutting, it indicated that after [Chapman] became an alcoholic, some other people wrote with him. The experiment about writing with different people happened before Gray was an alcoholic, so nobody wanted to take him off my hands, as it were, and that was quite a heavy burden to bear. The other thing, which was just as important to me, was that we were repeating. In the whole of the third series, I believe there were only two pieces that Gray and I wrote that I thought were completely original. One was the cheese shop, and the other was Dennis Moore. 

Everything else, I could say to you, “That’s a bit of that sketch combined with that sketch, combined with a tiny bit of that sketch.” I could literally do that with every piece of material and where it came from. I couldn’t do it now. But I didn’t quite see what the point was about recycling material. The others just liked the process. I had something in me which said, “No, if we’re not creating anymore, than we need to move on.” And I think that’s right. Jonesy directed some things absolutely superbly. If we were making a film tomorrow, I would, believe it or not, choose Terry J. over Terry G. to direct it, because I think he’s better at comedy. Terry G. would make it look sensational, but I don’t think he is quite as good as Terry J. in comedy. But where Terry J. isn’t so good is on realistic stuff, something that’s much closer to ordinary drama, or ordinary high comedy. Jonesy’s sensitivities aren’t so developed in that area, so I don’t think he was ever interested in that kind of sitcom. He’s done masses of things, from children’s books to history books; you know, he teaches history at university. He’s done a wide variety of things, but I don’t think he’s ever tried to write something that realistic. I think that’s not his strength.

AVC: Having seen Fawlty Towers now, there isn’t a lot of cause to question that decision. But it is interesting that, having this feeling that you were repeating yourself, you went back to a more traditional format—the single-set, multi-camera sitcom. 

JC: Absolutely. Because what I’ve always wanted to do is be as funny as possible. Sometimes we’ve done it in very unconventional ways, but I think it’s absolutely fine for all the settings to be conventional, provided the comedy is original and catches people a little by surprise. When Fawlty Towers came out, it didn’t get good reviews, not at the beginning. People didn’t quite know what it was. It’s hard for me to believe that it wasn’t completely obvious. It wasn’t obvious for people, and it wasn’t until about show four that people began to sort of like it.

AVC: Did you have any concerns about repeating yourself in that format?

JC: Yes, very much so. When we finished the second series, Connie and I knew that we couldn’t do a third series that wouldn’t become somewhat repetitive. 

AVC: A number of shows, among them the British Office, have cited Fawlty Towers in buttressing their decision to stop after two six-episode series.

JC: Yes, I agreed with Ricky [Gervais], obviously, and was pleased that he took that attitude. Of course, I have to say one thing—Americans are much better at extending a series year after year than the English are. I was talking to David Hyde Pierce some time ago, I think it was when we made a movie together, and he was telling me that the scripts for the fourth series of Frasier were better than they were for the first series. Americans know how to do it. They know how to get good teams of writers together and how to organize them, and how to keep turning the handle of the sausage machine and still produce absolutely top-class sausages, whereas I think the English are often very much better at the beginning—more original, but then they run out of inspiration. We don’t know how to run teams. Probably because we don’t have the money.

AVC: British TV is much more about the voices of individual writers: The opening credits of Fawlty Towers say, “By John Cleese and Connie Booth.” Whereas American TV is more about the genius of the writers’ room.

JC: That’s absolutely right.

AVC: Was it a common thing to do a six-episode run in ’74, when you were doing the first series?

JC: Yes. You either did 13, which was a quarter of a year, so that was very nice for the BBC programmers. They could just pick up their pens and just cross out the 8:30-9:00 slots for one quarter of the year. Or else you did six and then seven, or seven and six, which is what we did with At Last The 1948 Show. When we were shooting Python, my recollection is that we’d do six shows, take a break, and start again and do seven, although they were all transmitted together. Trying to shoot 13 would be too much. So we got six, but I think we then went off and wrote the next seven. There was a noticeable hiatus between the two halves.

AVC: On Fawlty Towers, you took a lot of time in the writing.

JC: Yes, a tremendous amount. I used to reckon Connie and I spent overall six weeks on each episode. Sometimes we’d get stuck on an episode, put it on one side, and develop another one. That was very helpful, because when you come back two or three weeks later to something you’ve written—as you probably know—it’s sometimes very, very obvious what’s right and what’s wrong. 

AVC: It helps to put something aside just long enough that you forget what you were thinking when you wrote it.

JC: That’s exactly right, and you get a much clearer judgment on it.

AVC: You’ve talked quite a bit about Donald Sinclair, the antisocial Torquay hotelier who was the model for Basil. Was it common for you to take characters and situations from real life, or was this an unusual circumstance?

JC: It was unusual. I can’t think of any other occasion when I did it. In the Parrot sketch, the Michael Palin character, funnily enough, was based on a character I had written in another sketch, which was about somebody trying to complain about a secondhand car, which was actually based on what Michael Palin had told me about the garage where he used to buy cars. It was a Mr. Gibbons, I think, who used to run the garage. If Michael brought his cars in and complained about something, Mr. Gibbons would say, “Well, I tell you what, anything goes wrong, you bring the car in.” [Laughs.] And Michael would say, “Well, I have brought it in.” He said “Well, that’s great. Any problems, bring it back in.” Michael could never nail this guy down. That became the secondhand-car sketch.

I can’t think of any other—oh, yeah, I met a merchant banker once who did something that doesn’t happen very often: She shook hands with me while looking at someone else. I remember that line, “I can’t remember my name, but I am a merchant banker,” came to me in the taxi afterward. This huge sense of identity, someone hugely important and rich and powerful, but your individual identity was very unimportant. So just occasionally ideas came from real life, but 99 percent were from genuine imagination. It was very hard to convince the British press of this, because they are an extraordinarily uncreative crowd. I think it’s possibly the pressures of the shortage of time they have, but they’re very cliché-minded. I always say that if I had a heart attack, it would be Basil Fawlty’s heart. They think entirely in clichés, and when they do come across creative work, they think that it must be based on something, because they don’t realize that you can create things that aren’t based on things.

AVC: One of the pleasures of watching Fawlty Towers is that it’s such a well-executed classical farce, in a way you rarely see on TV or film, or even in theatre.

JC: It’s much more ambitious, in a sense. 

AVC: I saw the New Yorker critic John Lahr speak before a production of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, and one of the actors was complaining that he didn’t get actorly satisfaction from the role. Lahr told him, “If you’re doing it right, you won’t. It’s not about experiencing something as the character, but about being part of the machinery of farce.” So where does the satisfaction come from, for you?

JC: I’m afraid 80 percent of it comes in the writing. On movies, I like to involve the cast in the writing of the script. I like to have a rehearsal period, after which I do the last draft, which gives me a chance to incorporate anything the actors have come up with during the rehearsal period, so I’m very inclusive as a writer. I always used to claim 13 different people wrote stuff for A Fish Called Wanda. But having been inclusive in that process, then, once you get to make it, for me it’s more a question of not screwing it up, because the writing is so primary. As I always say, if you want to understand the Python group, we were six writers who happened to perform our own material. Actors, of course, want to come in and make more of an artistic contribution, and I think sometimes one needs to tell some actors “Your part is basically interpretive, rather than creative, and there is a difference.” Some actors, I think, want to feel that they are as creative as the writer. And the answer is, frankly, they’re not. 

AVC: From listening to the commentaries, it seems as if most of the guest actors on Fawlty Towers were friends of yours.

JC: Absolutely, because when you’ve only got five days of rehearsal before you’re in the studio, it’s wonderful to start off with people that you have good, friendly, tolerable relationships to start with, for the simple reason that you don’t have to spend 24 hours figuring out how sensitive they are, and can you give them a line reading, or how do you have to give them direction. You know the people, and you can speak very simply and directly, and nobody’s ego’s at stake. We’re all just trying to get the thing right, and that’s very, very important to me. The other thing I have to tell you is that getting the show done in five rehearsal days is a huge task. People said to me once, “Did you enjoy making Fawlty Towers?” I said, “There wasn’t time.” Trying to do 135 or 140 pages when the average TV show was 65 pages, there really wasn’t time. We were always under the gun. When we got in the studio, we never finished a dress rehearsal, so the only reason the timing’s as good as it was is that we used to spend something like 20 hours editing every single program. So for every minute you see on your DVD, 40 minutes were spent editing it.

AVC: The other thing that’s fascinating about your commentaries is that, 30 years later, you’re still very critical and exacting. You’re constantly saying things like, “I should have made that gesture three times instead of four.” Is that typical of you?

JC: It’s typical of me. It doesn’t mean that’s the only way of doing it, because there are certain comedians who… Kevin Kline is one. Kevin doesn’t know what he’s going to do from take to take, and I remember a dear man called Johnny Jympson on Wanda saying he’s a bugger to edit, but it’s worth it. In other words, he’s liable to do the most extraordinary, wonderful things, but he may never do it again. Whereas I work almost like a writer. I get the script, and then I figure out, “How am I going to do this bit, do I look at Bernie Cribbins, then look at Connie, then look back at Bernie Cribbins, and then look down at the food? Or do I look at Connie first and then at the food?” I do that in rehearsal, I do it different ways until I suddenly do it and go, “That’s the way to do it.” Then I have to remember what it was I just did. And how can I improve that? Then I continue ’til I improve something else to my satisfaction. So I’m highly technical. But there are very, very funny people who aren’t technical at all.

AVC: Does it help to write with a partner? Can you write comedy without one?

JC: I think you can write very good comedy without a partner, but what I love about it, working with a partner, is that you get to places you’d never get on your own. It’s like when God was designing the world and decided we couldn’t have children without a partner, it was a way of mixing up the genes so you’d get a more interesting product. Do you see what I’m saying? The same with the writing. If I’m working with Connie—or at the moment, I’m working with my daughter Camilla, on a musical of Wanda, and I’m working with an old friend called Lisa Hogan on a movie script—I simply get to places I would not get to on my own. The two minds bouncing off each other produce more surprise.

AVC: You’ve said many times you feel Connie’s contribution to the scripts has been overlooked.

JC: It has been, that’s right, and she’s the least pushy. She decided to become a therapist, having been an actress so many years, and a writer. When she became a therapist, she decided she did not want to confuse her patients by suddenly appearing on the screen, so she turned down a lot of publicity, so her contribution easily gets forgotten. But every line of Fawlty Towers was written with the two of us sitting next to each other.

AVC: You’ve mentioned that your writing partnership with Graham Chapman became more difficult as his drinking got worse. What did he bring to the writing?

JC: He was fine at the beginning. I mean, Gray was always lazy. He was never in the engine room. He used to, as it were, sit outside. I remember writing a film script with him one summer, and he was literally sunning himself on the balcony, shouting suggestions. [Laughs.] I was in the shade with a typewriter. He was a lazy fellow, but he had two extraordinary qualities. One was, he was a wonderful sounding board. If Gray laughed, the audience laughed. And when you’re young and inexperienced, you can’t have anything more important than that. It was quite extraordinary how he seemed to know. The other thing was that suddenly, after a long period of silence, he would say something very much off-the-wall that would prevent me from being too logical. I have a tendency sometimes to get too logical with what I’m writing, just because I want it to be kind of perfect, like a [Georges] Feydeau farce can be perfect, but of course, that can rob it a little bit of surprise. He was able to provide that element.

AVC: That’s the interesting thing about watching Fawlty Towers, because it’s such a sustained farce, whereas the Python shows will, by design, go off in a number of different directions. 

JC: Yes. The challenge in a farce, as somebody once said, is making sure there aren’t any laughs in the first 20 minutes, and making sure that you don’t have to introduce any new elements at all. All the elements of the chaos should be there at the present, even if they’re hidden partly from the audience, and as it unwinds, everything that was present at the beginning begins to interact with everything else until chaos is reached. It’s like a glorious clockwork if it’s done well.

AVC: That adds to the enjoyment on one level. It’s not even necessarily funny, but you feel a sense of satisfaction as things come together.

JC: That’s right, there’s almost an intellectual excitement about it, and that’s what I loved about it. There was a time when I used to go to the National Theatre regularly, and they would do very, very good French farces, particularly Feydeau, and I just admired them hugely, because they were wonderfully funny. First, the emotions in farce are more intense than they are in ordinary comedy, and the result is that there’s more energy, and therefore bigger laughs at stake. When you combine that with the intellectual perfection of the clockwork, it’s profoundly satisfying.

AVC: British actors tend to be more technically trained, and there’s a certain degree of emotional repression inherent in the culture, which is prime ground for farce. Do you think there’s something in their background that makes them better suited to farce?

JC: It’s a very interesting question. What occurred to me halfway through your question is that I think that, on the whole, Americans are better at individual things, and Brits are better at team things. I don’t think, for example, it was ever any coincidence in the Ryder Cup, at least in the old days, the Americans always won the singles, and the Europeans always used to win the foursomes. I think yours is a more individualistic culture than ours, or at least it used to be. I’m not sure about England now. I think it’s more individualistic. In farce, it’s very much about teamwork rather than about individual performance. I think that might give an advantage in that, but at the same time, I think some of the most extraordinary performances that you see, particularly in film, do come out of more slightly individualistic attitudes. So it’s not that the individualistic way of doing it is wrong, it’s just that it’s better for some things, and not so good for others.

AVC: One the commentary, you single out the moment when Prunella Scales refers to you as a Brilliantined stick insect. 

JC: An aging Brilliantined stick insect.

AVC: And you point out how you have to stand perfectly still when she delivers a line like that, or else it won’t be funny.

JC: That’s right, very simple stuff like that. At certain moments, everyone’s got to stay still. It’s terribly simple, in a way, but it often gets forgotten, and people don’t sometimes realize that at a deep level, it’s quite subtle as well as simple. People always say that comedy’s about conflict—they say drama’s about conflict too—but they think it’s got to be conflict between characters. A lot of humor comes out from conflict within characters, right? It’s banging up against their egos or superegos. Trying to do one thing, but then failing, and their egos taking over and then doing the opposite. 

AVC: The one ironclad prerequisite for a comic character is a lack of self-awareness.

JC: Yes, quite right. Which is why, for example, you can’t make Christ funny. He’s self-aware, he’s too flexible within the situation. It’s rigidity, it’s when the ego takes over and the behavior becomes inappropriate that it becomes funny. 

AVC: Can you say any more about the musical?

JC: Yes, well, they suggested a musical of Wanda to me some time ago, and I was completely unenthusiastic, and then ever so slowly, the idea grew on me. Because it’s a chance to work with Camilla, and we enjoy each other a great deal. She’s very funny. She’s also very, very rude, but very, very funny with it. God, she’s rude. [Laughs.] Mainly about my age. So we have a lot of fun working together, and she’s very original and creative, so that’s fun. And I brought in this guy, Bill Bailey—I don’t think he’s very well-known in America, is he yet? 

AVC: Sure, from Black Books.

JC: I saw his one-man show last year in London, and it’s the best one-man show I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, because I’m pretty much an Eddie Izzard fan, and I’ve seen Seinfeld and Leno and Bill Maher, and some pretty good people, but I thought Bill was the best. Mind you, it helps that he plays 1,800 string instruments as well. So we’re working on that together, and that’s going to be my main work for the rest of the year. I’m also working with Lisa on the film script. I like this very much, it’s called Evasion, about the lengths to which people go to avoid paying taxes. We’ve got a very good script.

The problem is that Lisa is in England with three kids, and I’m over here most of the time, so it’s a bit like trying to get the Pythons together to write. There are just geographical problems. But that will come out sooner or later. And in the meantime, the cash that I need—partly to pay the alimony, which is a million a year ’til I’m 76—that has to be generated from somewhere, and there’s so little work around! I’m not kidding you. An agent told me recently that this is the worst year for film work for his clients that he’s ever experienced. Not much on television unless you’re prepared to commit yourself for five years, which I’m afraid I’m not. The conferences on which I used to rely on for my business speeches are few and far between these days. Commercials are pretty much disappeared, so I realized doing this one-man show is an extremely good way of generating cash, so I’m just about to go up to Seattle and work my way down the coast, finishing up in San Diego.

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