TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Recognize this voice?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TIME BANDITS")
JOHN CLEESE: (As Robin Hood) Well, I mean, it's frightfully kind of you, but the poor are going to be absolutely thrilled. Have you met them at all?
DAVID RAPPAPORT: (As Randall) Who?
CLEESE: (As Robin Hood) The poor?
RAPPAPORT: (As Randall) The poor?
CLEESE: Oh, you must meet them. I just know you'll like them. Charming people. Of course they haven't got two pennies to rub together, but then that's because they're poor.
GROSS: That's John Cleese as Robin Hood in a scene from the 1981 film "Time Bandits." Cleese was a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe and co-wrote and co-starred in the films "Life Of Brian," "Monty Python And The Holy Grail," and "The Meaning Of Life," as well as the TV series "Fawlty Towers." Cleese has written a memoir called "So, Anyway..." which covers relatively little of his 50-year career in radio, television, film and theater. It's about Cleese's childhood, education and his early years in show business when he wrote and acted in British radio and TV, working with his future Monty Python collaborators and others, including Marty Feldman, Peter Sellers and David Frost.
The book is a breezy collection of memories, insights and funny observations, such as his impression of the upper-class boys he got to know in school. I realized how different their lives were, he wrote. They genuinely liked chasing things and shooting them and hooking them out of the water and asphyxiating them. Death seemed the inevitable result of all their entertainments despite their excellent manners. John Cleese spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: John Cleese, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CLEESE: Thank you.
DAVIES: You know, you play an upper-class Englishman so well. A lot of people probably figure you were born into the nobility. Tells about some...
CLEESE: (Laughter) Yes, I know. I came across a friend only two weeks ago I'd known for years in Santa Barbara, an English guy formerly with the BBC, and he'd exactly got that impression you describe - was quite surprised to discover how ordinary and plebeian I was.
DAVIES: Yeah, so tell us about your family. What did your parents do?
CLEESE: Well, dad was an insurance salesman, I think all his life. I think he left school at 16, although he was intelligent, and he was literate. I never saw him misspell a word or make a grammatical mistake, and he pronounced everything absolutely correctly, as did my mother. But they were not educated in the sense that they had never come in contact with any of the sort of important ideas that you come in contact with if you're lucky enough to have a good education. So they just read novels, and dad read one or two biographies, and that was pretty much it. But they were, in their own way, intelligent, but very limited in their horizons.
DAVIES: You know, there are hints of a difficult relationship with your mother, here. What was that like?
CLEESE: Well, yes. Well, it was not an easy relationship because she was - I suppose you'd say she was a very neurotic woman. She was full of fears and very anxious most of the time and constantly worrying. And to give you some idea of the scale of this, when dad died and I would go down to visit her, she would greet me with a cup of coffee and a list. And the list was a list of all the worries that she'd been writing down during the previous two or three weeks so that she could discuss each one of them with me, at length. And she wrote them down 'cause she didn't want to forget a worry. She had a sort of feeling of alarm that if she didn't discuss one worry with me, then it would happen, this event that she was dreading, and she wouldn't have prepared sufficiently with me to deal with it.
So it was almost methodical, the way that she dealt with her worries, and we would discuss them at tremendous length. Now, people like this, who are full of fear, they're not usually very flexible. They need to have things their own way because if they don't have them their own way, they become so anxious they can't cope. They literally can't cope. So they're not really open to negotiation, and she did need to have her own way. There's no question about that (laughter). And if she didn't, then she did throw some quite alarming tantrums. And I think dad, who'd fought in the First World War for three and a half years, sometimes yearned for the relative tranquility the of the trenches in France because it was a pretty noisy and alarming affair when she got angry. And I think there was always a sort of feeling of - well, I say in the book, it was not a question of her at any time not being angry, it was just that she wasn't angry yet. There was a lot of edginess and quite bad temper, and I remember her, a few times, hitting dad.
She was, in other ways, terribly good as a mother because she was punctilious. The food was always ready. She cooked extremely well. She ran the house well. Everything was extremely clean. My clothes were always beautifully ironed, all that kind of thing. But it was just, emotionally, she created a bit of an atmosphere of fear. And I think dad was scared of her, and I think I picked that up. So there was a sort of feeling of walking on eggshells.
DAVIES: I wanted to talk a bit about how you got into comedy. I know that you loved listening to radio and TV, and you had an interest in comedy at a young age.
CLEESE: Yes, I did. I couldn't quite - I still can't quite explain it because - I should make it clear that the sort of part of society that I came from, which was lower-middle class, living in a small medium-sized seaside town - the idea of anyone going into show business would've almost caused hilarity. People became bank managers, or they ran shops, or perhaps, if they did well in school, they would become accountants or even lawyers. But it was that lower- or middle-class range of professions, and I didn't know anyone, at any point, who was vaguely connected with the arts in any way, even with music.
DAVIES: You had a good education. Your parents sent you to public schools, what we in the States call private schools, and you went to Cambridge and got involved there in the Footlights, this performing troupe. And you were a tall kid. I mean, you're 6-foot-4 today, so you were this tall, thin guy. When you got into Footlights, what kind of roles did you first play?
CLEESE: Oh, I see it, yes. It affected me a lot earlier when I was at school or I was at 12, I was taller than any of the masters. I think by the time I got to Cambridge, there were enough 6-foot-4, 6-foot-2 people around for me not to stand out that much, not as I had done in my preparatory school when I was 9 or 10 years of age. But I don't think it really had anything to do with the kind of roles I did in the Footlights because all I did when I started was I had good timing, but I didn't have any other skills at all.
You see, Graham Chapman, who was in a show with me in 1962, he was a really top-class mime artist. He could do very funny, very, very original mimes. And he could also sing, and he could move quite well. I couldn't do any of those things at all. I could just write some reasonably good jokes and time them well off the audience. I was good at listening to the audience so that I timed the next line right. And that was all I had to offer for a number of years. The other skills, the more physical comedy, came quite slowly.
DAVIES: Well, I want to play clip from, "At Last The 1948 Show," this British TV show that you did early in your career. And here's a scene where you appear with Marty Feldman, who you worked a lot with. And Americans will remember him as Igor from "Young Frankenstein." And in this scene, you're the head of the British Secret Service, kind of an upper-class guy. Marty Feldman plays, I guess, just, like a clerical guy or cleaning man at the office, and you've summoned him to come in the office. And we hear him speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AT LAST THE 1948 SHOW")
MARTY FELDMAN: (As Cleaning Man) You want tea, sir?
CLEESE: (As Head of Secret Service) No, no, not tea, today. I wanted to see you about something else. Come on in. And now, you've been doing the tea here for years and years, and it may come as something of a surprise to you to hear that I am the head of the secret service.
FELDMAN: (As Cleaning Man) No, sir. It's written on the door.
CLEESE: (As Head of Secret Service) Oh, yes. Mum's the word.
FELDMAN: (As Cleaning Man): Invisible ink
CLEESE: (As Head of Secret Service) Don't say nothing. And now, what I want you to do is, I want you to do me a little favor.
FELDMAN: (As Cleaning Man) What's that, sir?
CLEESE: (As Head of Secret Service) I want you to set fire to the Kremlin.
FELDMAN: (As Cleaning Man) In Moscow, sir?
CLEESE: (As Head of Secret Service) Unless you know of one nearer, yes.
FELDMAN: (As Cleaning Man) Well, I mean, haven't you got spies for the sort of things, sir?
CLEESE: (As Head of Secret Service): Ah, now, how can I answer that? No. We had lots, you see, but it does seem that they all tend to be, just little bit, dead. So of the only man available, I've selected you. Congratulations, and well done. Now, burning down the Kremlin, well, you'll need one or two things. There are the cans of paraffin, and the matches - ah, well, I'm sure you'll be able to buy matches in Moscow.
FELDMAN: (As Cleaning Man) I've got some matches, sir.
CLEESE: (As Head of Secret Service) What? Jolly good. Well done. Now, I think I've picked the right man for the job, a man with matches. Well, jolly good, and out you go, then.
FELDMAN: (As Cleaning Man) Yes, sir. Oh, there is one thing, sir. How do I get there?
CLEESE: (As Head of Secret Service) How do you get there?
FELDMAN: (As Cleaning Man) Yes.
CLEESE: (As Head of Secret Service) Ah, what an awfully good point. You know, I completely forgot. I'm most faithfully sorry. Well, we're going to drop you into Moscow from a plane.
FELDMAN: (As Cleaning Man) I'll parachute.
CLEESE: (As Head of Secret Service) No, no...
CLEESE: (As Head of Secret Service) But there will be a trampoline waiting for you, possibly.
DAVIES: And that was...
CLEESE: It's not very good, is it?
DAVIES: There's some good laughs and great timing.
CLEESE: Yes, the timing's all right. It's not bad, actually, the performance, but the script is pretty second-rate and very sort of predictable. It was the sort of thing we did at that time. So I would call that one distinctly uninspired, but you can see some stuff in there that, you know, will come - that will get better later.
DAVIES: You know, one of the reasons that I wanted to play the clip that we just heard was that your character there is this sort of dimwitted, upper-class guy. And you write in the book that your father acquired the behavior and values of an English gentleman, more by observation and not by breeding. You know, he served in India and was around these folks. And these sort of values of, you know, courtesy, kindness, modesty, a reluctance to burden others with your problems, you kind of speak of this with admiration, and I found that interesting, since a lot of the comedy sort of mocks British upper-class mannerisms.
CLEESE: Well, you're absolutely right. And I suppose the only way to distinguish it is to say that when you are making fun of something, by definition, you're making fun of something that isn't very good and needs to be improved. Dad met some of the English upper class when he was out in India and in Hong Kong, and even in Canton. And there were a number of absolutely splendid human beings in that class. They were very genuinely gentle men. They did anything they could to make other people - existed so people around them as comfortable as - they were people who were considerate and polite, but also quite lighthearted and a sense of humor. These were splendid.
But at same time, as you looked around the institutions in England in the '60s, they did seem to be headed by these public school-educated people. And, of course, some of them were fine, and you can't make fun of them. If somebody's doing a job well, there's nothing funny about it. But, of course, some of them were idiots. There's a fair proportion of idiots around, as you've probably noticed, and not confined to the British isles, either. And those people, we made great fun of.
DAVIES: We're speaking with John Cleese. He's written a memoir called "So, Anyway..." We'll talk more after a short break. This FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us we're speaking with John Cleese. He has a memoir called "So, Anyway..." You said you always had good timing, even early in your career in comedy. And...
CLEESE: That's right.
DAVIES: ...I wanted to listen to an example. And this is a scene from "Fawlty Towers," that's the TV series you did in the '70s written by you and your wife then, Connie Booth. A lot of Americans will remember this series. You played Basil Fawlty who runs this hotel and is kind of a bit discontent with his life. And this is an episode where a bunch of Germans are visiting the hotel. And this was when, you know, World War II was still a relatively fresh memory. And you, as Basil, you've had a concussion, so your thinking is a little off. And you're taking a dinner order from the Germans, obsessed with not bringing up anything about war, which of course you then fail to do. So let's listen. One of the Germans speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAWLTY TOWERS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) May we have two eggs mayonnaises, please?
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Certainly. Why not? Why not, indeed? We're all friends now, eh.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) A prawn cocktail.
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) All in the markets together, old differences forgotten and no need at all to mention the war.
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty): Sorry, sorry. What was it again?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) A prawn cocktail.
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty): Oh, prawn. That was it. When you said prawn, I thought you said war. Oh, the war. Oh, yes, completely slipped my mind. Yes, I've forgotten all about it. Hitler, Himmler and all that. Oh, yes, completely forgotten it. Just like that. Sorry what was it again?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) A prawn cocktail.
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Oh, yes, Eva Braun. Yes, and Goebbels.
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) I could hardly remember at all.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) And then pickled herring.
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Hermann Goering, yes, yes. And Joachim Von Ribbentrop, that was another one.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) And four cold meat salads, please.
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Certainly. Well, I'll just get your hors d'oeuvres. Hors d'oeuvres, which must be obeyed at all times because I'm...
PRUNELLA SCALES: (As Sybil Fawlty) Will you please call your wife immediately?
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Sybil, Sybil, she's in the hospital, you silly girl.
SCALES: (As Sybil Fawlty) Yes, call her there.
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) I can't. I've got too much to do. Listen, don't mention the war. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) So it's all forgotten now, and let's hear no more about it. So that's two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Hermann Goering and four Colditz salads. Wait a minute. Well, I got a bit confused here. Sorry. I got a bit confused because everyone keeps mentioning the war. So could you...
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) What's the matter?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It's all right.
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Is there something wrong?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Would you stop talking about the war?
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Me? You started it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We did not start it.
CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Yes you did, you invaded Poland.
CLEESE: It's got my favorite pun in there, which is hors d'oeuvres that that must be obeyed at all times without question.
CLEESE: I hate puns normally, but I do like that one.
DAVIES: Yeah. That's our guest John Cleese from the series "Fawlty Towers." That's one of the better-known bits from the series. Do you remember these fondly?
CLEESE: Oh, yes, yes. I remember them fondly. And with a certain relief that I got them done because to get a half hour done in those days was quite an achievement, even if it was no good at all. The very act of having recorded a half-hour was an achievement because the conditions were so poor. When I came to America, I was lucky enough to do things like "Cheers" and "Will And Grace" and "Third Rock From The Sun" and saw those superb conditions - rehearsal and so forth, and the number of writers around are constantly polishing lines and making suggestions. It really was the Rolls-Royce way of making comedy.
And in England we would go off to a little London church hall somewhere, and the walls of the set would be indicated by bits of colored tape - sticky tape - that had been laid out on the floor. And then the chairs would be awful, broken-down, old things that have been, you know, bought at a junk sale or something like that, whereas in America you rehearse on the set all week. You get used to everything. You get used to the height of the desk and the weight of anything - prop that you're going to pick up.
In England, they were all different. When you got in the studio for the one day you were in the studio to record them, everything was different and you had to adjust all the performance that you'd been rehearsing the previous four or five days. So to do the amount of pages we did, which was a very large number - we used to do 140 pages, and the average BBC sitcom was less than half that. It was about 65 pages. To do all that, to learn all the business and then to make the transition to a new studio and set where everything was slightly different and then record that starting at 10 in the morning and kicking the audience out at 10 at night...
CLEESE: It was unbelievable. It was just one mad rush.
DAVIES: And a lot of physical comedy in there, too.
CLEESE: A lot of physical comedy, exactly. And that's the stuff that takes a long time to rehearse. So how we got it all done, I don't know. And looking back, you know, just at this sense of relief that I don't have to do it again.
DAVIES: So you have to get your laughs in when the audience is catching a breath - that's not easy, is it?
CLEESE: Well, we actually had a live audience there. It was a BBC rule that you couldn't add a laugh. We did of course in the secrecy of the editing room, as you know, if something had failed - laid an egg, then we'd make a laugh off somewhere else. But we didn't have a machine. We'd actually take it off the tape. But it was pretty hard work making them laugh sometimes because they didn't know whether to watch us downstairs where we were on the set, or if there was film, then they didn't realize they should be looking at the monitors of above their heads.
DAVIES: You were a tall, lanky fellow, and, you know, you're known for great physical comedy, you know, struts at all. I mean, how did you learn that?
CLEESE: I think I learned it by imitation because I was no - no good at physical comedy. I was a terrible dancer. I dance like an English man. And although I had good hand-eye coordination, I was so tall and skinny and muscularly weak that I just was not well coordinated. But what I started to do quite early on was watch some of the great, old silent comedians, like Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin, and then later on Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.
And the first thing you notice about these people is how extraordinarily physically skillful they were. And I began to just learn of a few little things, like how to look as though I tripped or I was good at balancing things. I could take an umbrella and balance it on my chin or on my foot. And I just got interested in that kind of thing. And as I played games more and more and got stronger physically, I just became more coordinated. But by watching the great, old comedians I picked up a few tricks about how to do physical comedy. And whenever I could learn something, I sort of added that to my repertoire. It was nothing I was naturally gifted at. It actually was sort of work, but it was fun work.
DAVIES: One thing that you're really good at as an actor is indignation.
DAVIES: That come from anywhere, is it modeled on anybody?
CLEESE: I don't know, but it's quite true. I think it's - I've always found life quite difficult to explain to people or to myself. I think there are so many activities going on, like mountaineering. You know, you would pay good money not to have to do that, and yet there are people racing out who want to spend their spare time clambering up rocks. Other people, you know, put a latex rubber on, you know, to become sexually excited. There's so much I don't understand.
CLEESE: I don't understand why very, very rich people want to have even more money than they've already got. And I think that I feel an indignation when I don't understand something. So I think a lot of it - the dead parrot is the perfect example of the indignation is that my character simply does not understand why the pet shop keeper will not accept the parrot is dead because he clearly is. I mean, it's that building indignation that I always find funny.
GROSS: We'll hear more of the interview that John Cleese recorded with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Cleese has a new memoir. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with John Cleese, a founding member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, who also co-wrote and co-starred in the film's "Life Of Brian," "Monty Python And The Holy Grail" and "The Meaning Of Life," as well as the TV series "Fawlty Towers." Cleese's new book "So, Anyway..." is about his early life and his early days in comedy.
DAVIES: One of the people you worked with in the early days was Peter Sellers. You tell a wonderful story about - you know, Sellers was great at voices, just watching somebody and picking up a character. And...
CLEESE: That's right.
DAVIES: ...You tell about a story arriving at his house one day and seeing him in the morning. Do you remember what I'm talking about?
CLEESE: Yes, I do. And it just showed why he was such a wonderful impersonator. But it showed that in a very strange way because he'd overslept. And his chauffer Bert said, sorry, boys, Peter's overslept. I'll make you coffee. He'll be out in a bit. And we just sat there sipping coffee. And when Peter came out, he was still in his dressing gown or his robe. And he was apologizing for having overslept, but apologizing in a voice that was not his own. And suddenly, he switched into a rather sort of plumy upper-class voice and was talking to us like this as he walked towards us. And at a moment, he was talking a bit like that. And then he went into another voice, sat on the sofa and 10 seconds later, he was talking to us in his own voice. And see, we were the first persons that he'd spoken to that morning. He'd only just been up a few minutes. And we realized when Graham and I - Graham Chapman and I - sort of compared notes afterwards, we realized that Peter Sellers in the morning had to find his own voice.
DAVIES: So he wasn't trying to impress you. It's like somebody tuning in...
CLEESE: No, no...
DAVIES: ...A radio dial and finding the station.
CLEESE: There was a lack of real personality at his core. And the people who were very good impressionists are often rather like that. Similarly, people who write very good parodies but don't write such great original comedy, those people often lack a certain emotional life. They're very clever, their observation is good, but emotion doesn't inform their work in any way. So their work tends to be brilliantly observed, but not very - what's the word? - not very powerful. They don't tend to be terribly funny. They tend to be terribly clever. So this kind of personality type - a person who has a weak sense of their own identity - they're frightfully good at copying other people, whether it's other writers or other performers.
But we realized that Peter literally had to find his own voice in the morning. And to that extent, he was a sort of personality that he'd had to manufacture himself from different parts. And I - one of the Pythons was ever so slightly like that. And we could always tell when he had been spending time with one of his Beatles friends because he would have a slight Liverpool accent for the next 24 hours.
DAVIES: And which Python was this?
CLEESE: Well, actually it's Eric. Eric Idle, he was very close to George. In fact, managed to find the money to make "Life Of Brian." But you could hear a slight Liverpool sound in Eric's voice for a time, and he was our best mimic.
DAVIES: I want to play clip from "Life Of Brian." This is where you, as leader of the revolutionary anti-Roman group - was it the people's Judean Front or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea?
CLEESE: I've no idea.
DAVIES: One of them.
CLEESE: But there were a lot of those kind of...
CLEESE: ...Groupings. But you heard more about the ones on the left, but they had these very fanciful titles. And what was amusing that their infighting was ceaseless, and they were always splitting into two groups because they couldn't agree about anything. But - although in my experience, I read about them in the English newspapers as being on the - politically on the left. And when I did some research, I discovered there were masses.
DAVIES: Right, so in this clip, you are Reggie, who is the leader of - I think it's the Judean People's Front. You're planning a caper to kidnap a Roman. But in this conversation we're about to hear, you're essentially talking about how much you hate the Romans. Let's listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN")
CLEESE: (As Reg) They've taken everything we earned. Not just from us - from our fathers and from our fathers' fathers.
ERIC IDLE: (As Stan) And from our fathers' fathers' fathers.
CLEESE: (As Reg) Yeah.
IDLE: (As Stan) And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers.
CLEESE: (As Reg) All right, don't labor the point.
And what have they ever given us in return?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Xerxes) The aqueduct?
CLEESE: (As Reg) What?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Xerxes) The aqueduct.
CLEESE: Oh, yeah. Yeah, they did give us that. That's true, yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Unidentified masked follower #1) And the sanitation.
IDLE: (As Stan) Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Do you remember what the the city used to be like?
CLEESE: (As Reg) Yeah, all right. I'll grant you the aqueduct, the sanitation are two things the Romans have done.
JOHN YOUNG: (As Matthias) And the roads.
CLEESE: (As Reg) Well, yeah, obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don't they? Well, apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Unidentified masked follower) Irrigation.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Unidentified Masked follower) Medicine?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Unidentified masked follower) Education.
CLEESE: (As Reg) Yeah, yeah, all right.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Unidentified masked follower) And the wine.
MICHAEL PALIN: (As Francis) Yeah, yeah, that's something we'd really miss if the Romans left.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Unidentified masked follower) Public baths.
IDLE: (As Stan) And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As Unidentified masked follower) Yeah, they certainly like to keep order. Let's face it, the only ones who could in a place like this.
CLEESE: (As Reg) All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Unidentified masked follower) Brought peace?
CLEESE: (As Reg) Oh, peace. Shut up.
It's a very funny piece, isn't it?
DAVIES: That's John Cleese in "Life Of Brian."
CLEESE: Very funny.
DAVIES: It is very funny. And, you know, I love your performance as Reggie there. But it's the writing that really makes this wonderful, isn't it? I mean...
CLEESE: Yes, that's right.
DAVIES: You know, and you say many times in the book that you're more a writer than a performer.
CLEESE: It's always hard for people to believe that because of course, anytime they've seen me it's because I've been performing. You know, they don't go to their televisions and switch them on and see me sitting at home writing, you know? So naturally, people's image is of a performer, but the reality is the writing for me has always been the most important thing and the most rewarding thing. And I've always called myself a writer/performer, not an actor because I basically write what I perform. And I kind of - the writing is the most important bit, and performing it is just - close the circle because I'm less likely to screw it up than anyone else.
But there's another reason. When you do comedy in front of an audience, they are the ones who tell you whether it's funny or not and which bits are funny and which bits need to be fixed. So that when you start performing it in front of an audience on stage, when you start in a show, it's a very interesting process to perform it because it's like a series of little scientific experiments each night to try and make things work that didn't work the night before. And as you've got it to the point where you think, now I know how this needs to be played. We've made some cuts, things that didn't work, we've rephrased it in things we found that - to play these lines with some anger, but these lines with no anger at all. This now makes it funny. And that's the point where I wanted to say, well, that's the end of the experiment as far as I'm concerned. I want to move on to something new now. But of course, a proper actor will be happy to do that on stage for several months. And I don't have that temperament.
DAVIES: We're speaking with John Cleese. He's written a memoir called "So, Anyway..." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with John Cleese. He has a memoir called "So, Anyway..." I feel we should listen to a bit of "A Fish Called Wanda," which you wrote, and it's just, I think, a wonderful, wonderful film. And this is a moment where it's you and Kevin Kline, who plays Otto the former CIA agent who has such contempt for the British. And this is a moment where you have offended him, and he demands an apology. In the background, we hear Jamie Lee Curtis behind a locked door at the beginning. And I'll just - people who know the film will remember that at this moment when the apology is rendered, there's a wonderful side gag where he's literally dangling you outside a window threatening to drop you to...
CLEESE: Upside down, that's right.
DAVIES: Upside down to extract the apology. But let's listen to this and Kevin Kline as Otto speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FISH CALLED WANDA")
KEVIN KLINE: (As Otto) Apologize.
JAMIE LEE CURTIS: (As Wanda) Otto.
CLEESE: (As Archie) What?
KLINE: (As Otto) Apologize.
CLEESE: (As Archie) Are you totally deranged?
KLINE: (As Otto) You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant twerp, scumbag, [bleep] face, [bleep] head, ass [bleep].
CLEESE: (As Archie) How very interesting. You're a true vulgarian, aren't you?
KLINE: (As Otto) You're the vulgarian, you [bleep]. Now apologize.
CLEESE: (As Archie) What? Me to you?
KLINE: (As Otto) Apologize.
CLEESE: (As Archie) All right, all right, I apologize.
KLINE: (As Otto) You're really sorry?
CLEESE: (As Archie) I'm really, really sorry. I apologize unreservedly.
KLINE: (As Otto) You take it back.
CLEESE: (As Archie) I do, I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact and was in no way fair comment and was motivated purely by malice. And I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you or your family. And I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future.
KLINE: (As Otto) OK.
DAVIES: A model apology from our guest John Cleese also with Kevin Kline there from "A Fish Called Wanda." You know...
CLEESE: That's right.
DAVIES: ...You say in the book you never wanted the John Cleese show, that you always love collaborating. That's why "Python" worked; that's why a lot of the other projects that you worked on, you know, worked so well for you. Did you involve Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline in writing "Wanda"?
CLEESE: Oh, very much so. Yeah, absolutely, and they both wrote - they both wrote quite a lot of their parts. I was proud that by the time it finished, 13 different people had contributed lines to the script because that's the way I like to work. And I remember early on at a rehearsal, the first assistant director Jonathan Benson suddenly, in the middle of a scene, said, why doesn't he say that? And he suggested a line, and I said, that's a great line, and I crossed out the line in the script and started writing it in. And Jamie was looking at me with her mouth open, and she said that is so great.
In Hollywood, a first assistant would never have been allowed to make a suggestion. He wouldn't have thought of doing it, you know? But I actually believe that when you do that everyone has more fun and people become more creative because they're being invited to be more creative. I think a lot of people have been stifled because the people employing them don't expect them to come up with anything special. And, of course, everybody's capable of coming up with good lines. So Jamie, Kevin and Michael contributed a great deal as did Maria Aitken who wrote. Some of the best lines in her part were things that came out of rehearsal.
DAVIES: You know, the - the seething contempt Kevin Kline has for the British, was that - did he come up with that, or did you come up with that?
CLEESE: I can't quite remember. I know where I got the idea of the character from. It was a magazine called Los Angeles magazine and I saw two-page spread that was an advertisement for a weekend retreat of a Buddhist nature. And somebody was going to be teaching it, his name was Zen Master Rama (ph) or something. And there was this rather callous-looking youth with uncertain eyes and a strange sort of haircut that looked like a full dandelion, you know, very fluffy. And I thought he was singularly unimpressive, and then I saw the banner headline across and it said Buddhism gives you the competitive edge (laughter). And I thought this is wonderful, so I wrote Kevin as a man who had read everything and understood nothing.
CLEESE: But was very proud of his intellect because he was not smart enough to realize how stupid he was. And Kevin and I did a - we met at one point in the West Indies for two weeks and he just ad-libbed stuff, and that's where he came up with stuff like, what was the middle thing? You just - if you just play like that, you move towards a character as the actor finds the character more and more, he's likely to come up with lines that are absolutely perfect for that character, and I think the writer should embrace them.
DAVIES: Before I let you go, I want to ask you when people recognize you on the street, what are the lines they throw at you? And are Americans and British fans different in that?
CLEESE: The Americans are just more enthusiastic and more likely to engage in hyperbole. The British fans are liable to suddenly be talking to you about something that you don't know how you got into the conversation. I think it's something to do with the fact that they've been watching you for so many years sort of you telling your story. They want to tell you their story, but you usually discover that you're discussing their son's education without really knowing how you got embarked on the subject.
So the Americans are so much more positive. They are much more in love with success. In Britain, they're a fairly envious bunch, and they love it if you fail. If you want to know who your friends are, have a major failure. They'll all ask you round to dinner so they can make sort of you feel better because they're no longer envious. The Brits tend to be less direct. But when people quote sketches to me, half the time I don't know what they're talking about so I have to sort of go, aha, yes, oh yep, I remember that. And lie my way out of it.
DAVIES: John Cleese, it's been fun. Thank you so much.
CLEESE: Good, I hope you got enough stuff.
GROSS: We did. John Cleese spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies who was also senior reporter at WHYY. Cleese has a new memoir called "So, Anyway..." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. We have a great holiday show coming up Monday with Nick Lowe performing little-known as well as an original Christmas songs in our studio. His latest album "Quality Street" features holiday songs. Here's one of his originals from the album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS AT THE AIRPORT")
NICK LOWE: (Singing) Outside the taxi window, on the way to catch my flight, I noticed the snowflakes playing in the ever failing light. When he dropped me at departure, it was really coming down. Deep and crisp and evil, it settled on the ground. It looks like Christmas, Christmas at the airports. All the planes are grounding and the fog is rolling in. It looks like Christmas, Christmas at the airport this year. Doors are locked and bolted, let the festivities begin. The terminal was seething without much Christmas cheer. So I found an empty closet and bedded down in there. When I woke much later, I was quite alone. Check-in was deserted, everyone had gone. It looks like Christmas, Christmas at the airport. I took a set of x-rays, they came out rather well. It looks like Christmas, Christmas at the airport this year. I'm doing Santa's sleigh ride on the baggage carousel.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Passengers are advised that oversized items such as buggies...
GROSS: Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker talks about the year in music and tells us what's on his top 10 list. This is FRESH AIR.
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