Finding the laugh the hard way: John Cleese meets Jemima Khan

At 75, after many years of personal struggle, John Cleese says he is the happiest he has ever been. But what on earth will that mean for his comedy?

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John Cleese by Ralph Steadman

A few years ago, at a restaurant in Chelsea, I sat tantalisingly close to John Cleese. Starstruck for the first time, I apologised for interrupting and asked for a photograph with him. Although he was faultlessly polite, when I read his autobiography I discovered this was a faux pas. “I don’t know why this ‘Sorry to interrupt you but can I have a picture with you?’ is so irritating,” he writes, “Perhaps it’s the idea of providing photographic proof for the rest of eternity of the moment I stood next to someone I’d never set eyes on before.” He rants in this vein for a further two paragraphs. “In the old days, people would ask for a photograph of you, but now it’s always, always . . . with you. Presumably so they can show their friends, ‘Look, here’s me with . . . what’s-his-name.’ ”

The next time we met was at a small dinner with his wife, Jennifer Wade, at which I challenged him to a Fawlty Towers quiz to prove the extent of my fandom. Apparently this was another clanger: “I’m never bored,” he writes, “except when I’m trapped at a dinner party by people who are bent on impressing me.”

And here I am today, off to a bad start again, because I have come to interview Cleese about his autobiography, So, Anyway . . . , in which he takes several swipes at the press. He may hate being bothered by photograph-hunters and zealous fans but he hates being interviewed for the British print media more. Reviewers have accused him of being a curmudgeon and although I enjoyed his book, it’s fair to say he does not come across in it as a man perennially brimming with bonhomie.

So, it’s a pleasant surprise when he strides into the room positively beaming. Despite being “extraordinarily tired, hilariously tired” (this is his third interview of the morning even though it’s not quite 10am), he kisses me hello, greets me by name and is both solicitous and forthcoming. He rarely agrees to print interviews, he tells me, because “they ask you questions and you think, “Now why did they ask that? What’s the agenda? And that makes the whole thing a sort of watchful process.” His remark instantly makes me reassess my questions. What is my agenda?

The big turning point in his relationship with the media, he says, was “when Stephen Fry said to me, ‘You don’t have to use the British press if you have a Twitter following.’ ” Recently Mark Forstater, one of the producers of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, accused him in the Daily Mail of having “a bit of a nasty streak”. Cleese recalls with glee that he was able to retort on Twitter: “I really do hope so because then the Daily Mail might give me a column.”

Cleese is a supporter of Hacked Off, which campaigns for independent press regulation. “Just occasionally, I feel I can do something useful. I think in the case of Hacked Off, this is one of the times when you can put your shoulder to the wheel with a real chance of success. Hitting back at them is like shooting fish in a barrel because they don’t have a leg to stand on.”

The Daily Mail (or “that miserable paper”, as he prefers to call it) “used to control the information: they had a monopoly, you couldn’t get it out. That’s gone. That’s why their power is fading so fast. I think they’ve lost.” The Mail’s review of his book was particularly savage. “They know I hate them and they hate me,” he says cheerfully. “It’s wonderful, because as you get older things matter less. Now I literally laugh. I mean, it’s not an act of bravery or whatever – I laugh because they’re so ridiculous . . .”

He says he found the paper’s choice of a “criminologist from Bournemouth Polytechnic” (cue: big laugh) to review his book “just hilarious”. I’m not convinced. Is there, beneath the clenched-jawed smile and awkward charm, a seething rage? His fellow Python Terry Jones tells me by email: “John is the master of angry. He once said, ‘It’s not the anger, it’s the frustration.’ ” Terry Gilliam, another of his Python collaborators, elaborates. “So much of John’s humour comes out of frustration – it’s more confusion than anger.” According to Gilliam, it results from “this basic inability to instinctively understand things in the world and that drives him so mad”.

 

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So, Anyway . . . starts off with a young Cleese, a “weedy, namby-pamby little pansy”, growing up in Weston-super-Mare, the son of the middle-class, moderately well-off Cheeses. (Mr Cheese changed his name when he went off to fight in the war, for fear of being teased.) It ends in 1969 just as Monty Python begins, with a jump in the final chapter covering the reunion show last summer at the O2 arena in London.

He intends to write Volume Two, which “would have more Python; it would have Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda . . .” He pauses. “You know the classiest single thing about this book?” “What?” I ask. “Guess?” I can’t. “No mention of Alyce Faye at all.”

Alyce Faye, an American psychotherapist, was Cleese’s third wife and the reason for his 2011 “Alimony Tour”, so named because it paid for the $13m, plus $1m a year for seven years, that he was ordered to give her after their acrimonious divorce. He has a year’s more alimony still to pay, “but the money is put aside so I don’t have to think about that”. As for Volume Three, he says, “that’s going to be hanging, drawing and quartering”. He laughs, and his eyes look a little wild. I think he’s joking.

It’s obligatory to mention here – to Cleese’s irritation (sample recent tweets: “The DM reminds its readers yet again that I have been married a lot. I would like to remind them that during the 30s, the DM supported Hitler”; “Interesting question here: is it morally better to have had a ‘turbulent love life’ or to have been a big fan of the Nazis. Tricky one . . .”) – that Cleese has been married a lot. Four times. Is he an optimist, or just a diehard romantic? “The problem is, Jemima, you don’t really know anyone for two years. I really mean that . . . ”

He says this with such earnestness that it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. “Do you know, [Alyce Faye] is the only person in my life who used to say to me on a regular basis that she had a black heart? I think it must have been a threat. ‘If you leave me you’ll see how black-hearted I am . . .’ ”

Despite all the therapy, there’s a naivety to Cleese and especially, it seems, in relation to women. Gilliam corrects me: “It’s with all his dealings with the world – I think it’s a great confusion for him and is a very worrying thing because he wants to understand. And partly so he can control it and partly so he can survive it. It’s quite extraordinary, as he doesn’t use what most of us would call instinct or common sense. It has to be intellectualised.”

According to Cleese, he married Alyce Faye in an attempt to be pragmatic. “It was never a love match. I was trying to be sensible.” His GP set them up. His great regret is that the “Cleese household expenditure went up by a factor of four” during the marriage, and so he had to take jobs because they were well paid, rather than those that interested him. “The best work I did was always on spec and it was something that I wanted to do, and I couldn’t afford to do that because we became so acquisitive.”

Yet Gilliam notes that the money worries preceded the marriage. “He has always been worried about money. It was always money that he needed, or he thought he needed. I don’t know if he actually does, because he made all those management films [with Video Arts], which made a huge amount of money. He always feels the need for more. He has always lived very well and he is also incredibly naive about the spending of money.” Even Cleese says: “I’m not blaming her for [the profligacy]: that was a function of the two of us. We became acquisitive. We had five properties, you know – three in Santa Barbara, one in New York, one in London. That took a lot of earning.”

He attributes his pattern of “placatory relationships” with women to his mother Muriel’s volatility and his subsequent “ingrained habit of walking on eggshells”. The book makes much of his omniphobic, “self-obsessed and anxious” mother and her shortcomings. “There was only one thing she wanted. Just one. But that one thing was her own way. And if she didn’t get it that upset her . . .”

Muriel was prone to throwing “a tantrum or several tantra of such inconceivable volume and activity that there must have been times when Dad yearned for the relative tranquillity of the trenches in France”.

Clearly her son was fearful of her and he confesses to being uncomfortable around women generally. He was romantically inept as a young man and it was not until the age of 25 that he was “presented with the surprising offer of a chance to lose my virginity”. It is typical of Cleese that he describes this, like his first marriage to the writer and actress Connie Booth, as an event that happened to him. Thanks to what he calls his “Westonian cautiousness” and to his “middle-class mind” being “endlessly creative when imagining potential pitfalls”, he has been surprisingly passive both personally and professionally.

His book is a self-portrait of a particular type of middle-class Englishness; of public school and codes of behaviour, sexual reticence and emotional repression, cricket and class obsession, all written with hindsight after a great deal of therapy.

At times it is excruciating. Take this description of his reluctance to make a pass at any woman:

I was fearful that I would embarrass the object of my affections by suggesting a course of action which she might experience as alarming, distasteful or downright repellent. This punctilious concern not to offend or distress was, I’m sure, the camouflage employed to hide myself from my deep fear of rejection.

Cleese is partial to such self-examination. “What I seem to laugh at most are the things that frighten me . . . Am I trying to diminish a fear by laughing at it, and thereby belittling it?” He is not currently in therapy, but views psychotherapists as “just like doctors” and “may very easily go back”.

Gilliam regards this desire to understand the world and the resulting confusion as the main reason Cleese is so funny. “He’s funny because he’s a freak – he spends all his time trying to correct his freakishness and I say, ‘Why do you want to do that? It’s what makes you funny and wealthy.’ ” Terry Jones says more simply: “John Cleese is funny because he’s so tall and an odd shape, and he picks on the absurd connections in life.”

Is that right? I asked a number of contemporary comedians what they think makes him humorous. David Baddiel says: “He’s a brilliant physical comedian – unusually, perhaps, for someone associated with the verbal dexterity of the Pythons – amazingly good at making his tall body funny in a large, swinging way. But he’s also very good at small, telling eye movements, particularly those that indicate that the high-status man – his natural habitat – is aware, in a very subtle way, that he has been undermined. And that fall from on high, as indicated by the eyes, is always like a beautifully tiny piece of slapstick.”

David Walliams describes him as “the greatest living comedian. His work spans nearly all genres of comedy.” He describes meeting Cleese at a Comic Relief photo shoot a few years ago and being uncharacteristically “dumbstruck”. “I couldn’t begin to tell him how much his work meant to me.” The actor Hugh Grant is another ardent fan. “I love and revere Cleese, and have done all my life,” he tells me. “I want to be his fifth bride.” Grant says that when he met him in the late Nineties, “he developed an obsession with Elizabeth Hurley’s loathing of squirrels. When we both went to his house we were ushered into his study where he was murmuring, ‘How adorable,’ while watching a video of squirrels on a washing line. And when we all met for lunch at a posh restaurant he arranged for the waiter to include ‘fricasseé of grey squirrel’ in the list of specials.”

For Cleese anoraks, the best bits in his autobiography are those that explore the development of his sense of humour, the genesis of Basil Fawlty and Python, and his forensic study of the art of comedy. As a former schoolteacher, he is adept at passing on tips for comedy writers; he encourages aspiring comedians “to steal an idea that you know is good”, conceal the loot and “reproduce it in a setting that you know and understand”, and he explains how to construct a joke and deliver a punchline: “Always put the key funny word in a sentence at the end of it.” He also outlines how to combat writer’s block, his solution to which is straightforward perseverance. “There are not many jobs where you can produce absolutely nothing in the course of eight hours, and the uncertainty that produces is very scary. You never hear of accountant’s block or bricklayer’s block.”

What comes across most strongly, however, is his extraordinary self-discipline. As a student, he would listen to Dudley Moore and Peter Cook sketches over and over again until he knew them off by heart. He suffered from stage fright and so, aware that comic timing depends on being relaxed, the only cure, he tells me, was “to know the thing so f***ing well that you wouldn’t stop if a bomb went off”. Performing on stage, night after night, he would study the audience’s reactions. “Every single night you learn something more about the psychology of audiences . . . The function of laughter is, of course, to be the total arbiter of what is funny. It’s so simple: if they don’t laugh, there’s something wrong and you’ve got to fix it.”

One of his fellow Pythons, he tells me, had more aptitude than he did for scriptwriting but lacked the discipline and therefore the success. “If it got to 4.55pm in the old days and he wanted to finish a sketch, he would just go for the formulaic solution and have a nice glass of wine in his hand at 5.15. And I would be sitting there at 6.50 because I wasn’t satisfied with what I was coming up with and Connie [Booth] would be saying, ‘We’ve got to leave in ten minutes,’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ That’s what it’s about, it’s so much about time and just sitting there until you get the good ideas.” As he reflects in his memoir, “A degree of obsession often produces the best work but does not produce the best life.” A Fish Called Wanda took 13 drafts.

This seems to me to be the essence of Cleese: he’s an inveterate tryer. The multiple marriages seem more about his obsessive determination to get things right than any irrepressible enthusiasm for the institution itself. These days, he says, he is less of a perfectionist. “I’m not so sure as I used to be that I’m right . . . You realise after a time your judgement is often wrong.”

 

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Cleese now feels “out of touch with the audience”. He is not a fan of any of today’s comedians other than Will Ferrell. “I don’t watch much modern stuff . . . I don’t think this is a particularly golden age creatively. There was a classier kind of comedy that I grew up on and what they’re doing now is aimed, by and large, at young American males who have no general knowledge at all. It’s the problem my daughter has in her stand-up, that she has to make jokes about drugs, sex, eating disorders, celebrities, sport, TV shows . . .”

For this reason and because it takes so long to make a feature film, he has no intention of writing another one. “I don’t want, at 75, to spend nearly three years when I should probably be dead before the end of it. I think I’ve got a few years left but there’s more interesting things to do.”

Based once again in England with three cats and his wife, Jennifer, and looking forward to a future of “writing humorously and possibly performing something on television”, he is, he says, the happiest he has ever been.

He certainly seems very happy. He pulls himself up to his full height of six foot five inches to hug me goodbye, all smiles and warmth. It’s been a pleasure, we both say. And it has, although interviewing John Cleese is a sort of watchful process. I just hope I haven’t committed another faux pas, which I will discover only on reading Volume Two. 

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article appears in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014