John Cleese has always been the member of the Monty Python team most keen on a verbal skirmish. At his best he can be quick, biting and vicious. The most famous example of this came in 1979, when he and his fellow Python Michael Palin took part in a late-night TV debate over their film The Life of Brian, a razor-sharp take-down of religious dogma, blind faith and people’s tendency to follow the pack. (“Yes!” a crowd shouts back in unison to Graham Chapman’s Brian in one of film’s most famous scenes. “We are all individuals.”) Cleese and Palin were paired with the evangelical Christian and former satirist Malcolm Muggeridge and the outspoken Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, who felt the film to be distasteful.
To use a contemporary phrase: Cleese absolutely destroyed his opponents. He made them seem out of touch, old fashioned and pompous. And yes, Cleese is no stranger to pomposity himself, but he’s excellent at harnessing it, using his superior tone to channel his anger. He has been outspoken throughout his career – campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, calling for electoral reform in the UK, and engaging in periodic demolitions of the more extreme ends of the US Republican Party. Gunning for the establishment is essentially what Cleese does best.
This, you’d think, makes him the perfect choice as a commentator on the media, and mainstream culture’s instinct to flinch away from uncomfortable issues. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (10 October) Cleese confirmed that he will be hosting his own TV show with the satirist Andrew Doyle, encouraging “proper argument”. Once upon a time, most of the British public would have been cheering on his artful skewering of the self-righteous. Instead the announcement was met with ridicule and rolled eyes. The problem? It’s going to be on GB News.
As much as hiring Cleese to host a show that tackles these issues feels like a good fit, doing so on the intentionally button-pushing and tediously provocative GB News – on which hosts such as the millionaire gasbag Nigel Farage and the compulsively unpleasant outrage machine Dan Wootton rant against the “woke” media – jars with our idea of who Cleese was. But GB News is the perfect home for who Cleese is now.
In recent years Cleese has critiqued the multiculturalism of London and voiced his support for Brexit. On Today he described himself as an “old-fashioned liberal”, and said that audiences “may not be used to hearing the sort of things I’ll be saying” – adding he had not been offered an opportunity to return to the BBC “because I wouldn’t get five minutes into the first show before I’d been cancelled or censored”.
To Cleese, this is simply more railing against “the establishment”. To him, that term now applies to the self-appointed political correctness police telling him what he can and can’t say – a do-gooding elite, as out of touch with reality as Muggeridge and Stockwood were back in 1979. In 2021 he cancelled an appearance at Cambridge University after a previous guest was banned from being invited back for impersonating Hitler on stage. When an episode of Fawlty Towers was pulled from streaming services due to a character’s racist language he was appalled. He has been criticised several times for his comments about the trans community on Twitter (once using the old tactic of comparing trans people wanting to live as their gender to him deciding he wanted to be a “Cambodian police woman”).
So what’s the difference? Why are those of us on the left happy to embrace John Cleese, defender of free speech and deft ridiculer of the establishment when he’s taking on Christian dogma or Republicans, but livid when he’s defending his right to joke about trans people or satirise racist language in his shows? Surely both are freedom of speech issues?
The answer comes down to who Cleese sees as “the establishment”. It comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding about who is policing what language, and why. The Cleese of 1979, yes, was defending himself against censorship, but back then his targets were the powerful. He’s still defending that same right to critique, but his targets now can sometimes be the least powerful people. As with the racist language in Fawlty Towers, the case of the misguided Hitler impression at Cambridge, and his own comments about trans people, it seems Cleese wants to be able to say whatever he likes regardless of how people who already face unwarranted discrimination might feel.
We shouldn’t be surprised that someone like Cleese is taking to GB News to fight what he sees as the good fight once more. He’s always had verbal super powers. He’s just lost track of how he should best use them.