SPIEGEL Interview with John Cleese: 'Satire Makes People Think'
In an interview, British comedian John Cleese talks about his time as a comedian with Monty Python, the permissability of Muslim satire -- it is -- his longtime fascination for Germany and its language and a third marriage he wishes never happened.
It takes a while before people start recognizing the man who has just popped into the garden room of west London's Draycott Hotel. John Cleese, 75, is wearing lined slippers, a thick scarf around his neck and a winter coat, but he can't cover up the fact that he has a bad cold. His cough seems strong enough to blow over a building. Cleese says his wife Jennifer, a jewelry designer, is also home in bed sick. He thinks they caught whatever it is they have on the flight back from a Caribbean vacation.
Cleese is famous for having created Monty Python. The comedy troop's members included Graham Chapman, a mate of Cleese's from his Cambridge years who died in 1989. The others were Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle, who studied together at Oxford, as well as the American illustrator Terry Gilliam.
In 1969, the BBC broadcasted the first episode of "Monty Python's Flying Circus," catapulting the group to international fame and creating a new comedy standard for generations to come. After the group split up in 1983, Cleese wrote screenplays, created the series "Fawlty Towers" and the film "A Fish Called Wanda".
During that time, he also produced motivational videos for executives, did commercials for beer, vacuum cleaners and chocolate and also made appearances in the "James Bond" and "Harry Potter" films. Throughout, though, he remained true to himself, always playing the role of the indignant gentleman -- deadly serious and with raised eyebrows as he spoke the most ridiculous absurdities into the camera.
Even today, people try to walk in strange ways when they see him, as he once did in the highly popular sketch "Ministry of Silly Walks." He says it makes him smile, but that he wishes people wouldn't do it. Before beginning our interview, Cleese orders a hot toddy, which, to his mild amusement, never gets served.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Cleese, we owe to you one of the most perfect horror scenes in film history.
Cleese: Go on, please.
SPIEGEL: It's a scene in your movie "A Fish Called Wanda." In it, you sit on the bedside cutting your toe nails. Your wife is lying next to you.
Cleese: Oh yes, it's so awful, yes. That was very bad. But there was one other horror scene that I am quite proud of. I played professor Waldman in the 1994 adaptation of "Frankenstein" and got stabbed to death by Robert De Niro. If you get killed by anybody it should be De Niro. He's a wonderful murderer.
SPIEGEL: Yes, he is. Back to "A Fish Called Wanda" and this marriage scene with toe nails being flipped all over the place: It looks like the final blow to marital love. Do you view marriage as being more of a comedy or more a tragedy?
Cleese: You have to ask this about life, don't you? We all die at the end, but does that nullify everything? Would most people rather say, "I wish I hadn't been born?" Once you're born you'll have to die, now is that funny or sad?
SPIEGEL: What do you think?
Cleese: I've been miserable due to this virus for three weeks and my spirits are a bit lower than usual. Normally I see it as a comedy. So, talking about marriage
SPIEGEL: Your third divorce, from an American psychologist, cost you a fortune.
Cleese: I was comfortably well off before I got divorced from Alyce Faye Eichelberger. I never knew how much I really had -- I was just comfortable. But now I've been working for seven years to pay off the alimony. She's far better off than I am. So you could sit around being bitter about that. Or you can just think it's completely ridiculous.
SPIEGEL: It seems to be rather serious: You went on an "Alimony Tour," as you called it, to raise money to pay your ex-wife.
Cleese: Yes. In July I will make the last payment and then I will have given her $20 million.
SPIEGEL: $20 Million?
Cleese: Indeed. When we broke up, there were five properties. Now I have one very nice flat left in London, just around the corner. I don't need anything else. It's amazing how important money is today. When I was young people were talking very little about it. The feeling was that rich people have money, fine. It's getting it that's vulgar. My father made £30 a week, and that was when a miner was getting £10.
SPIEGEL: You grew up in Weston-super-Mare and Bristol. Your father was an insurance salesman, your grandfather was an office clerk in a legal firm and your other one was an auctioneer
Cleese: very boring, I know. Safety and respectability was everything. People were terrified of being caught doing anything that wasn't respectable.
SPIEGEL: And at some point you thought that was funny?
Cleese: I think we're all born with a sense of humor. Creativity is another thing: If you spend your whole life in Des Moines, Iowa, it is hard to imagine that there is something different. I had Weston-super-Mare and then Bristol and later Cambridge, so I could compare. Psychologists say it also helps creativity if you have parents who are constantly disagreeing about things. And I had that. The thing that mainly kills creativity and humor is anxiety. You need to be able to play. I think a lot of us lose this ability. I did an interview once with the Dalai Lama and he said what he liked about people laughing is that it gives them a chance to have new ideas.
SPIEGEL: You have a lot of respect for the Dalai Lama, you even rewrote some Buddhist writings for him. Are you a religious person?
Cleese: I certainly don't think much of organized religion. I am not committed to anything except the vague feeling that there is something more going on than the materialist reductionist people think. I think you can reduce suffering a little bit, like the Buddhists say, that is one of the few things I take seriously. But the idea that you can run this planet in a rational and kind way -- I think it's not possible. There will always be these sociopaths at the top -- selfish people, power-seekers who want to spend their whole lives seeking it. Robin Skynner, the psychiatrist that I wrote two books with, said to me that you could begin to enjoy life when you realized how bad the planet is, how hopeless everything is. I reached that point these last two or three years when I saw that our existence here is absolutely hopeless. I see the rich people have got a stranglehold on us. If somebody had said that to me when I was 20, I would have regarded him as a left-wing loony.
SPIEGEL: You may not have been a left-wing loony, but you were happy to attack and ridicule the church. The "Life of Brian," the story of a young man in Judea who isn't Jesus Christ, but is nevertheless followed like a savior and crucified afterwards, was regarded as blasphemy when it was released in 1979.
Cleese: Well there was a small number of people in country towns, all very conservative, who got upset and said, "You can't show the film." So people hired a coach and drove 15 miles to the next town and went to see the film there. But a lot of Christians said, "We got it, we know that the joke is not about religion, but about the way people follow religion." If Jesus saw the Spanish Inquisition I think he would have said, "What are you doing there?"
SPIEGEL: These days Muslims and Islam are risky subjects. Do you think they are good issues for satire?
Cleese: For sure. In 1982, Graham Chapman and I wrote a number of scenes for "The Meaning of Life" movie which had an ayatollah in them. This ayatollah was raging against all the evil inventions of the West, you know, like toilet paper. These scenes were never included in the film, although I thought they were much better than many other scenes that were included. And that's why I didn't do any more Python films: I didn't want to be outvoted any longer. But I wouldn't have made fun of the prophet.
SPIEGEL: Why not?
Cleese: How could you? How could you make fun of Jesus or Saint Francis of Assisi? They were wonderful human beings. People are only funny when they behave inappropriately, when they've been taken over by some egotistical emotion which they can't control and they become less human.
SPIEGEL: Is there a difference between making fun of our side, so to speak, the Western, Christian side, and Islam?
Cleese: There shouldn't be a difference.
SPIEGEL: As you put it some time ago: Of course you can make fun of Muslims.
Cleese: They'll just kill you afterwards, yes. To be serious about it though: I think that if people, in particular Muslims, who have a completely different value system, come to the West, then they should accept that there are certain basic values in the West intrinsic to our culture. Just as I wouldn't suggest that any Westerner walk down the streets of Saudi Arabia in a bikini. Respect the local culture. And there are of course lots of kind and utterly decent, admirable Muslims and there are the other lot. We have the other lot, too. Our fundamentalists blow buildings up, they kill people at abortion clinics. I don't think they're as crazy or as numerous as in Islam at the moment, but that's because many Muslims live in appalling conditions most of the time. But there are those who are part of us, part of our society. And they have a right to be ridiculed. We make fun of Christianity, so who says we can't make fun of other religions and their adherents? Satire makes people think.
SPIEGEL: In other words: Satire can change the world?
Cleese: When I was young, I felt that if you made fun of a certain kind of behavior, people would realize it was ridiculous. And then it would slowly disappear. It didn't. Of course not. The comedian Peter Cook made that funny joke about these wonderful Berlin cabarets in the 1930s that did so much to hold back Adolf Hitler. Well, you know what happened.
SPIEGEL: Do you have to be left-wing as a comedian?
Cleese: The good ones are on the left, yes. There are some decent right-wing ones, but they're few and far between. Anyone who is rather fundamentally critical of society and the way it works is much more likely to be on the left.
SPIEGEL: It must have been horrible for you to see Margaret Thatcher attempting to reenact the Dead Parrot sketch in 1990 during a speech at a party conference.
Cleese: I knew one of her advisors, who told me that they spent a lot of time rehearsing it. But she couldn't do it. It was all pretty embarrassing for her.
SPIEGEL: Did you mind?
Cleese: People either parody you or use your material, that's part of being a comedian. I don't complain about it.
SPIEGEL: You spent a lot of time in your life making fun of authorities.
Cleese: Of bad authorities, that's a difference. It's the pompous ones, the egotistical ones, that are worth making fun of. Humor can sometimes be devastating at a particular point, where an authoritarian system is beginning to crumble. It gives an extra shove towards the wall falling down, as it were. People in power find it very hard to be ridiculed, they'd rather be attacked. Humor can make people feel stupid.
SPIEGEL: Journalists have also been a favorite target of yours. You did a lot of parodies of reporters asking stupid questions while making very serious faces.
Cleese: It was joyous. What I loved best was that people said after Monty Python they couldn't watch the evening news. They just couldn't take it seriously. This is a very healthy attitude. If you just see how ridiculous it all is. I'd really love to do a parody of BBC films one of these days teaching people how to make documentaries. I'd say, one of the most important things when you are ... making ... documentaries ... is ... to pause ... a lot. And use your hands much.
SPIEGEL: The BBC, in the 1960s, commissioned 13 episodes of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" without even knowing what your group was up to. Could Monty Python happen today?
Cleese: No! Not a chance. It's funny, we didn't know what we wanted to do -- all we knew was that we wanted to work together. When we started, we were kind of paralyzed. We had this meeting with a BBC official asking us what we wanted to do, and we said, well. I think it was the worst business meeting ever. But they let us do it, and I applaud Michael Mills, former BBC head of comedy, up there in heaven for it.
SPIEGEL: You mentioned that there were differences within Monty Python between you and Graham Chapman on the one side and Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle on the other. Was that paralyzing?
Cleese: Graham and I, the Cambridge people, were much more interested in structure, whereas the Oxford people Palin and Jones had some very good visual ideas, more fantastical things, which we tended not to do. Graham and I would typically write a sketch in a familiar setting, an office, a school or something like that. We used to argue a lot, because we communicated badly.
SPIEGEL: Were you always fighting?
Cleese: The vast majority of the time, particularly the first two series of "Monty Python's Flying Circus," was very harmonious. Then there were major difficulties in the group. Graham Chapman had become an alcoholic. Once you have a group of six people and one is an alcoholic you can't expect things to go on as smoothly as they did before.
SPIEGEL: You said earlier, you didn't want to be outvoted anymore.
Cleese: For "The Meaning of Life" in 1982, I wrote some stuff with Graham that I thought was really exceptional, but I was outvoted by the others. I was 43 years of age at the time and had been quite successful as a comic for 15 years. I suddenly thought, at my age, I don't necessarily need to be part of a group where I'm outvoted.
SPIEGEL: Somewhere in your book you call Terry Jones a "swarthy, excitable, plump, Celtic demi-dwarf." Apart from that, is everything okay between the two of you?
Cleese: We always fought, Terry and I, and we don't understand each other. But there's a genuine affection. We were playing two old women in the reunion show last year, and I don't know why, but we started holding hands before the lights came on. We disagree a lot. And Terry Gilliam has only said two things in his life that I agree with but there's still an affection. We all went in completely different directions after Monty Python. Eric went into music, Terry Gilliam directs movies -- he is wonderful at images, but not very good at narrative. Terry Jones does all sorts of things. Michael does a lot of programs about travel and painting. I don't know what I've done.
SPIEGEL: Well, there is a lemur that is named after you.
Cleese: Years ago, I did a documentary about a scheme to save a lemur population. Afterwards a very nice guy from the University of Zürich, who had found this new species, asked me, can I name it after you? I would have liked to help him financially, but immediately afterwards the alimony hit me. An awful lot of choices in the last seven years had centered around the question, "Where does the money come from to pay my ex-wife?" I regard the last seven years as a bit sterile. But in a few months' time, my life will be more interesting. So maybe I'll be able to give some money to Avahi cleesei, Cleese's woolly lemur.
SPIEGEL: Do you see the lemur from time to time?
Cleese: They're only in Madagascar, unfortunately, not in zoos. And when I went to Madagascar a couple of years ago I didn't see any of them, we didn't even know that they existed. Madagascar is difficult, you have to take a doctor with you. One member of our documentary team nearly died of an infection, another had to be flown to hospital in Johannesburg because of a spider bite. But I'd love to go back. I'd also love to go back to Germany. The best trip I ever took was down the Rhine on a boat. I love your wines.
SPIEGEL: You're very successful in Germany.
Cleese: It's lovely. I wish I could work there more. The first thing I did when I had some money in 1963 was to go to the Berlitz school and learn your language. I don't know why.
SPIEGEL: It is remarkable, after all. Your relationship with Germany started in Weston-super-Mare during World War II, when German planes were bombing your seaside home town.
Cleese: Why did they do it? It was a waste of bombs, strange for such an efficient country. I like my father's explanation. He said that they did it to prove that Germans do have a sense of humor after all.
SPIEGEL: That's a nice way of putting it.
Cleese: My dad, who fought the First World War, had no animosity against Germans at all. A lot of soldiers thought they all were in this awful situation. He never said a negative thing about Germany. When I later learned German, I came to prefer your culture to the French culture. I always thought the French had rather good PR. When I got down to the philosophers, I found that Immanuel Kant is the most important philosopher I ever read. Your music is the finest in the world, you have wonderful painters, I like the expressionists enormously. I don't know too many words in German, but my accent is quite good. I had a dream ten years ago that I was in a room with three men wearing gray suits, probably psychiatrists. And just before I woke up, I said to them, my main regret in life is that German is not my first language.
SPIEGEL: What did this tell you?
Cleese: At the time it told me that I should take some time off, go to Germany and learn the language properly.
Cleese: My third marriage.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Cleese, we thank you for this interview.
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