W5 exclusive: Comedic legend John Cleese on life and humour from his island exile
NEVIS ISLAND, THE CARIBBEAN — When John Cleese was attending the elite Clifton College in Bristol, England, he was studying under a math scholarship. Something much less orthodox, however, was turning his crank.
On Saturday nights in his residence, Cleese was discovering he could be funny. Really funny.
He’d perform sketch comedy, mime to records, and listen to a BBC radio show for lessons on how to be quirky, subversive, and very, very silly. “The Goon Show” was unlike anything else in mid-1950s Britain.
Comedians Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan were lampooning politicians, religious orthodoxy, the class system, everything that had been held as sacrosanct until they came along.
And it lit a fuse under Cleese that is still burning hot as he turns 80.
“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was my “Goon Show” growing up in the sleepy suburb of Mississauga, Ont.
The nearby PBS television station would run it late at night because it was naughty, which only increased its attraction to a teenager.
I would wake my family by laughing out loud, so they would sometimes get up to see what was so funny.
Standing in their housecoats watching one of the sketches, maybe two or three, my parents found none of them particularly funny or entertaining.
They thought it was rude, juvenile, and weird. Exactly.
It’s been 50 years since that first episode of Python aired on the BBC (titled, for some reason, “Whither Canada”) and it still informs the absurdist side of my sense of humour.
So to meet John Cleese in person made me that teenage boy again. I’ve interviewed a lot of famous people in my career, but it’s the idols from my youth I seem to get most nervous about.
It’s like I want to please them like I did my parents. Which is truly silly, but I’ll admit it took me a few days of filming with Cleese to finally get over the fact I was FILMING WITH CLEESE FOR GAWDSSAKE!!
Often with celebrity interviews we are given a set period of time, a few hours if we’re lucky, before the ‘handlers’ step in to shut it down.
Cleese has no handlers on his new island exile on Nevis, so for almost a week he was gracious enough to let us hang out.
He still loves creating comedy for a camera, has developed a mathematician’s ability to time everything exactly right, and makes himself laugh at his own insanity.
In our interview he touches on the fact that while he has been helping people laugh his whole adult life, he has been chasing his own happiness, and often finding it elusive.
There is a very serious side to Cleese that anyone who follows him on Twitter knows. He campaigned in Britain for better journalistic standards, proportional representation, and a better level of political debate.
None of it happened, so a few months ago he very publicly and pointedly left England, saying he would only return to live full time when its leadership improved. He fully expects that will be never in his lifetime. The mess of Brexit isn’t making him homesick in the least.
And so he continues to work, using the West Indies island of Nevis as a base. Most of his fan base is in North America now anyway, and he begins a Canadian tour of his latest show in Halifax in early May.
“Why There is No Hope” is a blend of his humour, his intelligent observation, and his profound pessimism about the direction the world is heading.
Don’t expect a rehash of old skits, he has new things to say. But, as always, his criticism is laced with the wicked humour and absurdist rage that teenagers of any age have learned to appreciate.