'Comedy Is Extraordinarily Difficult': John Cleese On Being Funny

Nov 1, 2014
Originally published on January 4, 2015 3:48 pm

John Cleese is a big, tall, stiff-upper-lipped international symbol of British wit. He's made us laugh in Fawlty Towers and movies including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Time Bandits, A Fish Called Wanda, and, recently, as the exasperated master of spycraft — Q — who gives James Bond some of his best toys to break.

Cleese has written a memoir that brings him from boyhood in a quiet British town called Weston to the footlights of London and screens all over the world. It's called So, Anyway...

The title comes from that thing people say when they tell stories but lose track of the main point, Cleese explains to NPR's Scott Simon.

"There's always a slightly awkward pause, and then they say, 'So, anyway ... ' " Cleese says. "So that was just a little private joke, which is now a public joke."


Interview Highlights

On the surprising advice he gives young comedy writers

I tell them to steal, because comedy is extraordinarily difficult. It's much, much harder than drama. You only have to think of the number of great dramatic films and then compare that with the number of great comic films ... and realize that there's very, very few great comedies and there are lots and lots of very great tragedies, or dramas. That tells you, really, which is the hard one to do. So at the very beginning, to try to master the whole thing is too difficult, so pinch other people's ideas and then try to write them yourself, and that'll get you started.

On the origins of the dead parrot sketch

Python fans know it pretty well, but it was originally a sketch about a secondhand car, which was not a bad sketch because the guy who was trying to avoid responsibility for selling a bum car was a funny character. But then when we started Python, Graham Chapman and I decided that we liked the characters in the sketch, but the secondhand car bit was very stale and cliched. So we had a nice long argument. Eventually we decided it would be best if it was a pet shop. Then we had a long discussion about what the animal was going to be, because the animal was obviously going to be dead — not injured, which wouldn't have been funny ... We went through various creatures, and we just decided that the parrot was the funniest one.

On writing jokes

I think if you start trying to write jokes that you don't think are funny in order to make a sort of theoretical audience somewhere else laugh, I think that's death. I think you've got to do what you find funny yourself and just hope that people find it funny.

On strangers' reactions to seeing him

When they come up, they usually say, 'Mr. Cleese, I'm a huge fan,' and then, I'm always amused, they then add, 'You know, Monty Python and Fawlty Towers,' just to let me know that they don't think I was in Ben-Hur or anything like that.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

John Cleese is a big, tall stiff-upper-lipped international symbol of British wit. From "Monty Python's Flying Circus," "Fawlty Towers" and movies including "Monty Python And The Holy Grail," "Life Of Brian," "Time Bandits," "A Fish Called Wanda" and recently as the exasperated master of spy-craft, Q, who gives James Bond some of his best toys to break. He's written a memoir that brings him from boyhood in a quiet British town called Weston to the footlights of London and screens all over the world. It's called "So, Anyway..."

John Cleese joins us from San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN CLEESE: Well, thank you for interviewing me. Actually it's quite the other way around.

SIMON: How would you like people to pronounce the title? "So, Anyway..." or...

CLEESE: Well, it's a kind of private in-joke because I noticed that people who tell stories or anecdotes badly lose track of what they're saying, you know, they lose the plot halfway through and there's always a slightly awkward pause and then they say, so anyway. So that was just a little private joke which is now a public joke.

SIMON: I get kind of startled in the book by advice at one point you give to young comedy writers.

CLEESE: I tell them steal because comedy is extraordinarily difficult. It's much, much harder than drama. You only have to think of the number of great dramatic films and then compare that with a number of great comic films - what would you call them? Yes, comedy films - and realize that there's very, very few great comedies and there are lots and lots of very great tragedies or dramas. And that tells you really which is the hard one to do and so at the very beginning, trying to master the whole thing is too difficult so pinch other people's ideas and then try to write them yourself and that'll get you started.

SIMON: I want to alert potential readers that they shouldn't expect to thumb through the book and find the story behind their favorite "Python" bits. In fact, you almost end this memoir as the show begins, but you do trace back - well, where does the dead parrot sketch begin?

CLEESE: Oh, yes - "Python" fans know it pretty well, but it was originally a sketch about a secondhand car, which was not a bad sketch because the guy who was trying to avoid responsibility for selling a bum car was a funny character, but then when we started "Python," Graham Chapman and I decided that we liked the characters in the sketch but the secondhand car bit was very stale and cliched and so we had a nice long argument. Eventually we decided it would be best if it was a pet shop and then we had a long discussion about what the animal was going to be because the animal obviously was going to be dead, not injured - which wouldn't have been funny - but it was dead and then we wondered whether it would be a dog or a parrot and we went through various creatures and then we just decided that the parrot was the funniest one.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH, "MONTY PYTHON'S THE FLYING CIRCUS")

MICHAEL PALIN: (As pet shop owner) No, no - it's stunned.

CLEESE: (As Mr. Praline) Look, my love - I've had just about enough of this. That parrot is definitely deceased and when I bought it not half an hour ago, you assured me that its lack of movement was due to it being tired and shagged-out after a long squawk.

(LAUGHTER)

CLEESE: I mean the main thing - here I am talking with you, very interesting questions, if I may say so about the book but what I'm hoping people take away from the book is the fact that they laughed at it a lot. The lovely thing about writing the book - which took me about two years - is that I could sit there in the morning and quite literally start to make myself laugh and people seem to think this is rather narcissistic - you mean you were laughing at your own jokes? And I say, you don't understand; it was the first time that I'd heard them.

SIMON: (Laughter). That's good. Is that where comedy begins?

CLEESE: Oh, I think so. I think if you start trying to write jokes that you don't think are funny in order to make a sort of theoretical audience somewhere else laugh, I think that's death. I think you've got to do what you find funny yourself and just hope that people find funny.

SIMON: Do people ever come up to you and begin to impersonate their favorite "Monty Python" bits?

CLEESE: No, not really. When they come up they usually say, Mr. Cleese, I'm a huge fan. And then I'm always amused they then add you know, "Monty Python" and "Fawlty Towers?" Just to let me know that they don't think I was in "Ben-Hur" or anything like that.

SIMON: (Laughter).

CLEESE: And I never know why they feel that they've got to remind me about "Fawlty Towers" and "Monty Python" because either they are at the back of my mind pretty much permanently. The other thing is, Scott, they come up and they say to me, we have something in common. And my heart drops into my boots and I say with faux interest, oh really now, what is that? And they say, well, my uncle's brother went to Cambridge. And I say, oh Cambridge, yes. And they say he wasn't there when you were but he went about five or six years later but he used to go into a sports shop and apparently it was the shop that you used to go into when you wanted to buy Squash balls.

SIMON: (Laughter).

CLEESE: And this revelation, this extraordinary coincidence linking the two of us...

SIMON: Practically brothers.

CLEESE: ...I have to react to that with delight and surprise. (Laughter). I'm giving away all my secrets, Scott.

SIMON: Yeah. John Cleese. His new memoir, "So, anyway..."

Thanks so much for being with us.

CLEESE: Very great pleasure. Nice chatting to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.