By Ben Crandell
City & Shore Magazine
Thinking of one’s mortality can get a man focused on the details in life. Comic actor John Cleese, 77, is no exception.
“I’m on a train. It’s in London now. It’s 20 past 2 in the afternoon, and I’m going up to Manchester,” Cleese says, setting the stage for a quick phone conversation. “It’s about a two-hour journey, and I’ve managed to find a carriage where there’s almost no one, so that I can talk at a normal volume without annoying people. I’m shooting a commercial tomorrow in Manchester. It’s for an undertaker. Or should I say a mortician? I’m playing Death.”
Cleese allows himself a small laugh, perhaps thinking of Monty Python’s Undertaker Sketch, one of the iconic British comedy troupe’s more outrageous bits (Cleese plays a man trying to arrange the burial of his deceased mother, and Graham Chapman is the undertaker with other ideas).
Then again he may be happy that a call from Florida has reminded him that he will be spending a few days during November in the Sunshine State. Two years ago he and fellow Python Eric Idle crisscrossed the state to play a half-dozen fall shows, from Miami and West Palm Beach to Sarasota and Clearwater.
“What we liked about performing in Florida was that it was the only place in America where the audience was older than we were. And what else we liked was the fact that there was some very nice weather,” he says. “I would hate to be in Boston that time of year.”
Cleese is returning to South Florida during a celebratory tour for the 40th anniversary of the Middle Ages romp Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which he will discuss after screenings on Nov. 1 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach and Nov. 3 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. Before playing dead, he answered some questions from the train.
C&S: At these two South Florida screenings of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you watch the film with the audiences. Do you enjoy seeing it again?
JC: I will see it once at the very beginning of the run, because I haven’t seen it in about eight months. Afterward, of course, some people ask questions about the film, but most of the questions have nothing to do with it. Some of them have nothing to do with Python. Some of them have nothing to do with comedy. It doesn’t matter what people ask, I am perfectly happy to provide answers because I’m honest. I think if you’re honest about something it’s usually interesting.
C&S: In your 2014 memoir, So Anyway…, you said, ‘The rules of comedy are nothing more than the rules of audience psychology.’ How do you think Monty Python would play if the troupe debuted today?
JC: I simply don’t know. You’ve got just as good a guess as I have. I don’t spend a lot of time, let’s say, with people who are under 30. I spend some time with them, but I don’t understand some of their behavior. I mean Facebook is an absolute mystery to me.
The most successful thing I’ve seen in the last few years, comedy-wise, was The Hangover [Todd Phillips’ Las Vegas-set bro comedy starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis]. The Hangover seems to be about all the things young American males know about: Sex, drugs, gambling, coarseness, celebrity. If you wanted to make jokes that we were making they’d have to have a wider base of knowledge to get them. So I’m not so sure that it would go well these days.
C&S: We are not as well read as we used to be?
JC: I would say that. The young people, I find, are extraordinary with gadgets and electronics, all that kind of thing, which we knew nothing about. But I think if you compare people now with people in my childhood, those people knew much more about history, geography and world politics.
C&S Monty Python and the Holy Grail was released in 1975, so we’re now on the second anniversary of the 40th anniversary. When will you know it’s over?
JC: I don’t think it’ll ever be over in America [laughs], because every new generation seems to discover it. Which is quite the opposite of England, where the young people just don’t seem to know it at all. The BBC have not put it out in 17 years. I have no idea why. But when [Cleese and the remaining members of Monty Python] were on at the O2 [in London] two or three years ago, parents brought their children. And to their children we were a complete revelation. They loved us, but they’d never heard of us.