John Cleese Discusses Creativity, Political Correctness, Monty Python, and Artichokes
A conversation with the English comedian about artistic inspiration, cultural appropriation, and tabloid journalism.
I’d been Zooming with John Cleese for about an hour when he threatened to come over and smack my ears. I had asked about his announcement, two years ago, that he was disenchanted with England and was relocating, at least temporarily, to the Caribbean island of Nevis. There was much about contemporary England that Cleese had found irksome, compared to the “calmer, more polite” country that he grew up in. But his “particular beef,” he said at the time, was with the state of the British media, as well as with the scuttling of Leveson 2, part of a government inquiry that grew out of the 2011 News of the World phone-hacking scandal and might have led to reforms of England’s aggressive tabloid culture, which has been the bane of many celebrities and royals.
Hours after our interview, Cleese complained on Twitter that “some US journalists have been pressing me on statements I have not made,” singling out my assumption that one of his reasons for his self-exile was the mindless level of discourse over Brexit. He blamed my bad information, again, on the scurrilous British tabloids. (In fact, I had got the Brexit impression from an interview that he gave to the BBC, in which he said, “One of the most depressing things about this country was the standard of debate about Brexit.”) His 5.7 million followers would not have been surprised by his pique; Cleese, who turned eighty last fall, has used Twitter to rail against political correctness, the “wokes,” climate-change deniers, the Trump Administration, the “petty bureaucrats” at the BBC, and all manner of what he considers stupidity and nonsense.
Stupidity and nonsense, of course, were the prime targets of Monty Python, the anarchic comedy group that Cleese formed, in 1969, with Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Graham Chapman. “Monty Python’s goal,” Dave Eggers wrote in The New Yorker, in 2004, “was not only to make audiences laugh but, just as important, to tear apart the medium of television with extreme prejudice.” Its début series, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” stepped like a giant, naked foot on the mannerly English culture that Cleese now reveres. But Cleese’s career has stretched far beyond Monty Python, notably including the farcical sitcom “Fawlty Towers” and his Oscar-nominated screenplay for “A Fish Called Wanda.” He’s also written several books, including a best-selling memoir of his early years, “So, Anyway . . .,” and a new handbook called “Creativity,” which is billed as a “short and cheerful guide.”
“I wanted thirteen-year-olds to be able to read it in an hour,” Cleese told me, when he appeared in our Zoom room. He was speaking from—of all places—London, where he was passing through after shooting a movie in York. (“We were in a bubble, or whatever they call it.”) He had spent much of the pandemic Stateside, at a hotel in Bel Air, working on a musical version of “Wanda” and a stage adaptation of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” Next, he was off to Mustique with his wife, and after that—who knows? “We’re lucky to be alive, really,” he said, sitting in front of a picture of nuzzling zebras. Before we got to his recent spate of political skirmishes, our conversation (which has been edited and condensed) began on the subject of his new book.
Some might see a guide to creativity as an oxymoron. Do you believe it can be learned?
You can learn the circumstances in which you are likely to become more creative. A professor of psychology said to me once, “If you’re sad, you have sad thoughts. If you’re angry, you have angry thoughts.” So, to be creative, you have to have creative thoughts. You need to be in a creative mood. How do you get in a creative mood? Well, a creative mood, by definition, is a playful one. Why can children play so naturally? Because the parents are minding the shop. The kids don’t have to worry about who’s making dinner. So, if you want to play as an adult, you have to create a space where you get away from the ordinary responsibilities of everyday life.
You write a lot about a book by Guy Claxton, “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind.” Can you explain the concept?
It was a huge part of a jigsaw that I put together, because he pointed out those two ways of thinking. There’s the fast, default way, and then there is a slower, pondering kind. In our society, we think that intelligence is always to do with quickness, which is wrong. Quite wrong. The more a problem is like a maths problem, where you know all the factors and you’re given the values of measurements, that’s ideal stuff for hare brain. The more it becomes indefinite and about feelings and people, the more you need the slower way of thinking. And allied to this is the idea that the unconscious is so extraordinarily powerful, but it’s very, very difficult to control. It’s a little bit like a woman. You can’t order it about. You have to coax it and be nice to it. If you pursue it, it seems to get further away.
You write that “much of our ‘Tortoise Mind’ work takes place in an atmosphere of uncertainty and gentle confusion.” How do you get into that state of mind?
You can’t hit it with a stick. What you do discover, when you’re not functioning very well and coming up with much, is that you do seem to be able to achieve a steady average. Chapman and I could do fifteen to twenty minutes every week of good material, which is a little bit more than was needed for a “Monty Python” episode, with all the others contributing. If it doesn’t come one day, you just stick at it. When you’re eating, and the food’s coming towards you on the fork, you can’t say, “Well, that’s the good bit, and travelling back empty from your mouth to the plate is the bad bit.” It’s all part of one process. If you start beating yourself up, that doesn’t help.
It seems like you learned a lot about creativity from people you admired, like David Frost.
The person of my generation that everyone thought was a genius was Peter Cook. He was a wonderful sketch writer and performer, and a mon—what do you call a man who does monologues? A monogamist! I used to get my dear old vinyl record and play one of his sketches—like the man trying to teach ravens to fly underwater—and I would try to write it up from memory. And then I would listen to the record again, until finally I had, on about the sixth draft, pretty much the script that I’d been listening to. I was learning technique rather than creativity. In the old days, they used to get artists to copy great master paintings.
Right. One of the tips you give is to “borrow” from people you admire.
Yes! Except, if you’re an artist, you say you were “influenced.” You know, “I was much influenced by the work of Michael Schulman.” Of course, if you just steal something in the present form and you don’t do anything to it, then that is stealing. You learn nothing. But, if you are actually able to borrow a style from someone and use that, then it comes out as yours, because you’re doing it. I don’t think Shakespeare ever thought up a plot in his life. He just took other people’s stories. He never seems to lose any marks for that.
In “So, Anyway . . .,” you talk about the things that made you predisposed to creativity. You write, “So, creatively, I was doubly blessed: constant relocation and parental disharmony.” What do you mean by that?
If you grow up where there’s only one version of the truth and only one way of doing things, then you’re likely to think that that is the only version. If you grow up travelling a lot or hearing arguments between your parents, you discover there’s lots of different ways of living, lots of different ways of thinking, and you can compare the two and say, “I liked the last town better.” Comparing experiences, even if it’s with your mum and your dad, makes you think about other possibilities. Whereas with people who grow up in Iowa, there’s not a lot else on show, so that they’re not terribly good at imagining other scenarios.
That comment might get you in trouble with Iowans.
Yes, it might. But, fortunately, they’re a long way away, and they don’t have a map. They wouldn’t be able to read it anyway.
Oh, boy, John, I think you just started a war with Iowa.
That’s all right. I have one going with Cambodia that they don’t even know about.
[Eyes something off in the corner.]
I’m just checking cricket. Sorry. We’re playing Australia in a big game.
The book is so much about the creativity that you do in solitude, but the things you’re most famous for were done collaboratively. How would you compare those two types of creativity?
You’re quite right. The whole business about working in groups is fascinating, and of course that’s where you want diversity, because the more diverse the opinions the more creative the group’s going to be. If you put a lot of middle-aged white men together, they’ll say at the end what a satisfactory experience it was and how they really would like to do it again. Of course, they’ve come up with fuck-all. But, if you have a very diverse group, then the danger is that you’ll get arguments that are nothing to do with the creative stuff. So you want to have someone in charge who shuts up the people who try to dominate and who encourages the shyer people who can’t push themselves forward so easily.
How would you describe that dynamic within the members of Monty Python?
We discovered early on that you couldn’t really get anything written if there were four people there, because one of the four wouldn’t like what has just been suggested. I worked with Graham. Mike and Terry sometimes wrote together. Eric always worked on his own. And Terry Gilliam didn’t really write. We told him what we wanted him to do to get from this situation to this situation, and then he’d disappear and we would see the marvellous animations that he’d come up with on the afternoon of the show.
I interviewed Eric Idle a couple of years ago, and he told me that, when he befriended George Harrison, he thought they occupied similar roles in their respective groups, as the “free-floating radical.” Which makes me want to ask which Beatle you were.
I rather sympathize with Paul McCartney, because I thought that John Lennon was a bit over-lionized, and some people rather took it out on McCartney, who seemed to be a very nice member of the group. I found Eric the easiest to work with at the committee stage. He could let go of things. Whereas I found Jonesy very difficult, because he believed strongly in everything and you could never really get him to shift. And Chapman wasn’t listening anyway. Gilliam wasn’t there. And Michael was simply agreeing with everyone, because he hates conflict.
You’ve written about how you butted heads with Terry Jones, who died in January. Was that more productive or detrimental to the creative process?
It was more detrimental. Terry was much more likely to come up with strange, bigger ideas, like the soldiers running towards the Germans shouting out the deadly joke. You remember that? Or the Ministry of Silly Walks, or Mr. Creosote, the hugely fat man in the restaurant. But he cared about everything, and he was always sure that he was right. Even if I stood my ground and argued with him and the general feeling was that my idea was better, the next day he would say, “Last night I was thinking, and I really do feel—” And we’d be back again in the same argument. Where he was really wonderful was directing. He did a phenomenal job on “Life of Brian,” and the stuff he directed in “Holy Grail” was the best stuff. Gilliam was wonderful at images, but Jonesy was much better at shooting the comedy.
Probably your most important collaborative relationship was with Graham Chapman, which started at Cambridge. You wrote, “Graham, like me, carried a grudge against the nonsense we had been fed at school in the name of religion.”
We used to write a lot of sketches with a Biblical background. People would come in and see the Bible out and say, “Oh, you’ve been writing sketches!”
It seems you were both rebelling against a certain kind of authority.
People said we were anti-authoritarian. I think the truth is we were anti-bad-authority. I mean, you have to have authority. You can’t just dispense with traffic lights.
You’ve also said you were more logical and Graham would add lunacy. How do you balance those two things?
When we couldn’t figure out what to write about, we would take a thesaurus and I would read words out. He’d say, “Cucumber.” “Cucumber? Hmm. No.” “All right. Plummet.” This actually happened. He said, “I like plummet.” I said, “So do I. It’s a funny word.” Pffffft . . . splat! “So what would plummet?” He said, “A sheep would plummet, if it tried to fly.” Then we had the sketch.
As to when do you go off the rails, the answer is when somebody says something that’s really funny. Suddenly you realize there is a comedy idea there that wasn’t there five seconds before, and it’s almost as good as an orgasm. David Sherlock, who was Graham’s boyfriend, would be downstairs, and we’d be upstairs, and suddenly he would hear an enormous amount of noise—shrieking and drumming of feet—and that was the moment when we both saw that there was a great comic possibility.
You had such a special dynamic with Graham, but it also had its challenges, right?
By the second series, he was already drinking seriously. It happened very fast. When I used to share a flat with him before, he was a very mild guy—until he got alcohol in him, and then he would become quite aggressive. He became more unreliable. He couldn’t remember his words. We had to abandon one sketch that he and I had written, because he literally couldn’t get his words right in front of the audience.
You’ve now lost two of the Pythons. Can I ask how it feels to have been part of this famous group that’s now diminished by two?
I don’t think of the phenomenon of losing friends particularly in a Python context, because I was always a natural friend of Michael Palin’s, and he and I would have been friends anyway. But I don’t think I would ever have been a close friend of Jones or Gilliam, because we were just too different. I find Eric very easy to talk to, because unlike most English people he’s had a bit of therapy. Chapman, because of his gayness, after a time left London and lived with a group of young people in Kent, and I only used to see him once or twice a year. One time we all got together to discuss something, and I remember looking and there was a sort of red patch here. [Gestures to his neck.] He explained that it was the radiation on his tonsil. We were all very surprised, because he had become the fittest of us all once he stopped drinking, as you can see from his naked shots in “Life of Brian.” He seemed remarkably optimistic, and I could never make up my mind afterwards whether he was being brave or whether the optimism was, in a sense, genuine. Michael and I went down to the hospital where he was dying, and Peter Cook came down, too, and we were there when he died.
I’ve read that all the Pythons have veto power over adaptations like “Spamalot.” How did that process work for the “Life of Brian” play you’re working on?
Some people had approached us about turning “Life of Brian” into a stage show, and I said, “Well, why wouldn’t we do it?” And everyone said, “Yeah, why not?” To my surprise, I found that neither Michael nor Eric were the slightest bit interested in working on it. So suddenly I was finding myself in the room saying, “Do you mean that I’m the only one that wants to do it?” And they said, “Yeah.” I thought, That’s wonderful, because I can go and do the best job I can. I have always felt that [the stage adaptation] should not be a musical. Although “Life of Brian” is very funny, it has a serious purpose which would be lost if we had any jolly songs. And I don’t think wistful songs would work, either.
It obviously has a closing musical number right there for the taking.
Yes, you see, but everyone will be expecting that. And I’m such a contrary bugger that I just think, Maybe not! I’m thinking that Pilate’s wife—no, I mustn’t. [Eyes cricket score.] Oh, fuck, we lost two. This is not good news.
I wanted to ask you about the controversy this summer about the episode of “Fawlty Towers” called “The Germans,” which has a scene where Major Gowen uses the N-word to describe the West Indies cricket team. UKTV, which is owned by the BBC, originally took it off the air, which you called “cowardly and gutless.” It’s now back on with a disclaimer. Are you satisfied with how things turned out?
Yes. I didn’t think they’d cave in. What had distressed me was that people who were supposed to be running a television company did not understand that you can make fun of a group or their ideas in two ways: one is a direct attack on the group, and the other is putting the group’s words into the mouth of someone who is quite obviously an idiot or hilariously out of touch. That was the point about the Major. He was from another century, practically. So, when he was explaining what these abusive racial-slur words meant, in a very reasonable and very gentlemanly way, we were making fun of the words, because they were coming out of the mouth of someone you can’t take seriously. It was like the problem that you had with Archie Bunker, when he would say these ridiculous right-wing things and some people were sitting in Iowa—ooh, sorry!—sitting somewhere in America where these sort of things were being said. You can’t control that.
My own feeling is that everything to do with P.C. is a misunderstanding of comedy. Comedy is not about perfect people. It’s about the foibles and the weaknesses of human beings.
I understand what you’re saying about the context. Do you see the reasoning that some audience members just wouldn’t want to hear the N-word on their TV?
A few years ago an academic used the word “niggardly,” which is a very good and normal English word that was used a lot, particularly a hundred years ago, and people thought that it was related to the N-word. There’s a certain point at which you say no. I know that I’m not supposed to say “colored people,” but I think it’s absurd that I can say “people of color” and not “colored people.” I mean, why? Well, because people get upset. O.K., well, I happen to get upset when anyone says the A-word. [Pauses.] Artichoke! Please don’t mention this particular vegetable in my presence.
But there are obviously certain kinds of comedy that have dated. In “So, Anyway . . .,” you have a picture from “Cambridge Circus,” which you did on Broadway, of a sketch called “Chinese Song,” which you caption “unforgivably racist now but deemed acceptable in 1963.”
In ’63, you caused a riot if you said “fuck.” It all seems a bit arbitrary to me. What matters is that we try to be kind to people, which is the basis of all religion. If we try to be kind, we don’t have to worry about particular words, because words get their meaning—which is what really matters—from a context. If I called you a “silly bugger,” you would know that it was affectionate. We’re having fun together! But some people would say, “You can’t say the word ‘bugger.’ ” I’ve made the mistake of describing someone as “jolly” and was told, “Oh, no, that means fat.” Nobody told me it meant fat. And, if a lot of twenty-one-year-olds decided that “jolly” meant “fat,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone else has to say, “You’re right. We’ve been using it incorrectly for the last eight hundred years.”
I watched “The Germans” episode this week, and it was jarring to hear the N-word bandied about in such a casual way. It threw me out of the story for five minutes.
I think this is, with the greatest respect, something to do with the racial history of the United States. We didn’t have slavery in the U.K., except when we were the slaves of the Romans and then the Normans. When I was studying law, there were three key dates. There was a legal case in which it was established, I think in the seventeen-hundreds, that slavery was wrong in the U.K. Then there was the slave trade, which I’m proud to say William Wilberforce and the Quakers did a great deal to stop. And then there was the final thing about actually using slaves in the Caribbean territories, which stopped quite some time before [the United States]. So the idea of slavery is not as carved into our conscious and unconscious as it is into an American’s.
We just had a similar controversy with “Gone With the Wind,” where HBO Max took it out of circulation and then put it back with a disclaimer. For me, it’s more that seeing that scene works as a window into the mores of nineteen-seventies Britain—
Well, the Major’s were more the mores of nineteen-thirties Britain.
—but it also threw off my ability to follow Basil throughout that episode, because of his non-reaction to it. In other words, it helped me understand how words like that were used among a class of people in Britain in the seventies, but as comedy it lost me.
Well, it was not written for American audiences. It was written for British audiences, and I think the sensibilities are different. But I do know that when Alf Garnett, who was our British version of Archie Bunker, started saying absurd right-wing things, there were people who said, “Thank God these things are being said at last!” You can’t create comedy that is foolproof.
It reminded me of the famous “Parrot Sketch.” You’ve said that, in thinking about which dead animal it should be that was being returned, you thought that a dog would be too harsh—no one wants to see someone slamming a dead puppy’s head on a counter, so it loses the sympathy of the audience. It’s that kind of reaction I’m talking about.
All people have different sense of humor, you know? There was a time when only Jewish people could tell Jewish jokes. When I was in Florida, some Jews came up to me afterwards and told me two wonderfully funny Jewish jokes, which I then incorporated in my act. Never had a complaint, because it’s obviously done because the Jews have such wonderful jokes.
That is true. We do.
And you can’t say it’s racial—what do you call it? When you wear a bandanna hat or something and people say, “Oh, it’s cultural appropriation.” I’ve never heard anything as fucking stupid in my life. It’s wonderful to learn from other cultures. It doesn’t devalue the real thing. It’s just a kind of purity. Purity always goes wrong. You know when there was the worst witch-hunting? When the Puritans were in charge. It doesn’t work to be too pure, because people deny their own negative stuff and then they start projecting it onto other people. The main thing is to be tolerant, try and listen, and try and be kind. And everything else is just waste of fucking energy!
I want to also ask you about your decision, two years ago, to leave England, because it caused multiple stirs. It seems like the main reason at the time had to do with the public conversation over Brexit and the tab—
No, you see, that’s wrong. There’s a lot of bad information out there. Theresa May sent a Cabinet minister called Matt Hancock to the House of Commons to tell certain specific lies about why there would be no implementation of Leveson 2. You may be surprised to hear this, but the European Broadcasting Union produces a poll every year when they ask a thousand people in every European country whether they trust the press or not, and guess who’s been absolutely bottom of the pile? The U.K. We’re under Macedonia; we’re under Malta. That, to me, is appalling. That’s the specific reason I left. I am very uncomfortable that London is the No. 1 center for laundering Russian dirty money. [His wife shouts, “Which he has lots of!”] That’s my wife sniping in the distance, saying I have a lot of Russian dirty money. We may have it, I don’t know!
We have terrible press. It’s not a service to the public anymore. It’s a way of making as much money as you can. We have a rudderless BBC. And we’ve gone from being a reasonably literate, reasonably well-informed nation to being a tabloid culture, where we have reality television and very few plays in the West End, because they’re all musicals. This is not a culture I admire. So I have a lot of reasons for not being there. None of those are to do with race. People thought I was talking about race, and when you try and explain the difference between race and culture they don’t want to hear, because they’re into binary thinking. You’re either good or bad.
Last year, you tweeted that London was “not really an English city” anymore, and this got a reaction from Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, who said, “These comments make John Cleese sound like he’s in character as Basil Fawlty. Londoners know that our diversity is our greatest strength.”
That may be true, but it doesn’t in any way contradict what I said. It may be very diverse, and that may be a great strength for London, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s not an English city anymore. When my American friends come here, they always say, “John, it’s not an English city.” You walk down the King’s Road and you’ll hear Spanish and Italian spoken much more than English. It’s not an English city! It doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.
I like the English culture. If I was going to live in England, which I’m not for many reasons, I would probably live in a town that reminded me more of where I grew up.
There was an irony that people pointed out of your saying this as someone who was moving to Nevis, which made you an immigrant.
But I didn’t move to Nevis. I spent about four or five weeks there in the year. The people who attacked me didn’t understand what I was saying, and all of them said I was living in Nevis when I wasn’t. It was my place of residence for tax purposes. I nearly bought there, and I decided not to. Somebody else said I was xenophobic and went on to attack me in the next paragraph for not living in England very much. I mean, we’re dealing with very stupid people here.
But isn’t talking about Spanish on the streets of London being a problem xenophobia?
It’s not a problem! You see, you’re not getting what I’m saying, Michael. I’m saying it’s not English. For a lot of people that’s not a problem, but I like the English, and I’d like to be in a place where the culture is more English. And a lot of that is a lot to do with the fact that America now has always been obsessed with money. England used not to be. Now England is as obsessed with money as America. That’s not to do with race, is it? So a lot of misreporting in the papers has been taken seriously by someone as smart as you. I should come over there and smack your ears! My wife, I smack her fins, because her nickname is Fish.
There’s an insane P.C. idea: “Oh, all cultures are the same.” You can’t say one culture’s better than another. Bullshit! There are cultures that are O.K. with female genital mutilation. This is not a nice culture. I prefer cultures that don’t allow female genital mutilation. Have I really got to say, “Oh, that’s O.K. I am in no position to criticize”? That’s such complete fucking bullshit. The Incas used to put young people on altars and pull their living, beating hearts out. [Editor’s note: that was more the Aztecs.] That’s a lot worse than boiling lobsters.
But there’s also the context of Britain’s history of claiming cultural superiority as a justification to colonize—
But, my dear fellow, that’s not just Britain! Any country that was next to a weak country always got domination over it, whether it was the Belgians or French or Germans. And it was wicked. The history of the world is a history of crime. I was reading [Yuval] Noah Harari, and what he says about empires is what I believe, that a lot of it was bad and a lot of it was good. A lot of the colonies in Africa inherited a British legal system that was far, far better than anything they’d had before. And they ran with that for decades ever since we cleared out. We cleared out of our empire immediately after the war. On the whole it was remarkably peaceful. If you say it wasn’t perfect, I want to say, “You’re quite right. What was?”
How about something completely different? You’ve said that there are “only three comestibles that I do not allow to pass my lips: celery, sea-urchin and raw human flesh.” What do you have against celery?
Only the taste. If you abominate the taste of something, there’s no point in going on and eating it. It would be counterproductive. And don’t forget the A-word. I don’t really like them, either.