To call John Cleese a legend is to cause one to ponder the overuse of the word. There are legends of football, vaudeville, aviation and horse racing—all earned their place in the history books—but how many of those are as readily and universally quotable as Cleese and his fellow Pythons?
Mr. Cleese admits the level of popularity of his British comedy troupe, Monty Python, surprises him. Though he’s quick to say that life is too complex and too negative to take seriously. “I think it’s terribly good that sometimes you can just sit back and laugh at it all. … We’re all going to die; we’re all in the same boat together. And actually, most of it is pretty damn silly.”
It follows that Cleese does not take his work so seriously. He says he’s having a ball touring with fellow Python Eric Idle. “Eric … very frequently breaks me up onstage and I’m pleased to say I break him up, too. And the audience obviously like it when they see these two old friends … unable to speak, … because the other one has broken them up.”
That Monty Python continues to appeal to new audiences, despite being largely inactive since the 80s, is something Cleese attributes to the fact that they were never very topical. He suggests their humor is timeless, because they “attack types … stereotypes and archetypes. They occur all the time.”
Over the past 50 years, that ability to poke fun at human folly has garnered the affections of generations of people in the English-speaking world. Last year, a veiled reference to Monty Python surfaced in one episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones in which a character says in a fictional language, “Your mother is a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.” It was a line John Cleese first hurtled in a faux French accent in the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Forty years later, Game of Thrones die-hards translated the line from “Low Valyrian,” a language created by Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin. The next day, reports of the reference went viral on social media.
Together the Pythons made 45 episodes of their BBC TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and made five movies—not an enormous output. Yet Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park; Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy, and Matt Groening of The Simpsons and Futurama all name Monty Python as an important influence in their development.
This fall, Monty Python veterans John Cleese and Eric Idle tour the United States, performing for sold-out crowds of all ages. I asked Mr. Cleese, given his corner on British humor, if he’s finding good material on this side of the Atlantic. Hear the interview: