"I am more ignorant about music than anyone you have ever spoken to in your life," confessed Cleese. "I didn't know her name. I heard she was from Nashville and was a country-western singer. I thought this could be hard work, and suddenly I found myself sitting next to this extraordinary, extremely smart and funny woman. I told her at the end, 'You really ought to do comedy.'"
He should know: Cleese has been a major force in the comedy world since he co-founded the irreverent British troupe Monty Python in 1969. He and his first wife, Connie Booth, co-wrote and starred in the classic British comedy series "Fawlty Towers." He also earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for the 1988 comedy hit "A Fish Called Wanda."
He's now on a long book tour for his entertaining autobiography, "So, Anyway …." And he's calling from his latest stop in Naperville, Ill., just before a quick nap prior to an event that night.
"It's as flat as a pancake with a slate gray sky," said the 75-year-old Cleese, describing the view outside his window.
He is looking forward to visiting the Los Angeles area this week, where he'll be appearing in a sold-out conversation with fellow Python Eric Idle at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on Tuesday and then chatting with "Saturday Night Live" alum Tim Meadows at Barnes & Noble at the Grove on Friday evening.
Ironically, there isn't a lot about Monty Python in his autobiography.
"It's the book I wanted to write," said Cleese. "If I had wanted to write a book about Monty Python, it would have been 'Monty Python' by John Cleese. But if you want to write an autobiography, there is going to be a certain amount about your childhood."
Cleese was born in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, England, the only child of insurance salesman Reginald Cleese — his original surname was Cheese — and housewife Muriel.
His father was "wonderfully kind." His mother wasn't. She was an anxious woman who was frightened of everything, Cleese said, including very loud snoring, megaphones, sheep, shouting, large cars, cows in general, things being dropped, parrot houses and chiming doorbells.
And she was in a constant state of rage.
"She would get very upset," Cleese said. "She became so filled with rage that there wasn't any room for the rest of her. She was quite alarming when she got like that. Dad, who was a very peaceful man, spent so much of his life kind of keeping the little lady on a even keel — that was a phrase he always used."
The book wasn't cathartic to write.
"I have done so much therapy," said Cleese. "The main emotion I felt writing it was a kind of wry amusement that I could have wasted so much of my time experiencing a kind of angst or another because I had been dumped by the latest girlfriend or a sketch I had done was not as good as it could have been. Once you get older, you get a better perspective on life and realize very few things matter."
Cleese originally wanted to end the book with "Monty Python's Flying Circus" taking flight in 1969 on the BBC — "that was the first thing that turned out to be a huge success, so it seemed to be a good time" — but then his editor suggested he write about the hugely successful Python reunion last July in London.
"That was really the perfect goodbye," Cleese said of the reunion. "It just hit the right note. If we wanted to do anything else, we could never agree on what it was because we don't agree on anything."
Cleese said he and fellow Pythoners Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam get on perfectly well but "are vastly different people. I don't think, of all the adults I know, I could line up two people as dissimilar to me as the two Terrys. Eric, who I have good conversations with, is much more interested in show business than I. So the only person in the Pythons I normally would have dinner with now and again is Michael. I think he would be a friend if Python hadn't happened."
Though he and the late Python member Graham Chapman began writing together at Cambridge's famed Footlights theatrical troupe, they also were not close friends.
"He was kind of unknowable," said Cleese. "He wasn't usually 100% present. It seemed a little of him was somewhere else, and that's why he would come up with these strange ideas."
What: John Cleese in Conversation With Eric Idle
Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
What: "So, Anyway ..." signing
Where: Barnes & Noble at the Grove, 189 Grove Drive, Suite K30, Los Angeles
When: 7 p.m. Friday