Forty years after the start of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” one of its biggest stars has embarked on a comedy tour that will lead him to the Alex Theatre in Glendale.
John Cleese is known for his frequent performances as uptight Britons gone loony. He captured some of his most loyal fans with television sketches about a “Ministry of Silly Walks,” a dead parrot and a broken-down car.
His antics with his six Monty Python colleagues led him to star in several major motion pictures, including “A Fish Called Wanda,” after which he has pursued a series of writing and speaking opportunities and, during the last decade, served as a visiting professor at Cornell University.
He reunited with the Monty Python gang last week to celebrate the group’s 40th anniversary and the release of a documentary series on the show now airing on the Independent Film Channel. The group’s five surviving members also received lifetime achievement awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Cleese, who turns 70 this month, has had a home in Santa Barbara for the last decade and recently moved in with his daughter at a Pacific Palisades home as he works on a series of new projects. He will bring his one-man show, “A Final Wave at the World (or the Alimony Tour, Year One)” to the Alex on Nov. 14.
ZAIN SHAUK: Why have you embarked on a comedy tour after years of being out of the spotlight?
JOHN CLEESE: Up until about 10 years ago I tended to have about one project or another going, which was a major project. When I switched my center of gravity and moved out here — which was actually because my daughter by my second marriage by arrangement came to live with me when she was 15 — once that happened then I moved to Santa Barbara. And the truth is that my living expenses, my income requirement got very, very high because my ex-wife and I developed a very luxurious lifestyle, with muses in London and flats in Los Angeles and a ranch and a beach house and all this stuff. So to finance this I became a bit of a hired gun and took what work was available, which was usually perfectly pleasant film, television, speeches and this kind of thing, commercials.
But for several years I didn’t have a particular major project and you see most of the things that people know me for I have written myself, or co-written. Now if I had been Hugh Grant I would be lucky to have Richard Curtis writing me excellent scripts, but in fact, I did get two or three very nice smaller parts in “Rat Race” and “Out of Towners” and I much enjoyed doing “Frankenstein,” but I wasn’t working on major projects like movies, which I would subsequently perform. Now since the divorce, I have to pay about $1 million a year until I’m 76, nevertheless my overall earnings have dropped so what I can do now is start writing one or two things that I will eventually perform. I’m working on a movie script, which I think is a very strong idea.
Q: Are you talking about the Dreamworks Animation picture, “The Croods?”
A: No, the one I’m talking about I’m writing with an old friend of mine called Lisa Hogan. That is called “The Invasion” and it’s about the extent to which people go to avoid paying taxes.
Q: That sounds promising.
A: It’s a good flick. It’s based on a situation that kind of nearly happened to me in 1999, when I was suddenly told that having cashed my pension in, the Internal Revenue Service would take 40% of it if I was in America for more than a certain number of days, which astounded me because the pension had been building up for more than 35 years in England and didn’t seem to have much to do with America at all. But I was assured that was American law. So I had to keep leaving the country for a period of months in order not to stack up too many days here. So the movie’s based on that. The other thing that I’m doing, which is one of the main things I’ve leased this little house with (daughter) Camilla is that she and I are just settling down now to work on the musical of “A Fish Called Wanda.”
Q: So your latest efforts are financially motivated?
A: The truth was, I was not getting offered any very good film parts. If anybody had sent me a cracking good script I would have done it, but there was very little around, particularly for people of my age.
Q: Is your tour something you had been wanting to do for a while?
A: No, no. Not at all. It was just that, as I said, I do have to earn a million a year to hand over in alimony and that means I’ve got to get out and earn money and this is not a very good time. My agent told me recently that this has been the worst year for films that he can remember for his clients. There’s not much in television unless you want to get involved in something that might involve five years and there’s no way I want to do that at my age. The speeches that I’ve been delighted to get the last few years have rather faded away because a lot of conferences have been canceled or are not taking place because of the financial situation. And commercials, which I’ve been lucky enough to get in the past — well if I tell you that the last commercial I did was for an Icelandic bank, you’ll realize that they won’t be coming back. So the question is, under those circumstances, what do you do? And back in April I was told by one of my agents that he could arrange some one-man shows for me this November and that’s what I’m doing.
Q: I understand that you or one of your representatives inquired about performing specifically at the Alex Theatre, rather than on other stages in the Los Angeles area. Why is that?
A: If that’s the case, that is my agent, because he knows pretty much which theaters are good to perform and which theaters are not so welcoming. I mean, I’ve just been in Norway, for example, and several of the shows I did there were basically in concert halls and they don’t have the warmth and intimacy that a good theater does.
Q: What will attendees see at your one-man show here?
A: It’s basically about my life in comedy. It’s a little bit about my autobiography. You know, where I was born and relationships with parents and that sort of thing. And then it’s about the forces that pushed me in that direction of becoming almost accidentally a comedian, but when I look back now there were certain things pushing me in that direction, although it’s the last thing I would’ve expected to happen. And then I talk about how it happened as well as why it happened and then I get on to the subjects of the different shows that I’ve done . . . After that I tend a Q&A;, which is always infuriating because it’s the bit people like best. That pisses me off because I spend a lot of time writing it, polishing the writing and then rehearsing it and really trying to get the performance exactly right. And then I come out and sort of shamble around and it’s complete chaos and that’s the bit people like best.
Q: In the last few days you’ve been on a media blitz with the Monty Python gang for your 40th anniversary celebration. Have you had any realizations about you and your colleagues during this reunion of sorts?
A: I think on the whole the atmosphere is very much easier. We were like a bunch of brothers, you know? There was always sibling rivalry of one kind or another. But the atmosphere between us is very pleasant at the moment. I had a lunch on Thursday just before we accepted the award and unfortunately Eric (Idle) couldn’t make it, but the rest of us met and it was just all right. It was really great to see. They’re all in good form, very relaxed. And we laugh an enormous amount when we’re together, probably, as we’d always say, more than anyone else and that really is true.
Q: Any chance of a new project together following this seemingly renewed group chemistry?
A: I don’t know what we’d do really because it always took us a long time to write whatever we were up to and it’s very clear Eric has done some terrific work for “Smapalot,” but he doesn’t really want to work with us. He doesn’t want to cooperate with us artistically or creatively. Because I offered to work with him, even without Monty Python, but he didn’t really want to do that. So I think he likes to work on his own. . . . I must say I’d love to work with (filmmaker Terry) Gilliam. We talked about it briefly a couple of days ago. I think he’s visually almost the most talented director I’ve ever seen. But I nag him about his narrative. I don’t think his narrative is anywhere near as good as his images. I think I can be quite good at narratives, so it might be fun, one day to do something, but I expect us both to be dead long before that.
Q: When you first started out, you’ve said there wasn’t much influence from network higher-ups about viewing figures or ratings. How has the business of entertainment changed since you first started in comedy?
A: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s a nightmare now and I think we all appreciate how incredibly lucky we were to be working in England in BBC television in the 1960s and 1970s. I think you had a better chance at making good programs than ever since. Good stuff does get through, mainly as far as I can make out on HBO. But in England now, television’s as bad as it is anywhere else.
Q: How has comedy changed not only your delivery of comedy, but what you’ve seen in comedy over the last 40 years?
A: I’ve not watched a lot. One of the problems of getting older is you do reach a point when you really have seen most of the jokes before and even if you hadn’t seen them you can pretty much guess where they’re going . . . occasionally I discover a performer that I really like and I’m fascinated by people who basically write their own material, because those are the comedians, to me, who really count. But having said that, I’ve got to say I don’t watch a great deal and therefore I can’t answer your question very fully. I can’t really remember the last time I saw a comedy that I thought was absolutely great.
Q: You seem to do a lot of joking about how people would like to see you die. Why do you do that?
A: Oh, it’s just nonsense for the fans on Twitter. They like it and it’s based a little bit on something I did in Montreal four years ago, when I decided that the way to go out with a bang was to kill myself. We had the audience voting on which method of execution they were going to choose for me. And my marvelous assistant, Garry Scott-Irine, he just puts stuff on the Twitter and tells me about it and sometimes I don’t have time to do it. He’s been doing that recently.