Perhaps the most recognisable British comic of the past 50 years, John Cleese has done it all in his career; starring in the most celebrated sketch show ever created and one of the best sitcoms of all time. Here, he looks back, but doesn’t hold back.
There’s no way I want to work in TV, especially at the BBC. I have a nasty feeling a large proportion of the commissioning editors have no idea what they’re doing. I said this the other day, and a younger comic said, “No, there’s one at the BBC.” Just the one. I went to see Peter Fincham – head of ITV – three years ago. You could not imagine the abyss between our minds. Everything I was interested in, his eyes just glazed over. Every time Fincham suggested something, I thought, “Why would I want to do something as clichéd as that?”
When I’ve got an evening off, I pick up a book as a reflex. It doesn’t occur to me to watch television, except when it’s sport.
IF PYTHON HAD FLOPPED
I have no idea where I would have gone next. If Michael Mills [ex-head of BBC Comedy] had said, “Go away and find out what you’re going to do,” we would have gone away and discussed it. But I’ve begun to think it was the very fact we didn’t know what we wanted to do that enabled us to start with something that was more creative than if we’d already sketched out our intention.
FAWLTY TOWERS VS THE OFFICE
I liked The Office enormously, but I was intrigued by why Ricky used the camera-on-the-wall technique, because I think you make people laugh the most if you don’t give them too many time sequence breaks. In Fawlty Towers, I always tried to make the sequences as long as possible, because you build the pressure.
I have some genuine regrets. Frank Oz wanted me to make Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Steve Martin. I would loved to have done that. But my second marriage was in such a parlous state I didn’t think I could disappear for three months. Mike Nichols offered me the lead in The Remains Of The Day. That I turned down on artistic grounds because Harold Pinter did the last draft and took all the jokes out. I thought the only justification for a film about depression was the wonderful humour that Ishiguro brought to the book. Of course, I was wrong. Not that I’m shedding tears.
I’m glad I didn’t leave after the second series, because we wouldn’t have had enough programmes to have supported us in our old age. What people forget again and again is that Graham [Chapman] had become an alcoholic. And that’s very frustrating. The main thing was, I thought we weren’t being original any more. Now that I’ve had more experience and watched some very good US sitcoms, I realise you don’t have to be original all the time.
BEING REVERED AS A COMEDY GOD
I find it absolutely charming. It’s lovely for me to go on rather big shows in the US, such as Colbert or John Stewart; when they say, “I don’t think I would have gone into showbusiness if it hadn’t been for your stuff,” it’s a wonderful compliment.
There are so many people out there who have no idea what they’re talking about. And they have no idea that they have no idea what they’re talking about. I’m thinking in particular of Quentin Letts, that slimy little non-entity, whose speciality is attacking people on the basis of their physical appearance. But because the Daily Mail succeeds in terms of readership, he’s become immensely inflated with a sense of his own value. What the f*ck does he know? What has he ever done?
I don’t think I had any idea how transitory most people’s careers are. I was surprised how blasé I was. But the whole point is that I wrote. I would never have been in this business had I not written. The strange fact about our business is that there are so many good actors out there, and so few good writers. Especially comedy. Comedy’s more difficult.
One of the things about getting old is that you lose touch with the contemporary scene. I find it rather amusing that I’m still managing to earn a living despite the fact that I have no idea why anybody would use Facebook.
The past seven years I’ve been earning to pay off the alimony. But I’m now free to do things that interest me. I’ve adapted a Georges Feydeau farce called Bang Bang. There’s a good chance it will be on in the West End. It will get a terrible review in the Mail, of course.