An Interview with John Cleese

The Monty Python alum talks to us about his upcoming Van Wezel debut, his career and the people (and pets) he admires.

By Hannah Wallace September 25, 2015

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John Cleese


Next Thursday and Friday (Oct. 1-2) at the Van Wezel, comedy icons (and Monty Python alums) John Cleese and Eric Idle will be performing the world premiere of Cleese and Idle: Together Again At Last…For the Very First Time. (There are still tickets available at

We mostly managed to contain our complete, star-struck awe long enough to speak with John Cleese about this show, his career and the people (and pets) he admires.

What can audiences expect from Cleese and Idle: Together Again At Last…For the Very First Time?

We’re not quite sure what we’re going to do yet. The first part of it will be like when he interviewed me last year for my book. Then we’ll show some sketches—not too much, not to show the sketch itself but just enough to talk about them. And then we’re going to do some new sketches, some written around the time of Monty Python but not included [in the TV show]. The second half I will go out and do 12 to 15 minutes on my own, and then Eric will come out and do some music, and then we’ll have the Q&A with the audience. That’s the shape at the moment.

How did this project come together?

Eric and I amuse each other, which is nice. We both very much enjoyed the show we did in 2002, but Michael Palin, in his way, just made it quite clear he didn’t want to do any more shows like that. So Eric and I thought, we had this good experience last year in Pasadena, why don’t we do it just the two of us?


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How have you stayed motivated through such a long career?

There’s two things: People always assume I’ve made a lot of money, but in truth, most of my work was BBC and the fees were very small. I’ve had a couple of big payoffs—Holy Grail was a big success, and A Fish Called Wanda. But I haven’t acquired the kind of wealth as people who’ve done five years in American television.

And I owed an outrageous alimony to my former wife. But I’ve finally paid the last of that, so I can now do work that I enjoy rather than the work that pays the most.

Early in your career, especially during Monty Python’s Flying Circus [which ran from 1969-1974], did you feel you were under a lot of pressure?

I think it was more relaxed in those days. The key thing was, I’m not even sure, but there were only something like four channels. If you were on the BBC, then you were pretty much guaranteed an audience unless the show was absolutely horrible.

We were strangely purist. We thought at that time that English television was the best in the world. In those days, American television was very bland; you didn’t have the things like Home Box Office or Netflix are making now, and nothing like Breaking Bad, which was just brilliant. [But back then] there wasn’t terrific pressure. The audiences were quite large, and there was a feeling of confidence. Now I think the television world is gripped by a feeling of fear.

When we were making Python, nobody was talking about how many people were watching. We were interested in a thing called the Appreciation Index, the AI, that was a measure of quality. Now it’s all about the number of people watching it.

What are you proudest of?

I think the collection of cats that my wife and I have amassed is probably the finest. I am enormously fond of them and proud of them, and they do a lot of things on their own. My wife has been sick in England for the last three days, and they actually got together and sent her flowers.

As far as movies, I liked Life of Brian, and I liked A Fish Called Wanda—those are the two happiest [experiences]. Although I like having a big say in a show, I don’t want to be a Charlie Chaplin, I like to have good people around me. [Fish director] Charlie Crichton, Jamie [Lee Curtis], Kevin Kline, Michael Palin—we worked as a closely knit team, and I think we got farther that way.

Are there entertainers you haven’t worked with but would like to?

Steve Coogan is very, very clever. And I was a great fan of an English actor called Richard Griffiths. About six years ago, the BBC said they had something for the two of us, and then of course the script was absolutely terrible. I was very disappointed.

And those you have worked with?

Steve Martin, who I always thought was very talented. Often just as an actor, but when he got involved in the scripting of something, I thought he was absolutely brilliant. I think Roxanne is terrific.

I’ve worked with John Lithgow, which was a lovely experience, and I worked with Jimmy Burrows, who’s the greatest television director—I worked with him on both Cheers and on Will & Grace.

What do you do to relax?

In England, I’m not watching television at all. At 75, I find I want to read. I’m surrounded by books—my daughter teased me yesterday, she saw these piles of books, she said, “When are you reading those?” I dip in and out of them.

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