My British husband doesn’t have a bucket list, but if he did, seeing John Cleese would certainly be on it. Last night, we fulfilled that wish, catching the former Python as he swung through wine country on the Western leg of his “Alimony Tour”, a one-man show he says he’s doing because, “Frankly, I need the money.”
Andy has always been somewhat Cleesian or E-Cleesiastical, as are many Englishmen of his age and background. So watching Cleese perform while sitting next to Andy was like a Double Python. And the show? Fantastic! It was as if John Cleese had invited us around for tea and began to regale us with a hysterical recounting of what made him a comedian, from his upbringing in “England’s Most Boring Town” to his many lucky early breaks through his later career. Oh, and with slides and clips.
After a $20 million dollar divorce form his third wife, Cleese says he’ll have to spend his twilight years, as he did last night in Yountville, “entertaining farmers and pretentious wine drinkers”. Maybe he’ll swing by your town. If he does, this is a don’t-miss show. But rather than review the show, I’d like to share some little known facts about John Cleese that I picked up from last night’s performance:
*Cleese’s big show biz break was appearing in a Broadway musical. Even though he can’t sing. The director had him lipsynch.
*His first comedy break came with a call from David Frost, asking him to be a writer on one of his British shows.
*An early comedy mentor was Peter Sellers. Cleese co-wrote Sellers movie, The Magic Christian. (You can say the movie sucked, Cleese does.)
*John Cleese has a lemur species named after him! After giving money and time to highlight the ecological plight of Madagascar’s endangered lemurs, a research team, which found a tiny new species, named it avahi cleesei.
*Fawlty Towers was based on a real hotel in Torquay. It was so dreadful that the entire Python clan, who were staying there while shooting on location, fled after one night. Cleese and his then-wife and eventual co-writer, Connie Booth, stayed to mine comedy gold.
*Cleese considers his greatest comic sketch success the one that had Michael Palin falling on the floor laughing hysterically for twenty minutes when he read it. You guessed it: The Parrot Sketch.
*John Cleese has a very successful series of corporate training videos. Can you imagine what a blast Corporate America would be if every employer made John Cleese training videos required viewing?
On two related notes: the show had Andy and myself indulging in a bit of “Kids today wouldn’t understand” nostalgia. We realized walking out that no one who hadn’t travelled to England before the fall of the Berlin Wall could possible understand the true comic genius of The Parrot Sketch, The Cheese Shop or any number of Python skits about surreal shop experiences. Because after the Wall fell, Eastern Europeans (mostly Polish) flooded into England bringing their customer service skills and eagerness to work with them. So if you didn’t experience the true existential awfulness of British customer service — as expertly practiced by the British — you can’t possibly understand how completely true the Cheese Shop experience used to be in day-to-day commercial transactions in Britain.
One of the funniest Python sketches I ever saw is one that Andy insists must have been a Nyquil-induced hallucination. I distinctly remember a Python sketch where aliens came down to Earth in the form of giant blancmanges (that’s a sort of a gelatinous pudding to the Yanks in the audience) and proceeded to sweep Wimbledon because they were better at tennis than anyone. Did I imagine this? Has anyone else ever seen it?
Well, if I did imagine it, maybe I should be forming a new Monty Python comedy group.