On November 14, 2015, John Cleese took off John Hodgman’s shoe in front of a live audience of 900 people at NYU. Cleese had asked Hodgman, who had interviewed him on stage before–a real highlight of Hodgman’s life–to interview him for his “Not Dead Yet” appearance in New York City, but Hodgman had not been prepared to have his old fashion dress shoes scrutinized by the comedy giant. Luckily, Cleese was wearing sockless, backless Ugg slipper-shoes, so it was easy to volley back some witticisms like, “Thanks for dressing up, John.” Cleese then quoted Albert Einstein, who also stopped wearing socks at a certain age.
John Cleese needs no introduction, but: he is a founding member of Monty Python, creator and star of Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda. He pops up in films and TV, both British and American, all the time. @johncleese
The other celebrity in the room was A Fish Called Wanda star Kevin Kline, who had only an hour ago told Cleese he was offered a part in the play that Cleese had adapted for stage, a project Cleese says he’s truly proud of and one of his favorite things he’s done in fifty years. Cleese shouted into the crowd, asking Kline what the name of the other play he’d accepted a part in, to which Kline replied with something I couldn’t quite make out. Cleese laughed, “Ha, no no, you silly man!”
Despite some of the horrible things that happen to animals in his productions (need I remind you about the dead dogs in A Fish Called Wanda?), Cleese is an animal lover. He has four cats at home, three of them Maine Coon cats, from somewhere in upper New England, Cleese recalled. “Maine?” Hodgman offered. Cleese then tried to convince the audience to get cats instead of have children because they cost nine times less and give you the same satisfaction. About children he said you worry endlessly about them and they always turn out like their mother.
Cleese and Hodgman spent a good deal of time arguing about what we might call these days “political correctness gone mad,” but Hodgman was all in favor of not telling racial jokes, especially about a people who were generally the underdog. Cleese didn’t like that idea because then you would need a chart, ranking all the nationalities underdogness to find out which countries could or couldn’t make fun of which other countries. He then proceeded to tell a series of racial jokes about every group of people he could think of, save the French who he respectfully avoided poking fun at given the recent terrorist attack. The Filipinos, Mexicans, Greek, Italians, and Jews were not safe from Cleese’s light-hearted one-liners.
Discussing America, Cleese said he’d recently been to Cleveland to do a talk on creativity, the only subject he feels he can speak authoritatively on. He said it wasn’t that he was surprised that the city is there but it’s the fact that there are any people living in it. The difference between a Cleveland condo and gonorrhea is that you can get rid of gonorrhea. (He then dissected that joke and explained why it was funny and why you could not swap out “gonorrhea” for “head cold,” largely because the sexual nature of the disease creates a tension that needs to be released with a laugh, whereas “head cold” builds no tension.)
There are basically two types of sense of humor in America: people who get irony (he proceeded to name the coasts and some centrally-located urban areas) and people who don’t. He did say, though, that because of HBO and Netflix, America is making some of the best TV in the world right now, and as a result Cleese can’t remember the last time he’s gone to the cinema.
They talked briefly about the Pythons, mainly to supply some gentle ribbing. He said Palin and Jones wrote the silly walks sketch, which was of higher quality than their usual stuff because their usual stuff wasn’t very funny. He talked about Gilliam’s wonderful artistic talents but also said he was impossible to understand and was relieved he had his art to fall back on as a tool for communication. Mostly, he talked about Graham Chapman and how he once dressed up as a carrot during an important Oxford debate, and when it came time for his twelve-minute turn speaking on the matter, he just stood there in his carrot costume in complete silence, pleased with himself that he’d ruined the debate. He also talked about how he and Graham came up with the dead parrot sketch. It was based on Graham’s experience at a used car dealership, so they wrote that sketch, but the car dealership felt boring, so one of them suggested a pet shop, and then Graham suggested a parrot because no one likes parrots, not even parrot owners.
It got quite political at the end. Cleese exhausted himself laughing at the mere concept of the republican presidents and candidates. He especially liked the candidate Ben Carson using the example of how he tried to stab his friend at age 14 to demonstrate that he was not, as Trump claimed, “low energy.” That’s the problem with writing comedy, Cleese said. Life always gets there first. He says there’s really no hope for political rest, and it’s only a question of how long it will take for us to blow ourselves up, but it doesn’t bother him because, he said, he’ll be dead in ten years anyway.
In the end, Cleese’s advice for all of us is, “Be nice to twelve people you’re really close to.”