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'Comedy Is Extraordinarily Difficult': John Cleese On Being Funny

John Cleese is a big, tall, stiff-upper-lipped international symbol of British wit. He's made us laugh in Fawlty Towers and movies including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Time Bandits, A Fish Called Wanda, and, recently, as the exasperated master of spycraft — Q — who gives James Bond some of his best toys to break.

Cleese has written a memoir that brings him from boyhood in a quiet British town called Weston to the footlights of London and screens all over the world. It's called So, Anyway...

The title comes from that thing people say when they tell stories but lose track of the main point, Cleese explains to NPR's Scott Simon.

"There's always a slightly awkward pause, and then they say, 'So, anyway ... ' " Cleese says. "So that was just a little private joke, which is now a public joke."

Interview Highlights

On the surprising advice he gives young comedy writers

I tell them to steal, because comedy is extraordinarily difficult. It's much, much harder than drama. You only have to think of the number of great dramatic films and then compare that with the number of great comic films ... and realize that there's very, very few great comedies and there are lots and lots of very great tragedies, or dramas. That tells you, really, which is the hard one to do. So at the very beginning, to try to master the whole thing is too difficult, so pinch other people's ideas and then try to write them yourself, and that'll get you started.

On the origins of the dead parrot sketch

Python fans know it pretty well, but it was originally a sketch about a secondhand car, which was not a bad sketch because the guy who was trying to avoid responsibility for selling a bum car was a funny character. But then when we started Python, Graham Chapman and I decided that we liked the characters in the sketch, but the secondhand car bit was very stale and cliched. So we had a nice long argument. Eventually we decided it would be best if it was a pet shop. Then we had a long discussion about what the animal was going to be, because the animal was obviously going to be dead — not injured, which wouldn't have been funny ... We went through various creatures, and we just decided that the parrot was the funniest one.

On writing jokes

I think if you start trying to write jokes that you don't think are funny in order to make a sort of theoretical audience somewhere else laugh, I think that's death. I think you've got to do what you find funny yourself and just hope that people find it funny.

On strangers' reactions to seeing him

When they come up, they usually say, 'Mr. Cleese, I'm a huge fan,' and then, I'm always amused, they then add, 'You know, Monty Python and Fawlty Towers,' just to let me know that they don't think I was in Ben-Hur or anything like that.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff