John Cleese on Why Most Things Don’t Matter (and a Few Things That Do)
It felt perfectly fitting that, during one of the worst and most embarrassing weeks in US history, I got the opportunity to have a brief chat with John Cleese, the comedy icon who offered this bit of wisdom to Jon Stewart back in 2014: “When you get old, you know nothing matters, really. Very little matters. It’s wonderful,” he said. “I’m thinking of writing a show called Why There Is No Hope, because there is no hope. Democracy has failed, so what’s next? But the nice thing is… I think that’s very funny.”
Currently on tour in the US hosting Monty Python and the Holy Grail screenings and Q&As, Cleese is also promoting the audiobook version of his 2014 memoir So, Anyway… Considering Donald Trump is president now, perhaps we can count on Why There Is No Hope to materialize sometime in the near future. In the meantime, Cleese chatted with me while traveling between cities about everything from American politics to how Monty Python fans have evolved to why most things in life don’t matter — and the very few things that do.
First off, how are you?
Not too bad at all. We’re somewhere in Pennsylvania…
I’m in Pennsylvania now too, actually.
Oh are you? I did a show last night in Pittsburgh and I’m heading to Newark. I’m not too far from Harrisburg.
I’m in Harrisburg right now! What are the odds?
Oh, are you really? I was in Harrisburg once before when my daughter was competing in the national championships for horse riding — she came in fifth. At one point she was second in the nation. She was very very good. So, what would you like to know about?
Well, first, I saw you mention you had some Trump supporter walkouts over the weekend. What happened?
Well, I made a couple of jokes about what was going on politically. People are walking to and fro all the time during my shows because it’s pretty relaxed, so I’m quite used to seeing people walking around, but these two got up very rapidly — I mean, after maybe five minutes, maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s ten, but anyway, very very soon — and they walked out in a very determined way, and I said “I think we lost a couple of Trump voters.” But I didn’t feel unfriendly. I said, “I’d like to give them a round of applause,” because it takes a certain kind of courage to walk out, and I had an admiration for that courage. But then the lady turned around and gave me a very deliberate… [laughs] …what do you call it, “finger”? Of course the audience didn’t see it because they were facing front, and I didn’t see it, but the guy who was interviewing said to me “Oh, she gave you the finger.”
You see, most of the audience are fans of one kind or another, and that means they like my kind of humor, and that means they tend to be more left, in a sense, than on the right. So I make some fun not so much about specific policy, but I make fun of about, for example, the fact that he’s appointed his son-in-law to be in charge of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which seems to be something that, if you’d written this in a script two years ago, you would’ve said it was too much. They would’ve said “That could never happen!” And it is an extraordinary thing to do — it’s a bit more like being in a West African country where the guy who gets in immediately appoints all his relatives to the important positions. Now, I found that extraordinary and very funny, and I was getting a lot of laughs too. So that’s going to happen now and again, but if they don’t like it…to be perfectly honest, I think anybody who comes to my show assuming that I’m going to be pro-Trump is stretching things a bit.
Somebody else left a very polite little message on my website saying they were sorry it was so partisan, and I thought to myself, “Well, partisan’s not quite the right word.” But I think if people make statements — like the number of people, the “million and a half” at the inauguration, which is demonstrably untrue and demonstrably untrue because they are unable to produce any evidence whatsoever — I don’t think it’s partisan to point that out. It’s only partisan because you’re on the side of rationality.
And now we’re arguing over “alternative facts.”
I know! It reminded me… You’re too young to know this, but when Nixon was in office telling all sorts of lies about Watergate, one of his press secretaries, Ron Ziegler, on one wonderful occasion when he’d been caught on a complete lie, he said, “That statement is no longer operative.”
It’s funny, but it’s also really scary.
Oh, it is scary, but I think there’s enough people in America who will stand up to this nonsense. There are already enough people who see it for what it is.
You offer some advice for young comedians in your book — one of them is to steal material, which I thought was unique.
Well, and just for them to know that they’re going to get a lot of rejection, and that doesn’t matter. I was talking a couple years ago to Louis C.K., and every time he makes a video of the act that he’s been working on for the last year, he has to start again. And he told me how hard it was and how much of the stuff he did when he started again didn’t work. You just have to accept that comedy is very difficult — very, very difficult — and a lot of the time you’re going to fall on your face. That’s all part of it, and it happens to everyone. So if you expect to succeed all the time, you’ll get very discouraged.
You’ve said before that writing the book was like shining a light on memories you had forgotten about for a long time.
That’s exactly what the writing of the book became. I had two years writing the book and so when you suddenly recall something, like a particular teacher, then you remember five more things about that teacher, and then that thing reminds you about another teacher, and then you remember what that teacher told you when you got bullied, and you just recall one thing after another, and it’s rather nice. It’s all in there somewhere in your memory, but when you shine a light on it you start remembering it all over again. It’s really very nice just recalling your life, really.
Were there any memories that were difficult for you to face?
In my case, no. I’ve been in an enormous amount of therapy. I had a difficult relationship with my mother, and I think if you have that, you have a lot of stuff to work through. But I’ve done an enormous amount of therapy, so I didn’t think of anything that triggered off strong emotions. For one moment I remembered what an idiot I felt like in connection with one particular girl, and I noticed that seemed to affect me. Otherwise, because I now don’t think most things matter — a few things matter, but most of them don’t — when you look back on these things that caused you so much angst at the time, you can remember the angst but not feel it, and you can’t take it seriously anymore.
You said most things don’t matter. What things do matter?
I think trying to find a purpose in your life and trying to figure out what you really want to do in your life. I think being helpful and kind to a few people who are close to you — I think that matters. And I think anything else is much less important. I do, to some extent, live that. I mean, it’s not that I “live it,” it’s more that that’s the way I am. But I was surprised at the O2, when we were performing to 16,000 people every night, at how little emotional effect it had on me. I found it thoroughly enjoyable and I thought they were lovely people, but it wasn’t as though it made me feel that I had worked out my life’s purpose.
You’ve been touring to lots of audiences full of Monty Python fans, so I’m curious: From your perspective, how have the fans evolved over the years?
Well, in the early days, of course, there weren’t many of them. A lot of people didn’t get it. My parents didn’t get it, and a lot of the BBC executives didn’t get it; they were very critical of it. But there were people from the very beginning who just thought it was funny, and I think they have a particular mindset. I think they’re people who see the basic absurdity of life in the way that the Buddhists see us as racing around and terribly busy to do a whole host of things and not quite knowing why we’re doing them — we’re just concentrated on getting that new car or a really nice new watch or a holiday in the Caribbean without really thinking about what our lives mean. So I take that kind of attitude, and I think that people who have that thought within them are drawn to Monty Python, whatever their ages are. But I haven’t seen the audience change. I’ve only seen them get bigger and more enthusiastic.