- Bo Emerson The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
John Cleese has put on a few pounds.
Being 6-foot-5 makes it easier to disguise the padding, but his audience knows. The co-founder of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was accepting questions from his listeners at a recent solo performance (one of which will take place at Symphony Hall on Sunday) and one wag wanted to know “Is this your Mr. Creosote impression?”
Fans of Cleese and his movies will recognize the reference to 1983’s “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life,” in which Mr. Creosote, a supernaturally obese visitor to a restaurant, eats so much that he explodes, showering his fellow diners with what was actually minestrone soup.
Gross, right? But Cleese was delighted. He likes rude questions, “the ruder the better. We got some real corkers last night,” he added recently, sipping coffee on a bus on his way from Tampa, Fla., to an appearance in Fort Lauderdale.
The star of the British sitcom “Fawlty Towers” is happily married to his fourth wife (jeweler and former model Jennifer Wade), but still complaining about the alimony paid to his third. To cover those and other bills, Cleese is hopscotching along the East Coast, where he is double-billed with his 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
The movie has endured and spawned some strange step-children, including the theatrical hit “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”
The format for Cleese’s appearance will differ from the times he has toured with his colleague Eric Idle: in Atlanta, first the film will be screened, then Cleese will appear, to answer rude questions. He answered a few such questions for us:
Q: You’re 78 years old. Haven’t you paid off that alimony yet?
A: There was an annual payment of a million for seven years; altogether I handed over 20 million. It takes a little time to recover from that. All I need now is enough money to buy a little place in the sun.
Q: You lived in L.A., didn’t you? Why not go back?
A: It was Santa Barbara actually. I was there for nearly nine years, but I don’t feel like going back there now. It would be going backwards. Besides it’s rather dodgy buying property in America right now. I know that by and large Americans are relaxed people, but the fact that we have in charge a man who never read a book is very alarming.
Q: Does the current political climate make satire easier or harder?
A: It makes it more difficult in one way, because you try to write sketches on that kind of thing and it’s almost impossible to write a character crazier than people out there at the moment. … One of my heroes was Will Rogers, and Will Rogers once said, “I don’t make the jokes, I just point them out.”
Q: You’ve been involved in politics in England, and the situation there’s not much better.
A: Somebody said to me the other day, “Why are you always making fun of American leaders? Why don’t you make fun of British leaders?” We don’t have any. That’s the feeling. There’s no one in charge that’s any good at all. … I don’t think we know what we’re doing anymore.
Q: In the meantime, you’re amusing people. Is that fiddling while Rome burns?
A: If you give me a bucket of water, I’ll throw it at the Forum.
Q: When you were debating (prominent religionist) Malcolm Muggeridge about “Life of Brian” (the 1979 parody of the Christian story that was banned in several countries), you said if you’d made the movie 400 years earlier, you would have been burned. But we’ve made some advances. Do you think we have?
A: An advance, no, I don’t think we’ve made much of an advance. I don’t think people are any better. I would have been dead years ago — or if I hadn’t been dead, I’d be in a wheelchair — because I’ve had two hips replaced, so medically, things are extraordinary. But otherwise, there’s no apparent improvement. We’re clawing back the rights women had given up 4,000 years ago, and generally there’s more tolerance now, but the plutocrats have a death grip on the world.
You asked what I’m doing to help, and what I’m doing is I’m trying to get people not to take it too seriously. I’m writing a show that’s called “Why There Is No Hope.”
Q: That sounds cheerful.
A: It means there is no hope the way we are doing things at the moment. I was in a therapy group many years ago, and it had in it intelligent, successful people, but they were miserable. They tried to change, over three years’ time, but they couldn’t. If you’ve got intelligent people that can’t change, how can society change?
There’s an enormous amount you can’t change, but one of the things you can change are your goals in life. If you have reasonable goals in life, you will get there. If your goal is to be the next billionaire, you’re bound to be disappointed. My only aim now is to find a place in the sun where I can eat lots of fresh fruit, play with my cats and enjoy my very creative wife.