History is bunk

Cleese: 'I'm not writing a comedy book'

John Cleese has admitted he’s grown bored with comedy – but denied reports he plans to write a book on its history.

Last month, The Times reported that the Python genius was to retire from performing to pen the definitive history of comedy – a story that was picked up by media across the world.

But today at the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, Cleese claimed the paper had got it all wrong, twisting an unrelated comment about his influences into something that would make a good story, rather than reporting what he actually said in the interview.

‘Rather than saying, “he was particularly boring today” some sub-editor leapt on, something that would be a good story, even if it doesn’t reflect the real world,’ he said. ‘That’s the way it is in British newspapers today.

‘We’ve had masses of inquiries [about the book]. But it doesn’t exist and never will. It would be really boring.  I’d have to write about Aristophanes and restoration comedy.

‘I might one day write down what I feel I’ve learned about comedy, but that’s all.’

However, Cleese admitted that comedy now left him cold, and he’d rather be making documentaries than making people laugh

“I’m nor particularly drawn to comedy any more,’ he said, adding that it was too time-consuming to write his own material. ‘With the exception of Clockwise, there have been no major scripts sent for me to perform  - I’ve always had to write my own. And at 66, there are other things you’d rather do.

‘I don’t think I have the energy or commitment to write any more. Passion is almost entirely lacking in my life.

‘And the sad thing is you don’t laugh as much as you get older. There are 8million jokes in the universe, and by the time you get to my age, you’ve heard seven and a half million of them. Only about twice a year do I hear a joke that completely surprises me. It’s kind of sad, but true.

‘Comedy isn’t exciting to me now in the way it was when I as in my 20s. Now I watch things for three or four minutes and think it’s fine, but I would never want to watch it  for an hour.’

But Cleese did say he enjoyed some contemporary comedians and shows, citing Ricky Gervais’s The Office, Chris Langham and Paul Whitehouse in Help, Eddie Izzard and Bill Hicks, who he described as ‘what Lenny Bruce was supposed to be, but never was’.

“The comedy I’ve always been interested in were the comedians who… brought their own point of view, their own take on the world,’ he added.  ‘When it’s a person stringing gags together, I don’t find that very rewarding – I was never a big Bob Hope fan, for instance – it’s just not very interesting. I prefer comedy when something is unifying it, holding it together, and that is always a point of view.’

Cleese also offered some advice for those just starting in comedy: ‘The first thing I would say is steal.

‘All artists steal – but if you’re a sculptor or painter you are “influenced”.

‘You have to find your own style, which is very difficult. Got to someone who you like, and write in that style – and whatever is within you will start to come through and you’ll eventually detach yourself from the person you were influenced by.

‘You have to watch a favourite routine again and again. You don’t understand the mechanics while you’re laughing, so you have to watch it until it no longer makes you laugh.

‘It’s a wonderful exercise to write such a routine from memory and compare it to the original. Every time you realise a discrepancy, you’ll discover why you laugh – why it was phrased a particular way or why one line came before another one.’

But for all his experience, Cleese admitted that only about 60 per cent of what he writes works.

 And aked about what legacy he’d like to leave, Cleese replied: ‘I couldn’t care less.

‘People still think some of my stuff is funny, and that makes  me very happy indeed, but that’s it.

‘I don’t think Fawlty Towers will date, except that people aren’t so used to staying in those sort of small hotels any more. Farce tends to be timeless, but sitcoms tend to be grounded in a particular decade.’

He said he was constantly meeting fans – but the worst were the English middle classes ‘because they lurk behind pillars and eventually jump out to ask a pre-prepared question’.

Two things he hated being asked were to describe his comedy and to do the funny walk. For the first, he now counters with the standard response: ‘It’s vaguely rectangular but slightly green in the top left-hand corner.’

And of the funny walk he said: ‘It worked in the context of that particular sketch. If you pull it out, it’s always a lot less funny than people think it’s going to be.

‘But I can’t do it any more anyway, as I have an artificial hip, fitted in 1999. And it’s probably doing the funny walk that meant I needed the hip in the first place.’

  • Cleese is hosting two galas and a Q&A session at the Just For Laughs festival this weekend.

Published: 19 Jul 2006

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