What happened when What's On met John Cleese
John Cleese on grumpy old man triggers, deathbed humour and the state of comedy today…
British national treasure John Cleese is currently in Dubai, working with Motivate Media Group’s newly created talent and training divisions.
We first spoke with the comic great back in 2013, when he told us about tall-people problems, his dislike of ‘nice questions’ and the subjectivity of offensive humour in comedy.
It happened, once, he thought he’d got away with it… But fortunately for us, we were able to grab him again to find out What’s On his to-do list whilst he’s here, and what’s been on his mind lately. All whilst trying to find a balance between nice and offensive questions.
What’s On: It’s a great honour, thank you for talking to us.
John Cleese: It is… When you lie on your deathbed, you’ll flashback to this moment and think it was all worthwhile after all.
WO: Hopefully many years from now. Thank you though, it is a genuine honour.
JC: It’s a pleasure, thank you for allowing me to publicise myself.
WO: You’ve played a lot of extreme, sometimes antagonistic characters. Which do you think is the most punchable?
JC: Well, the thing about comedy is it’s about imperfection, it’s about human foibles – if you try to write a comedy about a man who is kind, wise and generous, it might be very warm-hearted, but it would be completely unfunny. When you think about people like Basil Fawlty or W.C. Fields, who’s my favourite [an old American comedian] they’re all awful people… but they make you laugh, so we end up feeling affectionate about them.
WO: You’re on the Cameo platform (where you record personalised messages for people). What’s the weirdest message you’ve been asked to record?
JC: I’ve had several recently that surprised me, “So and so is in hospital dying, could you cheer them up?” And you often don’t have a lot of information so you have to take a deep breath. I do another thing that I call ‘Fan Chat’, where I have a face-to-face chat with someone, and there was this one guy and we chatted for a little bit and I said to him, “Do you have any questions for me?” And he said “No, not really.” So I asked him why he booked the chat, and he said ‘”I wanted you to be the first person to see my new black leather jacket.”
WO: Are there any recent comedies or acts that have impressed you?
JC: I’m awfully sorry to say that I don’t watch much television these days, and when I go to England, I ask all the people I meet, from cab drivers to old friends, “is there anything funny I should be watching?” And the answer I get 95 per cent of the time is that there isn’t much that’s very funny. There was a golden period I think, from the late ’50s, right the way through until maybe 2000, when there were extraordinarily fine programmes. And there are still good people now, Steve Coogan for example, but there are fewer great writers and I think that’s why it’s not as good.
WO: What brings you to Dubai?
JC: Well last time I was here, I got to know a lovely guy called Ian Fairservice [Motivate Media Group’s Managing Partner and Group Editor], so I rang him up and I said “Ian, I want somewhere warm where I can pick up a few jobs” and he said “Come to Dubai” and that’s why I’m here.
WO: What will you be doing whilst you’re in town?
JC: I’m doing a number of things, but the main thing is an appearance at the Dubai Opera on December 15 and 16. We sold out the 15th in three days, so that’ll be nice. I’m also doing some after-dinner speaking and chatting to business groups – I enjoy chatting and I also enjoy the Q&A part of it, because that’s the interesting bit. I know the rest…
WO: Your tour is titled ‘John Cleese Alive! (Just)’. Now that you’re 81 years young, do you feel like people treat you differently?
JC: It depends on how I’m performing. I had an operation on my foot, then I had a nasty fall in a hotel in Chicago, where I was coming out of a shower and I the next thing I knew I was lying on the other side of the room with my head against the bath. So if I’m a bit doddery, I get treated as though I’m very very old and stupid and have everything explained to me. But if I’m walking normally people treat me like any other stupid 80-year-old.
WO: Being that age officially allows you to claim the title ‘grumpy old man’. What are your biggest ‘grumpy old man triggers’?
JC: The interesting thing about being a grumpy old man is that if you’re young with the same complaints, everybody says “he’s exciting,” “he’s an activist” and “he really cares,” but if you’re old the comments are “oh, he’s a grumpy old man,” so I find it amusing, but unfortunately meaningless. I think as you get older, you just see how many things are wrong with the world, and nobody’s doing anything about it.
You might also like
WO: We’re really excited about the show. What will you be talking about?
JC: The show’s what I’ve been doing around Europe for quite a long time and it changes every day, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist and the great thing about being in front of an audience is that they tell you immediately whether it works or not. So if you don’t get a laugh one night, you go to bed and try to figure out how to get a laugh on the next night. So it’s changing all the time, but it’s about a lot of things that are quite important, for example — this might put people off — but it’s quite possible to have a good laugh about death. When you do, you often find that people are quite startled at the start, but then they feel great afterwards.
WO: Mr Cleese, thank you very much
JC: A pleasure.
You can book tickets for the John Cleese – Alive! (Just) shows now at dubaiopera.com, December 15 and 16, prices from Dhs245.