Silly Walks and Dead Parrots
MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS wasn’t really a circus. No one could actually fly. And no one was named Monty. Nonetheless, the legendary comedy troupe, which began humbly on British television in 1969, has had as profound an influence on comedy in the past four decades as the Beatles have had on music. Composed of six smart but determinedly silly writer-performers—five Brits, one American—Python’s inspired stream-of-consciousness satire, which seamlessly blended the cerebral with the loony, has never been rivaled, though everyone from SCTV to Saturday Night Live to Mr. Show has valiantly tried.
Explicating the virtues of German philosopher Martin Heidegger one minute and participating in a ludicrous fish-slapping dance the next, Python could simultaneously make you ponder the meaning of life and laugh so hard your teeth hurt. The troupe was utterly original but also an exquisite amalgam of the best British humor that preceded it, from Spike Milligan’s Goon Show with Peter Sellers and Peter Cook to the early TV work of British broadcasting icon David Frost, who gave most of the Pythoners their first break as writers on his 1960s BBC show.
Picking a favorite member of Monty Python is like picking a favorite Beatle: It changes depending on one’s mood. Arguably the funniest of that very funny lot, however, is John Cleese, a comedic giant—literally—whose sheer size made him the most ironic and imposing of the Python figures. As Cleese says, “I’m 195 centimeters tall, but was probably somewhat smaller at birth.”
The Cambridge-educated Cleese, who was expelled from Clifton College for painting footsteps from a statue to a bathroom, has the austere persona of a British boarding school headmaster. But his knack for pomposity is exceeded only by his razor-sharp sense of the surreal and the silly (“This is an ex-parrot!”). Probably the best known of the six Pythons because of his post-Python work (James Bond films, A Fish Called Wanda, lots of TV commercials), Cleese, 66, has apparently begun to sense his own mortality. He recently endured colon surgery, and now he just bloody can’t stop talking about it! He’ll discuss that unpleasant operation, among other outrageous and undoubtedly hilarious things, when he arrives this month at the University of California San Diego for a rare public performance with the appropriately preposterous title John Cleese: Seven Ways To Skin an Ocelot.
There will be reminiscing about his shortlived series Fawlty Towers, which has earned nearly the same cult status as the original Python TV series. There’ll also be some droll but affectionate references to his equally brilliant Python mates Terry Gilliam (the lone American), Eric Idle (the recent toast of Broadway with Spamelot), Terry Jones, Michael Palin and, especially, Graham Chapman, who died in 1989. There’ll probably be some wickedly funny insight into current events, too, and perhaps even a silly walk or a dead parrot.
But don’t expect jokes. Initially titled John Cleese: His Life, Times and Current Medical Problems, this show is neither stand-up act nor performance art. Yes, it’s a comic monologue of sorts, but really it’s just John Cleese being John Cleese, which should be enough for anyone who appreciates his genius. Cleese, who lives in Montecito, tweaked this production during various stops in New Zealand last year before bringing it to the States.
“The first impressions of the piece,” he noted recently with tongue, as usual, in cheek, “are that it is going to be very, very violent.”