John Cleese (2007)

Dawn French the comedienne did a fascinating series of half-hour interviews with comedians – called, not surprisingly: “More Dawn French’s Girls who do comedy” and “More Dawn French and Boys who do comedy”.  Which would lead you to believe that there was an initial series of both – in actual fact, the initial series was an amalgamation of brief clips of comedians/comediennes all answering the same questions.  The “More….” series were half hour interviews solely with one comedian, with very little archive footage.  All worth watching.  In the one I viewed today, she was with John Cleese (recorded 2007).  If you have a TV licence in the UK, you can watch it here. Outside the UK, in lower quality for online social media, someone has uploaded the programme, so it’s viewable on Youtube here.

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Through the interview, John talks of how he truly was a comedy writer to begin with, with very little desire to perform.  But how he has developed in confidence, through fear of forgetting his lines, into knowing he can perform to an audience and get laughs.


Questions asked include:

Do You think comedy attracts a certain type of person?

Do you think comedians are fairly needy?  Needy for the attention?

Why do you think we love people who make us laugh, so much?


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Answers include:

“I think a lot of it is a barrier to what scares us.”

“Not all comedians are depressed, but I think a large number of them are”

“It’s a living.  It’s a living.”

“I love working with teams”

You will notice that these questions and answers don’t quite match up – in a little doff of the cap to Python, I’ve deliberately been mischievous.  Look on it as an invitation or encouragement to view the whole interview and find which questions and answers match up.  I’ll just mention some comments by John Cleese which I found particularly interesting – see below.

Leading Anecdote

“I can still remember before the first Python saying to Michael Palin just before the show, I said, ‘You do realise we could be the first people ever to do a comedy show to complete silence?’ And he said, “I was thinking the same thing.’

What comes through this interview is trusting your own sense of what is funny.  At one point, when John was writing for a BBC satirical show, he would have some absurd comedy ideas, run them past the producer who would smile – but not use them.  This, of course, was an early sign of the wildly popular Monty Python.

Also, John liked humour with an edge, a bit subversive.  The BBC radio producer disagreed – it was too savage.  John talked them into it, pointing out that this was radio, why not try recording it in the show and if it got no laughs, cutting it out at the editing stage.  But people did laugh.  The jokes stayed in.  John had trusted his comedy judgment.


Writing Comedy

Having learnt that John Cleese primarily thinks and works as a writer, it’s fascinating to hear his reply to Dawn’s query about when he writes – morning, evening..?

“I find that when I get started – and I’m one of those people who feels I have to call everyone back, answer every email – clear my desk – I can do an hour and a half.  Then have a coffee, do an hour and a bit, then have lunch, put my feet up, have a bit of a snooze or read for a bit – and then I can do about another hour.  And I think after that, that’s the best of the day.  You can keep going after that, but if you do, I notice how tense I am – it’s like a damp towel wrung out and it can take me a loooong time to unwind.” 

How about writing co-operatively?

“I think almost everything which I’ve really enjoyed writing has been co-operatively – usually just one other person.  If there’s 2 in the room with you, it’s much harder and if there’s 3, it’s hopeless ‘cos one of the 4 will always say “I don’t like that”.”

Further reading

You will find more on John Cleese and Monty Python on this blog here.


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