Colleen's thoughts on writing, directing and coaching, and her unique take on life itself!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

John Cleese: historical, hysterical, profound and memorable

Greeted by a standing O from a full house, Cleese sauntered on stage at Seattle's intimate Moore Theater last night - revealing a gap in his upper row of teeth. His right canine fell out just that morning and there was no time to get it replaced.

"That's what happens when you get old," he noted. "Body parts simply drop off."

He is 70 - doesn't look it, doesn't physically behave "old." Here's a picture of him, pre-tooth dropout.

He admitted that money is the only reason he is doing these few one man lectures. Not for alimony payments, but to live on. His recent acrimonious divorce from his latest - 20 year - marriage cost him $20 million in the "settlement."

He showed photos of his ex taking cash out of an ATM machine in London, proclaiming this is all she has to do the rest of her life. Whereas he is "reduced to entertaining waterlogged lumberjacks and people addicted to Seasonal Affective Disorder at a remote location on an outpost of the Pacific Rim.

"Actually, if she had brought anything, anything, into the marriage ... even a two-way conversation ... she would have gotten even more money."

Cleese had a lot to say about the caustic relationship he had with his highly dysfunctional mother ("She saw life as a constant booby trap."), noting that anyone who has ever gone on to greatness in any field has had a tormented connection with his or her mother.

"They call it maternal deprivation," he explained. It occurs when the child fails to receive the unconditional love normally attributed to a mother's care for her child.

"People who experience it spend their entire life trying to be as good as they can at whatever they do." It's a sort of unrequited yearning to be appreciated or loved just for who they are - and who they are comes to be defined by what they do.

She and his father agreed not to have children, but 13 years into their marriage, John appeared. After which he was consistently and constantly told he was a "mistake."

Freeing himself from her debilitating emotional grasp was finally completed when she died. Just a few years ago. At 101.

But he thanks her for the darkest part of his sense of humor (or humour as he would say).

What is comedy, really? "Comedy is giving people information in the right order."

What makes someone doing something ridiculous really funny? "Show someone watching them."

Miscommunication always gets a good laugh.

The importance of comedy: "When people laugh, they relax and are open to a new thought."

Cleese says the emphasis on marketing creative work has killed the spontaneity of filmmakers and television programs. "Marketing (SPIT!) people are always talking about demos - trying to drive material to meet them rather than creating something that attracts people from any number of demographics."

Hollywood, the movie-making industry, "Is broken beyond repair. I don't write movie scripts any more because the people there have no idea ... that they have no idea. But they have absolutely. No. Idea. What they're doing. The place is a f***ing madhouse."

When "The Pythons" (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam)created Monty Python, they had no notion of ratings or demographics. They only wanted to make each other laugh, and took their comedy most seriously.

"We'd never fight personally amongst ourselves," he related, "but we'd pitch screaming fits arguing about the writing. This is funnier than that. That is funnier than this." One of the longest, most bitter bickering sessions they ever had was whether sheep were funnier than goats for a sketch.

Come to think of it, as he mentioned dozens of other performers or writers with whom he has worked over the years, Cleese had a fond and respectful word for each.

"Understand," he emphasized, "that everything, everything, starts with the writing. The foundation - it's all about the writing."

With affection and a touch of nostalgia, he discusses Fawlty Towers, the series he co-wrote and performed with ex-wife Connie Booth.

Cleese described producing the show as back-breaking. "For every one minute on screen we spent 40 minutes editing," he explained. Where most sitcoms had 65 pages of copy, they had more than 120. While other sitcom programs had about 200 editing cuts, Fawlty had 400.

He described filmmaking as being the most difficult of all writing forms, especially writing comedy. He said they massively tested A FISH CALLED WANDA for audiences - including small bits of business - to make sure the film itself as well as specific scenes within it worked.

As with "MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL," producers wanted to kill scenes in WANDA - rather rude or tasteless scenes - that over the years turned out to be the biggest crowd pleasers.

"People need to be able to develop a style, and that can't happen under rigid scrutiny without the freedom to experiment."

Throughout his "lecture," he used slides and video.

He also used truth, and no one was spared, even deceased former coworkers. "Graham Chapman was one of the laziest sons of bitches to walk the earth. But he was also the best laugh compass I've ever met. If Graham laughed? We knew the audience would, too." Chapman originally intended to be a doctor - he was attending medical school when he started his serious work early on with Cleese. Cleese was on his way to becoming a lawyer before becoming a legend of stage, screen and everything in between.

BTW, Cleese comes by his "lecturing" skills honestly - before attending Cambridge, he taught classes in English, Geography and History to 10-year olds at a boys' school for two years.

Mourning his three unhappy marriages - most particularly his most recent, I asked him, "As such an ardent student of psychology ... you've even written books on the subject ... how is it you didn't seem to be able to use what you learned, what you know, in your marriages?"

He allowed it was a very good and "very fair" question, and spoke from his heart.

"This will be a straight answer. But what I've realized is that we can have patterns of behavior that are nearly impossible to alter when it comes to entering certain relationships, especially if there has been a highly dysfunctional relationship with one's mother.

"Extensive therapy helped me considerably, but not in my relationships with others as much as with myself. In the therapy relationship, there is something called transference, wherein you develop a deeply trusting relationship with the therapist that you either had or should have had with your mother. There I developed a feeling of trust I had not experienced before. I personally benefited greatly from therapy."

And I would suggest that the world has benefited greatly from having John Cleese among us; count me among the most grateful.

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  • At 11:25 PM, Anonymous Caitlin said…

    It sounds like it was a WONDERFUL night. It's amazing how the funniest people can emerge from the most painful places. I'm glad you had a wonderful time and that was a great question you asked him. I liked his answer too.


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