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A Talk with the Minister of Silly Walks

photo courtesy of John Cleese
photo courtesy of John Cleese

On Tue., Jan. 24, the man who established The Ministry of Silly Walks took the stage at Powell Hall as part of the St. Louis Speaker Series presented by Maryville University. John Cleese is best known for his work with the legendary Monty Python comedy troupe – including fan-favorite films Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – as well as BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda, a film he co-wrote and starred in alongside Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline.

In late 2014, he released his best-selling memoir, So, Anyway…, which details his early life and how he first broke into the world of comedy. Cleese is currently on an American tour in support of the book, including speaking engagements like the one at Powell Hall, as well as making appearances at screenings of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

LN had a chance to catch up with Cleese just before his appearance at Powell Hall to learn about his memoir, how he’s seen comedy evolve in the past five decades and what he has planned for 2017 and beyond.

What has your U.S. tour been like so far?

It’s been quite hard work, but very enjoyable. The shows themselves have been terrific, with wonderful audiences. They’re great, particularly the Holy Grail audiences. When I walk out, there’s a great deal of warmth and affection. They have my sense of humor. A couple of days ago, we traveled for seven hours and then did a show at the end of it. If you do a couple of those in a row, it’s very tiring. We’re doing Worcester, Mass., tonight [Fri., Jan. 20], which will be the eighth show in eight days, and then we fly to Chicago for a day off, which feels like a week off!

What was your writing process like for So, Anyway…?

It was extraordinarily enjoyable, and I didn’t know whether it was going to be or not. I know one famous British film star who started writing his autobiography and found it was so emotionally painful to go through and relive some things that he stopped writing. I had the opposite response, probably because I’ve had so much therapy over the years, so I feel like I’ve worked through most of those things. When I was able to look back on those moments when I’d been very upset, I remember how I felt at the time, but I was no longer influenced by it emotionally and was able to watch it from sort of a distance.

Are you planning on writing more in the future?

Yes, I’m going to write another [book] … when I get some time!

What’s your favorite thing about Americans and being in America?

I think the friendliness is my favorite thing about Americans. The people in hotels are always so friendly and want to do their best. I also think [there are] some really good newspapers here, and we don’t have that in England. I love reading The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

Do you think American attitudes toward British comedy have changed in the past few decades?

I don’t think so, no. So far as British comedy films are concerned, it’s pretty rare to get a breakthrough. But I think so far as television is concerned, a lot of Americans, particularly the older ones, would say they’d rather watch old English comedy than old American comedy. I think we’ve always liked each other’s comedy.

Do you think Monty Python and the Holy Grail would be popular if it were released today?

Yes, I do. I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be. I think we’d have much more trouble with Life of Brian [if it were released today], but it’s hard to tell. There were protests in New York when we showed Life of Brian in 1979. People were carrying placards saying, “Monty Python is the agent of the devil.” In fact, they did our publicity for us. They made us news every day for a week!

What are you most proud of in your career?

I think Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda and Monty Python’s Life of Brian were all very good. I think my autobiography is very good, too. What’s interesting is, it’s now out on audiobook. People hear me reading it, and they find it far funnier than they did when they read it to themselves.

What’s next after the tour?

[My] next is a hip-replacement operation. I’m going to have [the operation] in Los Angeles because I can’t face the gloom in London – I should be able to recover in the sun. Another six weeks after that, I’ll be leaping around again doing more speeches, including one in Anchorage. Then I’ll be doing a TV series for the BBC – as an actor, not writing. It’s a character that’s completely different from Basil Fawlty … a very old man. I’m 77 years old, and I’ll be playing at least that. Life is very pleasant.

This story was originally published at Read it on LN’s website here.

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