It has been some time since John Cleese, once one of the funniest men in the world, made a decent joke, but he has just delivered an absolute cracker. England is less tolerant of silliness than it used to be, he said in a recent interview, so he had decided to relocate to that home of hilarity, California. Adding a sublime final touch to this wonderful bit of comic business, he made this announcement in Canada.
No one knows better than John Cleese that, for the past 40 years, silliness has been a central part of being English. The idea developed, probably in the 1950s, that to be silly was to be adventurous, uninhibited, free. By behaving like a grown-up child, or enjoying the behaviour of others who did, one was paradoxically revealing one's own maturity.
Establishment figures, on the other hand, were afraid of silliness. "No, sorry, that's quite enough of that," John Cleese or Graham Chapman, in silly-old-buffer mode, would interrupt a Monty Python sketch. "This is just getting silly." Yet somehow this new spirit of zaniness would prevail – it represented such a spark of life in the English soul that even an uptight, bowler-hatted Whitehall zombie could end up working in the Ministry of Silly Walks.
Yet perhaps, even then, we sensed that English silliness had nothing to do with real comedy – indeed it was its antithesis. It was the panicky giggle of a man (no woman has actually tried to be silly) who was suffering that great national dread – that he lacked a sense of humour. It was the embarrassing "Ying-Tong Song" in The Goons, the feebler, self-indulgent Monty Python moments. It was The Goodies.
The more talented people in those shows moved on to other, usually better, things. Cleese, most notably, created and performed the astonishing sitcom series which, because its central joke was the tragic misery of a middle-aged English marriage, made the final, definitive case against the need for silliness in comedy.
Then something odd happened, and it was good news for John Cleese, but bad news for the rest of us. He lost his sense of humour. Quite why this happened has always remained a mystery, but it probably had something to do with finding happiness in his private life, entering the gentle, po-faced world of therapy, and joining the SDP.
Since then his career has been a perfect mirror for the times. When business and money-making were all the rage, Cleese made highly successful management videos. At the moment we all started looking inwards and fretting about caring and sharing, he co-wrote some rather good handbooks on relationships and the family.
He joined the celebrity circus, making the obligatory appearances in TV ads, and writing, directing and starring in that small classic of self-adoration, A Fish Called Wanda. Recently, he has joined the property game, selling his Notting Hill house for a canny £5m.
Now, with the perfect timing of a former comedian, he has become a celebrity victim. I'm tall, I write satire and I've been well-known in England for 26 years, he says. Put these things together with an active, unimaginative media, and I couldn't do anything.
Wearied by our intolerance of silliness, he's going to live in Santa Barbara and, in doing so, he has effectively turned his Python act on its head. "No, sorry, that's enough of that," he's saying. "This is just not silly enough."
It sounds like a very sensible decision. No one who has seen Cleese being interviewed recently could doubt that he will be ideally suited to the Californian lifestyle. Meanwhile those of us who are left behind can enjoy the comic brilliance of Chris Morris, Caroline Aherne, Paul Whitehouse, Rob Brydon, Sacha Baron Cohen and others, content in the knowledge that the grim and ghastly age of English silliness is gone for ever.Reuse content