Profile John Cleese: Not as funny as he looks

He is laughing all the way to Friday's Comic Relief festivities. But are we?
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The Independent Online
John Cleese once made a film called How to Irritate People. It was a joke, of course, but an apt one. For John Cleese is a master at irritating people. He's doing it on TV with a megaphone (in Sainsbury's "Value to shout about" ads, which upset the staff, who thought it made them look stupid, prompting the company to reconsider its relationship with Mr Cleese). And now he's doing it with a squeaky red nose for Comic Relief, for which he will also appear in a special charity edition of The Vicar of Dibley this Friday. Not content with that, he's also promoting Stress Relief, his own intensely irritating campaign-within-a-campaign which encourages employees to wear silly costumes at work. Say no more, to borrow a phrase.

Cleese, 60 this year, has always been an irritant. As an intense six- foot-plus schoolboy he unnerved his teachers with his oblique humour. There was a feeling that he was, as one schoolmaster put it, busy being subversive in the back row. It is an act that he has refined throughout his adult life. On the surface he is a picture of conformity and self- assurance. Inside he is a mass of doubts, questioning everything. As a teenage fan of the Goons, he felt the same attraction that a later generation of schoolboys would feel for Monty Python: the discovery that there were adults who also found the world a mad and ridiculous place. Being earnest, he became fascinated by the theories of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who saw comedy as a way of negotiating rigid social conventions. These worrying developments were allowed to go unchecked.

Growing up in pleasant but sleepy Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, he was acutely aware of his life being mapped out in advance: minor public school, Cambridge, and a career as an accountant or solicitor. A life, in short, of stultifying conformity. His dread of such a fate is the key to his attacks on puffed-up jobsworths, officious lower-middle-class functionaries and ruthless public school men. He still harbours a strong resentment of the buttoned-up English mentality, a resentment sharpened by the realisation that it has shaped him too: he describes his younger self as having "the state of mind of a 60-year-old colonel".

Cleese's distinctive physical appearance and slightly menacing demeanour singled him out from the start of his showbusiness career. His tall thin build, clipped accent and conservative dress sense made him the perfect personification of establishment values. The contrast with his acerbic and sometimes sadistic humour was startling and strangely unsettling. What you saw was patently not what you got.

The BBC was keen to find a vehicle for this promising young talent, and in 1969 it found one. Monty Python's Flying Circus was by no means an instant success. It was recorded in front of a standard BBC audience consisting mainly of coach parties of bemused old ladies from the provinces. The BBC was equally unsure what to make of it, putting it out late at night, at irregular times, and frequently pulling it from regional schedules at the last minute. Despite these handicaps, it soon attracted a substantial cult audience, while sketches such as the Dead Parrot and The Ministry of Silly Walks acquired a fame far beyond the show's natural constituency.

Python has since become first a "classic" and then a national treasure, but at the time it was very much a minority taste. One of the original title suggestions had been Sex and Violence, which was certainly a more accurate description of its contents. Some viewers, notably Mary Whitehouse, were offended. Many more were simply irritated or bored by its self-indulgence. Cleese himself is surprisingly dismissive: even at the time he regarded much of it as puerile and, yes, too silly. He despaired of the later live concerts, where Python-spotters would cheer every line and recite the sketches aloud. (To this day, passers-by demand that he "do the silly walk" - a sketch he detested.) After three series, which he felt were increasingly repetitive and formulaic, he called it a day.

As a life-long connoisseur of bad service, Cleese had been impressed by a particularly monstrous Torquay hotelier, and he set to work with his first wife, Connie Booth, on Fawlty Towers. He set out to make the perfect sitcom, and he succeeded, making Basil Fawlty a national hero in the process. It met with universal acclaim, and has stood the test of time. Nearly 700,000 videos have been sold in Britain alone.

The next decade and a half brought continued success. On a personal level, he is happily married to the American psychoanalyst Alyce Faye Eichelberger, and remains on good terms with both Booth and his second wife, the American TV producer Barbara Trentham. Professionally, he is immensely proud of his self-help books (co-written with his psychoanalyst, Robin Skynner), his highly profitable Video Arts company (which produces business and industry training films), and his 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda, which was an international smash, and launched Cleese as an unlikely Hollywood sex symbol.

One reason for his commercial success is his unapologetically American attitude to money and business. While his contemporaries saw business as the enemy of the arts, Cleese embraced commerce, to the extent of seeing business itself as a "creative" activity. His business videos are not just a money-making scheme; they are a crusade to change attitudes. His frustration with hidebound British culture also led him to make party broadcasts for the SDP, in the days when they aimed to "break the mould" of politics, and he still supports the Liberal Democrats.

Yet although he is a wealthy man, Cleese, like many national institutions, is in decline. His best work is in the distant past, and there's no sign of a renaissance. He also has a serious image problem. In his heyday, his arrogance and prickliness were accepted as part of his public persona, which was inextricably tied up with Basil Fawlty and his bullying Python characters. His subsequent Americanisation has cast his personality in a less acceptable light.

His championing of gurus and therapists may be sincere, but it comes across as sheer credulity: friends consider him gullible. His obsessively analytical mind appears tedious when it is concentrated on himself. His confessional "opening up" smacks of egotism, and is every bit as boring as being buttoned-down. His over-sensitive attitude to publicity appears precious and hypocritical when he is giving intimate interviews left, right and centre.

Then there is his vanity. Up to now he has pulled off a difficult balancing act. When his hair transplants were rumbled (he's had three, the first in 1978) he pre-empted ridicule with self-deprecatory humour. When he toned his torso for the bedroom scenes in Wanda, he disingenuously played down talk of himself as a sex symbol. With Fierce Creatures, the much-panned sequel to Wanda, he went too far. The sad spectacle of a sagging Cleese casting himself as the "love interest" opposite the much younger Jamie Lee Curtis indicated a bad case of Woody Allen Syndrome.

Cleese is hurt by such criticisms, and seems genuinely baffled by them. Perhaps he should consider the lessons of a story he tells of a visit to his accountant in the Python days. The previous week a Cleese sketch had been broadcast in which accountancy was ridiculed as a boring, soul- destroying profession. When Cleese asked the accountant if he had minded the sketch, he looked blank and asked why he should have. Because it poked fun at accountants, explained Cleese. "Oh no," smiled the accountant, "you see, the man in the sketch was a Chartered accountant, and I'm Certified." There is something of Cleese himself in this apparent lack of self-knowledge; an almost wilful refusal to equate his own earnestness with the pomposity that he targets in his humour. In therapy-speak, he is in deep denial.

Cleese once described humour as a way of dealing with the shock that the people in charge are less smart than he was brought up to believe. One can only speculate on his reaction to William Hague's recent speech, in which he approvingly invoked the Ministry of Silly Walks as a quintessentially British creation. In such circumstances, Cleese's sense of humour failure could well prove terminal. Then again, in death he would be vindicated in his belief that the world is truly an insane place.