John Cleese's latest xenophobic comments reveal a sad truth about aging comedians

Comedy always thrives on subverting and undermining the status quo, which can become a problem as financial security, and views formed in years past, push comedians themselves to become the status quo

Caspar Salmon
Wednesday 29 May 2019 18:14 BST
John Cleese on why he is leaving the country:'I'm so disappointed with so much about this country'

This week, former funnyman John Cleese took to social media to inveigh, in his usual adorable, puckish manner, against the curse of multiculturalism with which London finds itself shockingly beset.

“Some years ago I opined”, wrote the erstwhile comedian, “that London was not really an English city any more. Since then, virtually all my friends from abroad have confirmed my observation. So there must be some truth in it… I note also that London was the UK city that voted most strongly to remain in the EU.”

Well. Faced with so much opining, observing and noting it’s almost hard to know where to begin – perhaps in John Cleese’s island home of Nevis in the Caribbean, to which he decamped in autumn, apparently in protest at the tenor of the debate surrounding Brexit.

In his huffy xenophobia, the ex-humorist joins the still-somehow-not-entirely-cancelled Morrissey, who lives outside of the United Kingdom but returns every now and then to regale the press with this sort of mega-brain posturing: “Although I don't have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England the more the British identity disappears. So the price is enormous. Travel to England and you have no idea where you are.”

It certainly is a rum old truism that, when you leave the country to spend a few years in Hollywood, the city you knew in the 70s looks appreciably different when you return. Who among us can parse this mystery?

As far as Cleese is concerned, it’s all the more sad that he has drifted towards such reactionary views because he was once such a committed tormentor of institutions, bluster, xenophobia and small-minded Englishness. This is the man who, in A Fish Called Wanda, asked Jamie Lee Curtis: “Do you have any idea what it’s like being… (voice dripping with disdain) English?”

This is the person who stabbed English pomposity and institutions through the heart with glee in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and who mounted a blistering satire of racist, small-minded Little England-ism in Fawlty Towers. The latter in particular hums with scorn for the sort of blinkered and rickety dogmatism that uncritical “Englishness” can take. But then you only need to take the briefest of looks at his recent output, with the woeful Hold The Sunset, to see a shift towards the other side, as Cleese indulges in jokes about how confusing it is to put the bins out now, what with all the recycling we have these days.

The last few years have provided the spectacle of so many former comedic scourges of the right seemingly becoming fed up with the state of the modern world. Of course, the tendency has always been for people to become more right wing and reactionary with age, but there appears to be a particular surge in the field of comedy. Ben Elton, who still identifies as politically left, has railed against the BBC being afraid to make jokes about Islam. The Absolutely Fabulous film spent a disturbing amount of time indulging in transphobia rather than showing us Patsy and Eddie getting pissed – in the process becoming as laughably out of touch as its deluded protagonists.

Comedy always thrives on subverting and undermining the status quo, which can become a problem as financial security, and views formed in years past, push comedians themselves to become the status quo. In these cases, the status quo tends to turn its gaze back on the perceived “opposite” – the changing world around them.

Nobody likes to feel disconnected from their times, and the sense that things are shifting beyond one’s control can become unsettling with age – but it’s saddening that in John Cleese that fear has taken this jingoistic form.

The dogwhistle racism of the word “English” as a stand-in for a culture untouched by multiculturalism is surely beneath the wits of Cleese, particularly if connecting ethnic diversity to London’s Remain vote. After all, Scotland – still very much a Scottish country by Cleese’s apparent metric, with 88 per cent of its population identifying as White Scottish – predominantly voted to remain.

The irony of these kvetches about the state of modern Britain is that they come from people with a necessarily partial experience of the place they’re fretting about. Cleese doesn’t have to appreciate the country he sees before him – but he can’t deny that it’s England.

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