Ever since Britain’s absurdist Monty Python’s Flying Circus was introduced to American audiences in 1972, with the release of And Now for Something Completely Different (then in 1974 with its sketch comedy series on PBS), the U.S. has had a love affair with its tallest, arguably funniest, member, John Cleese. Along with costarring in the Python film Life of Brian and solo showcases (the wild BBC comedy Fawlty Towers; his smart-and-sexy film A Fish Called Wanda; the first volume of his memoirs, So, Anyway…), Cleese was a highlight of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a raucous comedy noted for eerily fanged, bloodthirsty bunnies; blessed hand grenades; and knights who say “Ni.” Cleese is to screen the Grail, then speak to adoring fans on Friday at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby.
Q: While you were on tour last year with Eric Idle, he gave a handsome list of things you had coming up, including a new BBC series, several films, and a screenplay. All this is good, but where is the second volume of your memoirs?
A: That’s a good question. It’s partially true — and it’s not a complaint, but a fact — that, yes, I am busy. Divorce left me short of money. Therefore, instead of doing things that I might do for less money, I am pretty much forced to pay off mortgages and things like that with things that pay really well. These tours, like the one with Eric and this Holy Grail, pay very well, but they are extraordinarily pleasant. There’s no nicer way to earn money. Now, with the financial pressure coming off, I’m lecturing at Cornell, where I get to play phony visiting professor for a week. I haven’t done that in seven years, because I haven’t had time. So, paying off mortgages, even at my grand old age of nearly 78, is part of the plan.
Q: Yours is an intellectual but often physicalized comedy. How do you take the corporeal, the somatic, and bring that energy into a staged conversation — as you will when you discuss Holy Grail?
A: I think that it is something that you learn over the years — my own conscious — an energy that you just manufacture. The very fact that you are going in front of a large group of people lifts you, pumps the adrenaline. Then again, these days, I only play in front of very friendly audiences whose interests I know.
Q: How does all this compare with being a visiting professor?
A: The topics vary. There are things that I am interested in that I don’t necessarily talk about on stage, like creativity. I’m fascinated by how that works, and I can certainly speak to various aspects of it. I think I understand it better than most. Religion, too, writing, acting, and the philosophy of science, and naturally, various theories of comedy and how it works. I did a BBC television series on the human face and all the aspects of it, and I’ve done presentations on that. I’ve even done sermons in Cornell’s chapel.
Q: We spoke about you and Idle touring together after 2014’s Monty Python Live (Mostly) at The O₂ in London. How would you describe the closeness between you? You guys didn’t seem particularly bonded before 2016.
A: I’ve always been close to Michael [Palin]. He and Eric are people that I would’ve been friends with, even if we hadn’t been in Monty Python. The Terrys, Jones and Gilliam, I have great affection for, but rarely saw them socially. One thing that connects me to Eric is America, as he’s lived there now for a long time, and I lived there for a decade, between 1999 and 2009. We have that connection to American culture. We’re also both extremely interested in therapy. We’ve both been in it, and both think more psychologically than the other Pythons. I don’t think any of the other Pythons have ever been through therapy, even if there are several of them who rather need it.
Q: You were in America — New York City, to be precise — long before Monty Python’s run on PBS. What did you think?
A: Oh, yes, I was here, on Broadway, in August 1964 with a show we’d done in London — Cambridge Circus — and got a bad review from the New York Times. Walter Kerr, however, loved it, and he was one of your best reviewers. We lasted three weeks. Shortly after that, I was asked to audition for a musical, which was hilarious, because I’m not the least bit musical. Which means that I got the part — such a horror — then I was on Broadway again with Tommy Steele, so that was the better part of a year and a half.
Q: By the time you came here with the Pythons, the American media swooned over you guys.
A: Very nice treatment. Extremely well. I have a real respect for the American media. I think the job they’re doing with Trump is terrific. From the very start, there’s been a big difference between how American journalists speak with me and how British journalists operate. An American journalist would mention how much he likes Fawlty Towers or Holy Grail. British journalists look for weakness, are only interested in scoring points. That’s what they see their jobs as being: giving spiky interviews. Everywhere else, journalists are very pleasant chaps.
Q: You have never come across as a resolutely reminiscing or sentimental gentleman, yet you just got off of a Fawlty Towers stage show in Australia, and there’s the Holy Grail screening/chat. What makes an event from your past worth looking back for — money aside?
A: In the case of Holy Grail, I simply go out to an audience of fans who’ve just seen the movie, and they’re warm and friendly. They like me and my humor. They laugh enough, and I never know what they’re going to ask me or where it’s going to go. And they know the film inside and out. Maybe more than I remember. Even if they ask me weird questions. They tease me. It’s very easy for me to talk about something they love and I love.
John Cleese screens "Grail"
7:30 p.m. Friday
69th and Ludlow Streets