John Cleese, Someone Completely Different
By: John Shepler
Quickly now. If I say "John Cleese," what do you reply? I'll bet it you say "Monty Python" or something like "Minister of Silly Walks" or "That, sir, is an EX-parrot!" Oh, you said "Spanish Inquisition.?" Hmmm. I didn't expect that. (All together now) "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition."
Here's something else you don't expect. The supremely silly John Cleese, star of Monty Python's Flying Circus, is co-author of two books on psychology, and a lawyer with a legal degree from an institution no less esteemed than Cambridge University. If that doesn't sound completely different, John also formed Video Arts, a company that produces corporate training films. You know. Instructions on how to run more time efficient meetings and the like. What's more, he is an ardent defender of the rights of live parrots around the world.
So who is this enigmatic Python? John Marwood Cleese was born to Reginald Francis Cleese, an insurance salesman, and Muriel Cross on 27th October 1939 in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. His name might have very well have been John Cheese, after his grandfather John Edwin Cheese. But for some reason, Reginald changed his name from Cheese to Cleese when he joined the army in 1915. That clinched Cleese for Cheese's children.
As a lad living at Ellesmere Road 6, John excelled at cricket and was made captain of his school team, a perfectly reasonable start for a future barrister. However, about age 13, his show business leanings started to appear. John began by writing down and organizing jokes that he enjoyed. By the time he started at Cambridge in 1960, he was eager to join a theater group, "The Footlights," and became accepted in his second term. It was also at Cambridge that John met Graham Chapman, another future member of the Monty Python troupe.
In the summer of 1963, John Cleese appeared in a Cambridge Footlights show, "A Clump of Plinths," which became so popular it turned into the "Cambridge Circus" and ran in London's West End. Graham Chapman joined him in another production of the "Cambridge Circus" at the Lyric Theatre. In 1964, they took the show to New Zealand and then to America for twenty-three performances on Broadway. By the late 1960's, Cleese was well established as an actor and writer, including contributions for the BBC television show "That Was the Week that Was" and "The Frost Report."
In 1969, fate, in the form of the British Broadcasting Corporation, threw Cleese and Chapman together with three graduates of Oxford University who had also gotten the acting bug in school and were now performing for radio and television. Their names were Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Those five plus Terry Gilliam were selected for a new TV show needed to fill a programming void. The creator of the show, Barry Took, complained that one of his bosses called him "Baron von Richthoven and his Flying Circus." Palin thought a name he found in a newspaper article, Gwen Dibley, would be funnier than Baron von Richthoven, but somehow the name Monty Python emerged from the group and the rest, as they say, is history.
Monty Python's Flying Circus has endured for 30 years. In all, the BBC produced just 45 episodes which were broadcast in the UK and on public television in the United States. They have gone on to become cult classics and have spun off books, movies, feature films, and another popular television show, Fawlty Towers. Fawlty Towers sprang from a the odd behavior of a hotel owner at the time the cast of Monty Python's Flying Circus was staying in the Torbay area in 1971. Cleese and his wife at the time, Connie Booth, thought there was comedy potential in their escapades at the Gleneagles Hotel. So they cooked up the name Fawlty Towers and its bizarre bumbling owner, Basil Fawlty, and another masterpiece of theater (not to be confused with Masterpiece Theater) was born.
So, what's with the psych books and training films? John Cleese started experiencing inexplicable health problems that appeared as low grade flu-like symptoms, starting in 1973. Doctors could find nothing physically wrong with him. They suggested that the problems might be psychosomatic and perhaps treatable by psychological therapy. With some trepidation, John entered group counseling. Three years later, he emerged with his flu symptoms banished and so much enthusiasm for what he'd learned that he joined with his doctor, Robin Skynner, to author two books, "Families and How to Survive Them" and "Life and How to Survive It."
As far as the training films go, the classic John Cleese makes his appearance to show how NOT to run things in such titles as "Meetings, Bloody Meetings," "The Unorganized Manager," and "Who Sold You This, Then?" Executives can now laugh at themselves, in private of course.
Finally, here is the news for Parrots. No parrots will be popping their clogs if John Cleese has anything to say about it. The creator of the "Dead Parrot" sketch now backs World Parrot Day and a global strategy to protect the rainforest habitat and the almost 100 species of parrots threatened with extinction. If Cleese has his way, such destruction will cease to be and it's pernicious processes will be of interest only to historians...and that, sir, will be a dead issue!
Books of Interest:
Monty Python Speaks by David Morgan. On the occasion of their 30th anniversary, the remaining members of the troup reminisce on the show that is still a cult favorite. Well organized, informative and gossipy, nudge, nudge, wink, wink...say no more!
Life and How to Survive It by Robin Skynner, John Cleese, Bud Handelsman (Illustrator). A lively, honest, and entertaining discussion of life and how to survive it. Drawing upon their own observations of life, as well as research on healthy families, business success, religion, psychiatry, and politics, the authors reveal universal principles of healthy surviving, and provide a map to guide people in their everyday lives. Cartoons.
Families and how to Survive Them by Robin Skynner, John Cleese, Bud Handelsman (Illustrator). Cleese and his former therapist bring their warm relationship and sense of humor to explore the inner workings of the modern family and the interactions between couples and their children. Bud Handelsman's cartoons punctuate the text and cleverly make the point being discussed. The forerunner to Life and How to Survive It.
The Complete Fawlty Towersby John Cleese, with Connie Booth. Finally here are all 12 scripts from this hilarious series. John Cleese's Basil Fawlty must be the worst hotelier on Earth. If you'd actually like to stay at Fawlty Towers, immerse yourself in this guidebook.
The Monty Python Song Book by Monty Python, Graham Chapman, Monty Python's Flying Circus. Here are the music and lyrics to your favorite Python songs! Plus photos and the art of Terry Gilliam.
Also visit these related sites:
Video Arts - If you buy the notion that humor produces serious results, then you'll want to check out the corporate training films, several of which star John Cleese.
History of Fawlty Towers - How Basil Fawlty came to be after a bizarre hotel stay by John Cleese and the Pythons. Also everything else you wanted to know about the show and more.
Contact Any Celebrity - Subscribe to a database of addresses for TV and movie stars, sports figures, musicians, politicians and other celebrities
Copyright 1999 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com unless, of course, you're sending Spam!
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First Published: October 11, 1999 as part of A Positive Light