John Cleese returns to Santa Barbara for Granada show
“Monty Python” icon John Cleese didn’t plan to be funny.
At least not for his career.
No, the native of Weston-Super-Mare, Sumerset, England, was going to become a lawyer, and he was studying during the 1960s at Cambridge University when he decided to perform in the student revue at the school.
“To my astonishment, somebody who was from the theatrical world in the West End of London told us he liked it so much that he wanted to put the show on in the West End,” Mr. Cleese, 82, said. “When we opened, the critics liked it, and it went on for five months. We all decided to go into show business!”
So, Mr. Cleese went into entertainment instead of law, and the world has been laughing since.
Now he’s coming back to a city he loves — Santa Barbara — for a night of comedy.
“People will get an evening of almost continuous laughter,” the former Montecito resident said about “An Evening of Exceptional Silliness,” his comedy show, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at The Granada, 1214 State St.
Mr. Cleese, who lived in Montecito from 1999 to 2009, said he’s looking forward to this stop on his comedy tour because of Santa Barbara. “It has a great climate and is highly civilized with interesting artistic things going on all the time. It’s just a lovely place to be because there’s a calmness there.”
Opening for Mr. Cleese with her standup comedy act is his daughter, Camilla Cleese, who attended Laguna Blanca School.
“Then I do a quick 45 minutes for laughs, particularly looking at why people are offended at certain jokes,” Mr. Cleese told the News-Press Friday from Seattle during a break from his comedy tour.
“I get to explain about the problems with the woke community. They tend to be literal minded. It’s hard when you’re talking to literally minded people to say anything ironic because they don’t understand the meaning of words as determined by the context,” Mr. Cleese said. “If you say something ironically, it means the opposite of what the words mean literally.
“It always astounds me that evangelists insist on everything being literal when Jesus spoke in parables,” Mr. Cleese said.
“An Evening of Exceptional Silliness” will end with audience members getting to ask Mr. Cleese questions about his life and career, which included “Fawlty Towers,” his acclaimed 1975-79 BBC sitcom that he co-created and co-wrote with his then-wife Connie Booth. Mr. Cleese starred as impatient hotel owner Basil Fawlty, and Ms. Booth played hotel employee Polly Sherman.
“We came up with really original, really complicated stories because ‘Fawlty Towers’ episodes were 140 pages long. The average BBC sitcom was 60 pages long,” Mr. Cleese told the News-Press. “The problem with performing it was there was so much in the episode. We spent a lot of time and were able to make the plots funny.”
Mr. Cleese said “Fawlty Towers’ succeeded because it focused on making the situation in each episode funny. “It’s called a situation comedy. Today, a lot of times people writing situation comedies don’t have funny plots, and they try to fill it with jokes.”
Mr. Cleese said his two favorite episodes are the dead body and rat episodes. Like other “Fawlty Tower” episodes, they were co-written by Mr. Cleese and Ms. Booth.
In “The Kipper and the Corpse,” one of the hotel’s guests has died in his sleep, and Basil believes it’s because he served him spoiled food.
“The dead body story is terribly funny,” Mr. Cleese.
In “Basil the Rat,” the health inspector shows up at a time when employee Manuel’s rat gets loose.
“The ante is upped when you have rats around and a health inspector and a dead body,” Mr. Cleese said. “The more you get into tabooed areas, the funnier it is.”
Mr. Cleese, who met fellow “Monty Python” actors Eric Idle and Graham Chapman (1941-1989) at Cambridge University, said he continues to laugh at “Monty Python” skits such as the “Fish-Slapping Dance.”
The 1971 skit, which relies on visual gags instead of dialogue, is on YouTube. The details won’t be spoiled here, but yes, there is slapping going on with fish.
It’s downright silly.
“The very silliest things can continue to make us laugh,” Mr. Cleese said, noting silly humor can remain funny for a longer time than “the more sensible stuff.”
Mr. Cleese also discussed the “Monty Python” movies with the News-Press, including “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” set in the medieval age. Because of its low budget, the 1975 movie didn’t have horses, so the actors pretended to be galloping and clicked coconuts to mimic the sounds of hoofs.
“I think the ‘Holy Grail’ is an absolutely beautiful movie,” Mr. Cleese said. “I don’t think the last half-hour is as good as the first hour. The first hour is brilliant, but after that, it fades away.
“ ‘Life of Brian’ is a much better story and is about more important things,” Mr. Cleese said about a 1979 “Monty Python” movie about a Jewish man mistaken for being Jesus.
“It’s not about religion as much about people’s attitudes about religion,” Mr. Cleese said. “Brian says to the multitudes, ‘You must always think for yourselves.’ They say (in unison), ‘We must always think for ourselves.’”
That’s the kind of ironic twist that Mr. Cleese loves in comedies.
“It’s terribly funny,” Mr. Cleese said.
The “Monty Python” actor played a character much different from his usual roles in “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” the 2021 movie that landed in theaters last year and continues to stream on Paramount+.
Mr. Cleese liked playing Mr. Bridwell, who introduces a young girl (Emily, played by Darby Camp) to a red dog who magically grows into a giant when she loves him.
“I thought it was absolutely delightful,” Mr. Cleese said. “I thought it was the perfect kids’ movie.
“I’ve never played anyone like Mr. Birdwell,” Mr. Cleese said. “I don’t usually play those kinds of people, but it doesn’t mean I can’t play them.
“I thoroughly loved it, not the least because the producer, Jordan Kerner, is a particularly nice man. He’s probably the only producer who’s given me good notes as an actor.”
And Mr. Cleese played a Texan billionaire in “The Palace,” which was recently filmed in Switzerland. So instead of his usual British accent, Mr. Cleese had to sound like a Texan.
“Certain accents I can do very easily, but I’ve had difficulty with American accents,” Mr. Cleese said. “With a Texan accent, they pronounce everything differently from the English.”
He said he worked hard on his Texan accent, and his dialect coach was happy with the result.
In addition to their comedy tour, Mr. Cleese and his daughter, Camilla, are writing a stage musical adaptation of the 1988 movie that starred Mr. Cleese, fellow “Monty Python” actor Michael Palin and Jamie Lee Curtis: “A Fish Called Wanda.”
Mr. Cleese added he has written the treatment for a comedic movie about cannibalism. “It’s very dark, and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever written.”