In a career that has spanned seven decades—and included such classic shows and movies as Monty Python's Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, Life of Brian, and A Fish Called Wanda—the comedian John Cleese has relentlessly satirized politics and religion while stretching the boundaries of decorum and good taste.
Now 83, Cleese—who studied law at the University of Cambridge—has set his sights on political correctness, which he says is the enemy not only of humor but of creative thinking in all areas of human activity. "There are people sitting there who are deliberately waiting for the thrill of being offended," he says, emphasizing the importance of paying attention to context, without which irony and sarcasm can't be properly understood.
Reason's Nick Gillespie caught up with Cleese at FreedomFest, an annual July gathering in Las Vegas. Cleese was the keynote speaker, there to discuss creativity, which was the subject of his 2020 book of the same name. It's a myth "that creativity is something you have to be born with," he argues, contending that "you can teach people how to create circumstances in which they will become creative."
In a wide-ranging conversation available on The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie, Cleese discusses the importance of freedom of expression to being creative, the difference between solemnity and seriousness, and why creativity remains necessary for the progress of civilization.
Reason: Do you regret not becoming a lawyer?
Cleese: My favorite joke about lawyers is that the U.S. Postal Service a few years ago issued a commemorative series of stamps commemorating famous American lawyers, but they had to withdraw it within a couple of weeks because people couldn't figure out which side of the stamp to spit on. You heard that before?
That's great. I have your book, Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide. I highly recommend it. Why is creativity so important for a thriving society?
I think the most natural impulse that people have other than curiosity is to figure out: Can we do this better? Whatever it is. I think that's a pretty natural kind of response, but I'm afraid the educational system doesn't encourage it. I mean, it's not as bad as Japan was, for example. I had a friend who studied there and said that the Japanese educational system was specifically designed to stop people thinking for themselves.
You grew up in England at a time when the school system was famous for being rigid and domineering. Has it changed? America is often seen as a place that's not structured enough. Is this a better environment?
It's always a question of balance. Discipline is essential to any kind of learning. It's essential, but at the same time, if you have too much, then you have a Chinese or Japanese system, where they don't want anyone to be creative because they're frightened that they will lose control. All I can tell you is I can only think of one example where my creativity was stifled. We had a very nice teacher and he taught me English, which seemed to me a bit redundant because I spoke it pretty fluently anyway.
He asked us to write an essay on time and I'd already realized it's a very hard thing to write about. You look it up in the dictionary and it says, "duration." Then you look up duration and it says, "time." So I wrote the whole essay about the fact that I'd not had time to write the essay. Now, you giggle at that. It's not bad, is it, for 15?
But he said to me, "Cleese, this isn't a proper essay." He didn't have a go at me. He wasn't nasty. He wasn't particularly critical. He says, "No, we just don't do things this way," and that's how our creativity gets stifled.
I always thought that teachers didn't understand that they needed to explain things. For example, I learned lots about the Protestants and the Catholics and [Oliver] Cromwell and Charles I, but no teacher ever told me what was the difference between them. There was an assumption by adults that you'd know, but the adults never told. So there were lots of faults in it.
It was beneficial that we learned to work, but I'm being quite honest with you when I said, at 18, when I emerged from the English system, I thought that it had taught me willpower, and that is how to work hard at something that I wasn't the slightest bit interested in.
In your book, you argue that you can teach creativity. It's a skill that you can pick up.
I don't think you can teach creativity, but you can teach people how to set themselves up where they have the greatest chance of their own creativity emerging.
And part of that is being set apart—creating a wall around yourself so that you have to contemplate the blank page.
Everyone who writes will tell you that an interruption probably costs you 10 minutes. There have been two research [studies], one said 15, one said 23 minutes. But because you're building something up in your mind—your character's here, he has to do that, she's over there trying to stop him, this has happened, someone else's just come in—and then somebody comes in, and when they leave you have to go back and recreate all this. That's why they're so dangerous.
You've written about collaborating, particularly with Graham Chapman. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences with him, and the role of having somebody to bounce ideas off of?
When you start as a comedian or as a comic writer, the great fear is: Is this funny? Because you don't know. You don't have enough experience. You think: "Well, I think it's funny. Will anyone else?" The extraordinary thing about Chapman was that if he laughed, then I discovered the audience was going to laugh, so the biggest single problem was solved by this. He was the perfect litmus test. If what I said was funny and he laughed, we put it down. That was wonderful. But I was in the engine room driving it forward, and I think in a way, Chapman was creative, but the trouble is I was too critical and analytical and he was so dreamy that he was always off the wall and saying ridiculous things. The combination of us worked well because what some people forget about a team is, you want lots of people with different skills, not lots with the same skills.
Talk a bit, in your creative experiences, about the role of drugs and alcohol, which bedevil creative people, particularly comedians, musicians, and writers. Chapman had a real problem with the bottle, but did that also fuel some of his genius?
I don't think so.
Do you use any performance-enhancing drugs?
I've never been addictive, except the very small things like food. And the awful thing about getting older is food tastes better. It's just wonderful. I eat nothing else now.
I think that a lot of creative people are more in touch with their unconscious, which is where their creativity is coming from. But if your threshold is a little more porous, it may be that unconscious stuff of the more Freudian kind can come up. Maybe that's why wonderful ideas can come up, but they have to come up with the stuff that would be better kept down.
I think the other thing is that creativity is all about getting out of a rut. You see, if you're under any kind of pressure, you will always resort to stereotypical thinking. You'll go back. There was a Canadian psychoneurologist called Donald Hebb, and he said, "Neurons that fire together, wire together." In other words, if you create in thinking a neural pathway and you do that a few more times, it becomes the pathway. It's just like wiring it.
Somebody once said it's a bit like hiring a little house in the summer for a holiday for a month. You go into the house and you think: "Oh, this is great." You go to the back garden and the grass is high, but there's a little shed over there and you think: "I wonder what's in the shed." So you make your way through and you get to the shed. And then when you come back, you don't come back by a different path, do you? Because this is already easier.
You come back by the same path, and whenever you go to the shed, you go by that path. Well, what else is in the grass? You never get to explore it.
So the question is: How do you get out of the rut? How do you get out of the rut and look around in the grass?
Let's talk about the enemies of creativity. You've mentioned the educational system that doesn't facilitate it. Wokeism is an issue that you've talked about. How does that stifle creativity?
Because it's the internal interruption that I was talking about. You think of an idea and you immediately think: "Oooh, is that going to get me into trouble? Well, that person last Thursday got away with it." But all that stuff immediately stops you being creative.
What percentage of your oeuvre do you think would be inadmissible or not permitted now?
Well, it changes unpredictably. I mean, in my day there was an enormous explosion in England, I think it was 196, when Kenneth Tynan, who was our best theater critic, deliberately used the word fuck. And, I mean, it was nuclear.
Now I can say fuck, and one or two people might twitch. Most people aren't bothered by it at all, but that was the forbidden word.
I'm a little bit excited, I have to say.
[Laughs] Shut up!
But then there are many other words that…
Well, there's the N-word. Now, just consider this situation: If I actually pronounce the N-word today, which I'm not going to—relax! But if I did, it would be in the papers tomorrow. Now, how useful is that? The woke people, I think, miss something quite badly. The meaning of a word depends on its context. If I use sarcasm, then what I'm meaning is the opposite of the words I'm actually saying. If you don't get irony, then if you take it seriously, you completely misunderstand the intention of the writer or speaker.
Some people said after 9/11 that irony was dead, but it seems like it probably died earlier in people who say that's not funny, no matter what, because they focus on the words rather than the meaning or the context.
That's right: They focus on the words. I actually talk about this in my stage act. I mean, just now I said "shut up" to you.
Inside, I'm crying.
But everybody smiled, because they knew it was done with affection and as a joke. If that was reported tomorrow in The Hollywood Reporter, that I'd said that to you without any giving of context, it would look as though I was being very rude and unpleasant. You see what I mean? My daughter was talking about this when we did a show at the [South by] Southwest festival. I don't know when I've had so much fun on stage. We had a fellow who was Puerto Rican, we had someone who was African American, we had someone who was Jewish, we had a Scot, and an old white Englishman.
They're letting anybody into South by Southwest.
We were teasing each other and saying the most terrible things, and there was an atmosphere, not—I mean this seriously—not just of laughter, but of joy at the freedom of it. And then The Hollywood Reporter went back and quoted a couple of lines without giving any context at all, and then there was about two weeks of criticism. I mean, why? What are they getting out of it? There are people sitting there who are deliberately waiting for the thrill of being offended.
Wokeism is certainly not the only enemy of creativity. You have talked about the suits, the money people running industries. How do they inhibit creativity?
Because everything they want is the opposite of what the creative people want. They want clarity. Business people, by and large, are very stressed because they're trying to control everything, especially things that they can't really control. And if you talk to body workers like therapists or physiotherapists or chiropractors or osteopaths or any of these people, they will tell you that the hardest people to work on are business people, because they're trying to control the process even when they're being massaged, whereas the easiest people to work on are the creative people because they're used to just letting things happen without trying to control them. You see, when you're playing with your imagination, you shouldn't be trying to control it. You're just seeing where it takes you because there's no such thing as a mistake.
It is very, very nice when people say to me, "Thank you for making me laugh." It always makes me feel good, because laughter is good.
I'll tell you when I realized this. I was at the Sarajevo Film Festival and they were talking about the period when [Bosnians] were under siege. The Serbs up in the hills, because Sarajevo's in a valley, were lobbing shells down. They had snipers, telescopic, shooting people crossing the street. And what they did was they found an underground garage and they converted it into a cinema, and when it got dark, they would all go to this cinema and watch comedy films.
A lot of Monty Python, they told me, but a lot of comedy films, and by the end, when they left the cinema, they felt better. Now, nothing had changed, but they felt better. They could cope with it better. I suddenly realized that laughter really helps us. It takes us to a part of our mind where we're probably healthier than we are at any other time, and it's this thing about laughing at yourself. I'm not so sure that the wokes would ever laugh at themselves, no matter how hilarious they are.
Monty Python originally ran from 1969 to '74?
Yes, and then we started making movies.
How was it received? Because that was a tough time for Britain. Did people appreciate it? How many people were outraged because you were making fun of everything great about Britain?
Some people were outraged by it, yeah. I mean, my mother didn't get it and a lot of the BBC executives didn't get it. I'm not kidding you that there was a meeting after four or five of the shows had been transmitted. There was a meeting of the heads of departments—head of drama, head of news, head of documentaries. They all had a meeting, about nine of them, and six or seven of them basically said, "This Python thing isn't any good and we should cancel it." So something like three-quarters of the top program makers in England thought that we should be discontinued.
I've been up against that all my life, because the people in charge don't know what they're doing. They have no idea what they're doing, but they have no idea that they have no idea what they're doing. And that's the dangerous bit.
In Creativity, you quote William Goldman, the screenwriter who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men, who is famous for saying, in Hollywood, "nobody knows anything," but they all act as if they do.
I now have a speech called "Why There Is No Hope," because when I was writing with this therapist, I got to know him very well and I said to him, "How many people in your profession really know what they're doing?" And he said, "About 10 percent."
I was so intrigued by that. After that, every time I met someone who I suspected was particularly good, I would say to them, "How many people in your…?" The highest I ever got was 20 percent.
Mostly it was 10–15 percent, one or two people who went as low as 5 percent. But why don't the 85 percent get better? Because they don't know they need to. They think they're good already. Do you see what I mean? And if you think you're good enough already, you're not learning.
What was your most memorable Monty Python moment? Did you know that Monty Python and the Holy Grail would have an instant cult following?
No, we had no idea. That's one of the things I have learned: You really never know whether something is going to work or not. Steve Martin once said something to me which reflected my experience. He said, "When you start showing a film, a very strange thing happens. It seems as though the audiences are beginning to like it more and more or less and less." Isn't that weird?
What has been your biggest disappointment? Because you also, in Creativity, talk about how it's not enough to have ideas. You have to test them. You have to put them out in the world.
My daughter once said to me, "Being a comedian is like being a bullfighter," and I said, "What are you talking about?" And she said, "Well, you get such immediate feedback on your performance."
You can go out there on Monday and do a joke you like, and the audience doesn't laugh, and you say, "What a load of ignorant rednecks." Then Tuesday, they don't laugh, and you can still blame the audience. By Wednesday, you've decided it may not be as funny as you thought. So you're always checking it against the audience reaction, because if it doesn't make them laugh and it's intended to, you are getting something wrong, not them.
How would critics and media respond to Life of Brian if it was released today rather than almost 45 years ago?
I don't know. It caused a big, big fuss at the time. When it opened in New York, we were condemned by the liberal Jews and one of the other three Jewish sects, and then we were condemned by the Calvinists, the Catholics, the Lutherans. Altogether, seven churches.
Who all hated each other!
They all told their followers, "Do not go to this film, the central message of which is 'think for yourself.'" But you're right, because [actor] Eric [Idle] said, "We've accomplished something very good. It's the first time in 500 years they've been able to agree on anything."
Is there any way to make politics funny?
You mean funnier? I think the great problem is this: that people—oh, this is going to sound very profound—don't understand the difference between solemnity and seriousness. Now, we can have a perfectly serious chat like we've had now. We're taking things seriously, but it's not been solemn. People think that anything with fun or humor is not serious. No, it's not solemn. You can always have a serious discussion with humor, and because people don't realize the difference, they think that anyone who's a little bit humorous lacks gravity. And I think that's very sad.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.
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