Apologies to all, this is VERY first drafty and I’ll hopefully clean it up soon but I have to get back to NaNoWriMo-ing.
The recent O2 shows for Monty Python’s Flying Circus had the subtitle of One Down, Five to Go referring to the deceased Graham Chapman. Graham was the only Python I had seen live and that was back in the late 80s when Graham was promoting “The Dangerous Sports Club.” On Tuesday night I got to see my second Python live, John Cleese. John was promoting his autobiography “So Anyways” and appeared at the Tivoli Theater in downtown Downers Grove courtesy of Anderson’s Books.
Winter sort of started that day. It was Veterans Day and being a government employee meant I had the day off but the cold prevented me from wanting to go out. That and I wanted to get ahead on my NaNoWriMo-ing as I was planning to go out the next night as well. [I wrote enough of a cushion that I only need to write about 600 words today to stay on track.] I considered going to see Interstellar which would get out with enough time for me to easily make it but I decided I did not want to spend more than 6 hours in theater seats, no matter how comfortable they were so I left close to 6PM hoping to get there around 6:30 with rush hour traffic. I arrived and found no parking in the immediate area so I parked at the public library (still very close) but just south of the train tracks with the Tivoli Theater being just north and a block east.
It was cold. Not really but it was a good first cold and it was windy, adding to the cold. I found a spare stocking hat in my trunk but no gloves and headed over. The line went out the door. The line was for will-call tickets which I had. It moved steadily but still took about 15 minutes to get in. There I claimed my tickets, retrieved my books, grabbed a drink and found a seat about 1/3 of the way back and to the side. I got two books in case Pat was going to be able to join me but he couldn’t — we never did work out if he wanted a book though I’m sure I can find many people who wouldn’t mind getting an autographed John Cleese book as a gift.
In the theater there was a man playing an organ and two chairs with an end table between them and some bottles of water. We would applaud the organist after every song but everyone applauded louder when he started to sink into the stage. One of the Andersons from Anderson’s Bookshop introduced John Howard (I’m not really sure if that was his name but I’m sure about the Howard part) who was an extra in Life of Brian and a comedian in his own right. He introduced John Cleese to a standing ovation as the organist played the portion of Sousa’s Liberty Bell that served as the theme song for the Monty Python’s Flying Circus television show.
John Cleese’s father originally had the surname “Cheese” but was so tired of being teased about it changed the H to an L when he enlisted and became a “Cleese.” That’s why it’s rare to meet a Cleese as it’s not a proper name. John only had daughters and they both changed their names but one of his daughters was a comedian and performs using the stage name Camilla Cleese. She was performing the next night in Chicago but Howard quickly informed everyone it was sold out.
John’s mother was born in 1899 and died in 2000, spanning the entirety of the 20th Century. She was a very simple woman who feared everything and did not have common knowledge mainly due to her fearing everything. He told a story of how he and his wife served her quail eggs but she was unaware of the tiny things so John lied, claiming they were mole eggs that he and his wife gathered by the light of the full moon which is when the moles lay their eggs near the entrance of their burrows to which she told him “oh, that’s nice.” John continued by explaining how his mother would complain about all the things she was afraid of and what worried her and how she thought she was going to die.
The Mother Story
For her birthday she was spending a week with John in London. Instead of having to spend a long depressing Sunday night with her, listening to her describe all the ways she was going to die, I decided I would find something else to do. I recalled the Royal Shakespeare Company would be reading poetry in a few weeks and wouldn’t she like to go? “Oh no, I don’t like poetry,” was her reply but I mentioned she went to poetry readings all the time and she told me “that was for the sherry.” Now she was a fan of Peter Bridell [Author's Note: I'm not sure if this was the actor's name but it's the one I'm using] and I decided I’d trick her by telling her at some point in the programme they were going to load Peter Bridell into a cannon and fire him across the stage into a net. She said she liked Peter Bridell very much and that she would go. I was able to procure good seats in the very front.
Now three weeks pass and we go to see the Royal Shakespeare Company read poetry except I had got it wrong; they were not reading poetry but the diaries of Argentinian prisoners. The evening was turning out to be even more depressing than listening to my mother explain the ways in which she expected to die! At intermission I asked if she wanted to go but, to my surprise, she wanted to stay. So we stayed. The actors continued their readings and at some point she leaned over and whispered to me “When are they going to fire Peter Bridell out of a canon?” [At this point the audience can not stop laughing but John continued.] It had been three weeks and I forgot all about what I had told her to get her to go the theater and I found it so ridiculous I just burst out laughing. This, of course, was in the front row of the theater, in plain sight of the actors reading the diaries of war victims.
John performed in Chicago for bit in Hyde Park. It was there a fortune teller told him he was both creative and logical, which John believes he is. This was one of the reasons he was such a good comedian. John wanted to find a passage about Latin and math in his book and told Howard “Why don’t you say something while I try and find it?” Howard started to tell as story and was interrupted by John, “I’ve found it, you can shut up now.” John pointed out the cheap joke at his friend’s expense and of course let him finish his story.
John tried to explain comedy. Comedy is not appropriate comes down to 1) when something goes wrong or 2) when someone acts out of character.
He talked about religion and how weird a pope would appear to Christ with the fancy robes and hat. He discussed a character that did not get into Python, Vice Pope Eric who understood that when you teach a gospel of poverty, humility and penitence, you need a very rich and powerful organization to do it. He ended this talk of religion with the notion “An idea is not responsible for the people who hold it.”
The Michael Palin Prank
I got a call asking if Michael Palin and I would do something. Michael was doing one of his [big yawn] travel shows in Finland. I knew where he was staying and I called asking for him. While I waited for Michael to answer, I realized he had no idea where the caller was or who was calling so when Michael answered I said:
John [doing Finnish accent]: Hello? Is this Michael Palin?
Michael Palin: Yes
John: I Jorgen Svenhurst from the Finnish bureau of television and was wondering if I could interview you.
Michael told me that he was on a very busy schedule and that he was leaving in the morning and would not be able to do an interview tomorrow.
John: Oh, it is not for tomorrow. It is for today.
Michael: I’m sorry?
John: Yes, we are down in the lobby right now with a television crew. Would you please come down for an interview?
Michael explained how he was in his pajamas and not able to do so but I pressed on.
John: The Finnish viewers will take your dress as a sign of respect. They like pajamas.
Michael had finally had enough and refused throwing in some terse words
John: Oh please, it is for a program about one of the greatest comedians that has ever lived: Mr John Cleese [And John stops doing the Finnish accent and uses his real voice] and as one of his helpers we would like to hear what you have to say about him.
Michael laughed for two whole minutes.
One of John’s big regrets was not pranking Michael when he could have. When Michael was doing his [big yawn] Around the World in 80 days, John worked it out with the producer to prank Michael. John would to go the last stop, Singapore, and when Michael was filming he would walk across the background. He would then walk back in frame, look at the camera and come up to Michael. He would then tell him he was doing a program called Around the World in 79 days!
John was asked if he knew Douglas Adams and said not really but mentioned the second time he met him (which was shortly after the first) Douglas wore 4-inch risers and towered over John. Hammond added a story of when John and his wife lived in Burbank his wife had issues with her computer and when Hammond couldn’t figure it out she said, “who knows about computers? Douglas Adams!” And she called up Douglas Adams to fix her computer.
On the Python reunion he talked about how the Gumby sketch was axed in rehersals because everyone thought it was funny. During the third O2 show Eddie Izzard who did some onstage work with them had cut his head or ear and was bleeding profusely. John had spotted him while in the middle of a sketch and totally flubbed his lines. Afterwards he apologized to Eddie and was told that the mistakes made it better. Everyone watching knows the sketches much better than any of the Pythons and getting them right or wrong didn’t matter. He realized the shows were a way of fans saying thanks to them. John then decided he would, not necessarily intentionally, but intentionally mess up. Terry Jones had issues remembering all the horrible things to be said in the “Crunchy Frog” sketch and had a list in the box he could read. On one night, John took the list and read them for him. At the Tivoli, John proceeded to rattle them all off without issue.
John talked about the Daily Mail and their long standing hatred of him. For the release of “So, Anyway…” they attacked his book but got a professor to do it to lend credence. Researching the reviewer, John discovered he was a professor of criminology at Birmingham College which was until recently a polytechnic. The reviewer said it was too “self involved” but his daughter loved that because self-invloved is what an autobiography should be.
A question about comedy had the response that audiences will tell you if you’re funny, though some places are more difficult than others. He talked about how comedians steal. In art, one is influenced, but in comedy, you steal.
John talked about meeting the Dalai Lama and why he’s always laughing. Laughter allows you to be open to new ideas. It allows you to relax. You cannot be tense or fearful when laughing.
John talked about the origins of Fawlty Towers which was a hotel in New Zealand(? wherever) run by a very small man who, unlike Basil Fawlty, was angry all the time. He was clearly of the opinion that he could run this hotel properly if it weren’t for the guests. John noted this small man was henpecked by his very large wife and that dynamic went into Fawlty Towers. When John revealed the source, after the man retired, the Daily Mail in their effort to attack John, searched out this manager and asked him about the show. The man refused to talk to them but the tracked down his daughter and showed her Fawlty Towers to which she said, “that’s my dad.”
John was asked what his Spirit Animal would be which sent murmurs through the crowd, perhaps in anticipation of John verbally attacking the questioner, but he pondered it for a comedically long time and then answered “Lemurs” as he had a species of Lemur named after him. He then promptly changed his answer to “stuffed animals” because he and his wife were the only people he knew who both obsessed over stuffed animals. John found them wonderful and comical leading me to believe he was referring to the carnival prize type of stuffed animal and not the taxidermy stuffed animal.
He talked about the Holy Grail. How there was only so much hot water in the hotels and how everyone would rush back because only a few people could get warm baths after a day of shooting. He also told a story of how Terry Gilliam, who had only directed little pieces of paper at this point, was perhaps a bit too big for his director’s hat in one instance where Michael Palin had to eat prop mud which was edible but still tasted horrible. Terry would call cut almost immediately after Michael ate the mud and eventually Michael refused, yelling at cursing at Terry.
John ended the night with he and Hammond reading a sketch which was written by John and Graham Chapman and John felt was the precursor to Python. He left to a standing ovation but the Tivoli would then be playing Holy Grail for anyone who stayed. I didn’t.
It was still cold outside and you know how I mentioned I parked on the other side of the tracks? A freight train just started to cross as I reached the tracks and I stood out there for a good five (maybe more?) minutes.