It’s hard to overstate the importance of the funny group of the British invasion: Monty Python, an absurdist television sketch troupe that developed an American following and inspired generations of comedians and comedy writers. Founding member John Cleese comes to the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts as part of its Distinguished Speakers Series Dec. 9.
Also known for acclaimed comedies like “Fawlty Towers” and “A Fish Called Wanda,” Cleese, 77, was in Texas last week as he was wrapping up a North American tour with his Python partner Eric Idle. Before their show in Dallas, Cleese talked by phone about watching American audiences react with shock to the election of Donald J. Trump, engaging with fans in person and on Twitter, and switching gears from comedy duo to single speaker when he comes to UB.
“I’m very used to both,” he said of performing with and without a partner. “In Buffalo, I’ll be doing something a little more factual. I’ll certainly try to make the audience laugh here and there, but it’s all in the nature of the talk. Once you get into question and answer, you find out what the audience is interested in. Otherwise, you’re slightly shooting in the dark.”
On the phone, Cleese is affable and thoughtful, with the occasional zinger thrown in. It’s similar to his Twitter feed, where he engages with fans - and foes - regularly.
“I rather enjoy it,” Cleese said of Twitter. “I do like the interaction. Most of it’s funny. Occasionally people say nice things (like) I cheer them up at a time when they really needed it.”
That’s the intent behind the handful of Trump jokes in the Idle shows, but Cleese admits they’re not meant to analyze the president-elect. Occasionally Cleese will run into a disgruntled person whom he’s taken to coin “Trumpenproletariats” on Twitter.
Has political satire become as partisan as how the public consumes news? Cleese explained there’s always been a tendency to gravitate to a point of view that confirms your own opinions.
“It happens both ways,” he said. “It gets much worse when you have Fox or the radio station that just gives no other information (from the other side) at all. Then you reach the point where you’ll just believe anything. Very few people are interested in truth, we’re more interested in proving ourselves right. They only read on occasions that make them feel that they’re right. We humans are really not very rational.”
For his own part, Cleese said his personal philosophy decayed rapidly after reading “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He’s also read several other books about probability that has influenced how he views what’s to come.
“We’re always pretending that we’re better informed than we are,” Cleese said. “Reading all these books makes you very skeptical about people’s ability to foretell the future. It’s hard to say whether something is necessarily a good or bad idea. My feeling with Trump is that while he will largely cause people pain, it would be quite interesting to see if some of the right-wing ideas do work. It’s something we don’t know. That’s my attitude, but that doesn’t stop me from making guesses.”
Currently, Cleese is rewriting a 19th century French farce that he wants to debut outside of London and is hopeful of eventually securing shows in the West End. When asked if the legacy of Python intimidates his creative process now, Cleese admits he’s taken many projects over the past decade because of an expensive divorce.
“People will always pay you well to do what you’ve done in the past, but they’re not very keen on paying for something that’s new or uncharted territory,” he said. “That forces you to do the same stuff. I do great speeches on creativity, and I like that, but nobody knows about them. If I want to do something that’s really original, I need a period off without any financial pressures to just sit there and think. You doodle a bit, you have a few ideas, and then you need time to explore it, and you can’t do that if you’re under constant financial pressure. I don’t think I’ve been very creative over the last few years, but it’s because of financial reasons. I’d rather not be performing all the time because there’s a limited attraction to saying the same thing every night.”
Who: John Cleese
Where: University at Buffalo Center for the Arts
When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Dec. 9.