My favourite comedians #6: John Cleese

Quite frankly, I’m surprised it took six of these posts before I finally mentioned one of the Monty Python troupe, but there you go. Better late than never.

After achieving success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and on the television show The Frost Report, John Cleese became a member of Monty Python in the late 1960s – the comedy group who would go on to make four television series and four films all of which changed the world of comedy forever. Each of the members of Monty Python brought something different to the show and films. Cleese had a great ability at juggling both slapstick and more intellectual based humour. The former was added to by the fact that he is quite remarkably tall (the infamous Silly Walks sketch comes to mind here), and he was great at just acting downright silly, such as in this famous clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

But then, many of his most loved sketches involved both his verbosity and his ability to come across as, well, rather snobby actually. Take for instance this sketch, the merchant banker sketch from the television series of Monty Python, in which he pretends to be a rich banker so caught up in his own wealth he doesn’t understand the concept of donating to charity:

In the mid 1970s, as the Monty Python group stopped their television series but achieved a greater worldwide success with their films, John Cleese went on to co-create a sitcom with his then wife Connie Booth, called Fawlty Towers – in which he played the constantly angry and bumbling  owner of a hotel. His character, Basil Fawlty, is perhaps one of the funniest characters in fictional comedy history, and is supported by a superb cast of other various misfits through the twelve episodes of this show. One of my favourite moments is when a fire breaks out in the hotel and he struggles to cope with the whole situation, descending into total panic and chaos:

In the 1980s, he starred in a number of films, most notably A Fish Called Wanda. Then sadly, at the end of the decade, fellow Python Graham Chapman passed away, which drew the remaining members of the group back together in mourning. What I have always thought is one of the most wonderful things, however, is the eulogy Cleese gave at Chapman’s funeral – outrageous, but hilarious, and exactly what Chapman would have wanted. Check out this short two minute snippet of it:

Over the last couple of decades John Cleese has appeared in a number of films, including two of the Harry Potter films and three of the Shrek films. He has also taken to the stage again, performing a tour around the world in the last couple of years. I’m going to end this post though with a clip from a film that is often forgotten about – Rat Race. In this film Cleese plays an eccentric billionaire (reminscent of his Python days), who sets up a race between six randomly selected people in his casino to a certain location where a large amount of money is held, entirely for the entertainment of his fellow gambling billionaires who are betting on who will get there first. It’s a little hit and miss, but overall very funny, and I think Cleese is brilliant, especially in this scene where he tries to explain the rules to the contestants:

What are your thoughts on John Cleese? Do you find him funny in any of his roles? Any particular favourites?

10 thoughts on “My favourite comedians #6: John Cleese

  1. I enjoyed John Cleese in his early roles and as a family we were totally addicted to Fawlty Towers and used to play the whole series on New years eve’s when we were in the Middle East and other entertainment was in short supply. I am not so keen on him now I have to admit and I didn’t like him at all in the Bond films. Yes, brilliant in his day but not so much now I don’t think – ‘course that’s only my humble opinion. 🙂

    • I agree, his earlier stuff, particularly Python and Fawlty, are his best moments in comedy. I found his recent stand-up a bit average – it had its funny moments, but it wasn’t consistently funny. But he certainly has influenced comedy in a profound way, that can’t be denied! 🙂

  2. Hubby & I have always liked Monty Python & Fawlty Towers due in large part to Cleese’s characters. I have seen bits & pieces of Rat Race while Hubby is flicking through channels during commercials, so we usually catch it mid-stream. I think we’ll have to get it on DVD, eventually, although Hubby isn’t a fan of ‘Mr. Bean’. (Personally, I think he’s such a weird little man, but I do enjoy his sketches) 🙂

    • It’s funny – a lot of the world think of Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean (and his other more slapstick performances such as that in Rat Race are compared to this), but as I grew up watching him in Blackadder I tend to think of his sarcastic side to his humour a lot more, and it’s his ability to jump between the two that really impresses me. Rat Race is definitely worth watching – not a life changing good movie, but fun enough!
      But back to Cleese, I agree that he brings something special to Monty Python (although all six of them did I guess). The fourth and last series of the TV show didn’t have John Cleese (though of course he came back for the movies and live shows), and it was definitely not as good as the first three series.

      • I’ve been told by a good friend that the Black Adder series is quite good, but I have not yet had the chance to see it. I might just have to borrow my friend’s copy and sit down to a marathon, to see what I think. 🙂

        • Ahhh yes, you have to watch all four series though. The first series, while it has a bigger budget, is not actually that funny (although Brian Blessed is hilarious in it). It was the second series, set in Elizabethan England with Miranda Richardson playing an insane version of the Queen, that the series really became brilliant (and also from this series onwards that Blackadder himself had a brain and was more conniving). My favourite series is probably the fourth, set in WWI. Let me know what you think, at any rate. 🙂

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