You’ve seen the movie. If, for some reason, you haven’t seen it, you’ve surely heard it. Since its 1975 release, Monty Python and the Holy Grail has become a beloved classic by both fans of the madcap British comedy troupe as well as critics. Taking the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and their quest for the elusive holy grail, and then spinning it through a series of absurd vignettes, Holy Grail is a former-cult film fave that’s now considered a 20th-century comedy masterpiece.
Written by and starring the Python sextet of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, Holy Grail is a crazed twisting of the reverent into the ribald, as King Arthur and his bumbling knights get themselves in a series of medieval mishaps. Like much of Python’s other work, Holy Grail combines the informed erudition of the academic with the mischievous smirk of a sly schoolboy, once again cutting class.
Furthering the legacy of Holy Grail, some 30 years later Idle reworked the film’s story into a smash Broadway musical. Directed by Mike Nichols, over the course of 1,500 performances, Spamalot won three Tony awards, was seen by two million people, and raked in a whopping $175 million.
Fans of the Holy Grail film have a near-automatic response to the movie’s dialogue, which, depending on your affinities, can be endearing or aggravating. A mere mention of the film usually evokes at least one: “Now go away or I will taunt you a second time … what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? …” and, of course, “It is the rabbit!” A few dozen more lines from the flick are usually at the ready for any unsuspecting passerby.
Few other comedies, The Big Lebowski notwithstanding, have generated a similarly fervent loyalty, let alone millions of people who can recite the film’s entire script on demand.
In the decades since Holy Grail was released, Cleese (Sir Lancelot the Brave, among other characters, in the movie) has enjoyed a particularly varied and fruitful career.
In the mid-to-late-’70s, Cleese co-created and starred in the BBC comedy series Fawlty Towers, where he portrayed the much-put-upon proprietor of a seaside hotel. Cleese has starred in more then 60 films since Holy Grail, perhaps most famously as Archie Leach in 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda. A truly eclectic man, Cleese is as vocal about his far-left political leanings as he is of his penchant for the protection of lemurs. He’s even co-authored two self-help books regarding relationships. All that being said, what other comedian has portrayed a civil servant in The Ministry of Silly Walks and served as Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where, for the first time in 500 years, Cleese initiated a policy that gave the students direct access and representation to policies affecting them? The answer, by the way, is ‘no one.’
This week, following a screening of Holy Grail, Cleese appears at The Florida Theatre for a Q&A between him and the audience. How many questions will hope to unravel the arcane mysteries of The Knights Who Say “Ni! is anyone’s guess. But we imagine at least eight.
John Cleese was kind enough to agree to Folio Weekly’s mawkish request for an interview. What follows is a transcription of our lovely chat.
Folio Weekly: So tell me about this screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and your appearance there. What will that entail exactly?
John Cleese: When it was suggested to me, I was very skeptical about it. But I said, “It sounds perfectly pleasant, so let’s give it a whirl.” And it does work; it works surprisingly well. We show the film, and then I wander on stage. We usually have some local radio person-and radio is much better than television-since I don’t always go into rational places [chuckles] and radio always does a deeper interview. And of course, they’ll mention it on their radio show, which helps to sell the tickets, and they are my little bridge to the audience. Then they’ll interview me and that’s always fun. And then we open it up and have the audience ask me questions. So that last part usually lasts from an hour to an hour-and-a-half. It’s quite long. Then we take a two-hour break. [Laughs.] The people who want to leave at that point can slip away nicely, and then we continue.
How has it been for you interacting with the audiences?
Well, we never know where it’s going to go. It might get cheeky or a little rude. Sometimes it’s about Trump, sometimes it’s about what offends people, sometimes it’s about religion … so we never know. I’d very much like to do the same thing with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which I think would be very interesting. Anything to do with religion is very strange, and I do think that by and large they got it backwards. I’d like to do a TV show called What Would Religion Be If the Churches Hadn’t Screwed It Up?
I agree. [Laughs.] Burning down Alexandria was the church’s first sermon.
That’s right. And that wasn’t even at the behest of the Republican Party. [Laughs.]
Out of all of the films, Holy Grail in particular has developed its own religious-like devotion. The writing and performances are brilliant, but the writing and performances in Life of Brian are equally brilliant. Why do you think Holy Grail remains such a fan favorite?
I don’t really know. You see, the English prefer Life of Brian and Americans prefer Holy Grail and I can’t quite tell you why. People have suggested that it’s partly because religion is a touchy subject in America and people don’t feel comfortable with Life of Brian. But I have to tell you I don’t know. But I do think the first 50 minutes of it [Holy Grail] are terribly good; but I don’t think the second half of it is as good. I find the ending a little bit overblown; but that’s the problem when you throw Terry Gilliam in there. [Laughs.] It’s a series of sketches really, but they aren’t always very, very funny sketches. But there isn’t much of a plot. When Eric [Idle] did Spamalot, he produced a much better plot. The fact that God told him to make a Broadway musical version was a great idea, because it was much better than the original film. [Laughs.] But you see, it’s a great thing for me to go out in front of an audience who are going to be really friendly. I mean, nobody says, “I Cleese; let’s go out and buy six tickets.” So it’s almost pre-selected of people who’ll not only like me, but also like the kind of humor that we used. If I forget anything to do with the movie, they know it better than me anyway, so they can prompt me. So I have a very short distance to fall, if you will.
It seems like Python and much of your personal work is driven by this kind of absurdist, dark comedy. What do you find compelling about that style?
I think there is something going on somewhere deep in my mind, and I wouldn’t say it’s entirely unconscious, but much of it’s unconscious, that was always there but was never clear. But I just love to laugh and it’s very absurd things that make me laugh. And I don’t have a particularly good memory, but I can remember certain things that people said, that I thought were witty, from 60 years ago with no trouble at all. I can remember the phrasing. I can remember reading Ambrose Bierce, defining a coward as, “One who, in a perilous emergency, thinks with his legs.” I filed away that one. So there was something in me that was looking for humor. But I’ve slowly come to a very different conclusion; which is that it might sound surprising, that emotionally, the world is much, much madder than I ever realized. And I think that when we realize how deeply insane and irrational it is … it’s almost a release. I’m doing a show now called Why There Is No Hope and it makes people laugh a great deal and they come out much more cheerful than when they went in, having lost hope.
Having that realization, and of being your age and in the world this long-as both a humorist and person-has that knowledge made you more aware than bitter?
No, I think resignation is the word. When I feel bitter, I feel bitter about very selfish people in the world. There’s a wonderful book out called Assholes: A Theory and if you come across it you must read it. It’s written by a philosopher at UC Irvine named Aaron James-and the book explains the definition of a true asshole. He says, “What do we mean when we call someone an ‘asshole’?” It’s very interesting, because you start realizing that there are some people you don’t like, but they’re not assholes. But you know, Trump is a quintessential asshole because he doesn’t give a damn for anyone else’s feelings. He is privileged, he knows he’s privileged, and if anybody challenges his privilege, he gets angry about it, because he’ll tell everyone on the planet that he really is a special person because he doesn’t have to obey the normal rules like the rest of us do. Aaron James puts it nicely; he says we all have a birthday, when everyone is nice to us. They call us up, they give us little cards and presents, they buy us drinks, etc. But an asshole thinks it’s his birthday 365 days a year. Sound familiar? These people in charge make far more money than they could ever use, and yet they still want more. And people who cling on to power have one aim in life and that’s to cling on to that power as long as they can. So when you realize how many of these complete assholes are really in charge, you have to wonder, how can this be a functioning democracy? For example, in the last American election, how do you have two of the most roundly disliked people in the nation running? The answer is, it’s all hopeless because nothing works. [Laughs.]
I’ve spoken to some comedians and they don’t want to talk about politics. But I think that especially now, true humorists have an obligation to talk about the current American political landscape.
I think I agree with you. But the trouble is that when someone is in charge as totally insane as Trump, it’s almost like he’s too easy of a target. It’s hard to say anything new about him. It was quite clear to me from the very, very beginning that he doesn’t give a damn for anyone else. He’s never taken any notice of any rules in his life. At least Hillary respected the rules well enough to just cheat. [Laughs.] Trump never cared that there were rules there in the first place. They’ve elected somebody with the emotional temperament of maybe a five-year-old. He’s never read a book and then they expect this man to run the country. How mad could they be? And the answer is that on the one hand, people just hate Washington, D.C. so much, which I don’t think is a bad position to take, and on the other hand, you have very, very rich people who are afraid you might tax some of their giant piles of money. [Laughs.] If you didn’t laugh at it, you’d cry. Do you see what I mean? But if you do laugh, I think it’s quite possible to get on and have a fairly decent life. I think it was Bertrand Russell who once said, “It isn’t until you realize how bad the world is until you really begin to enjoy it.”