John Cleese on personal growth and creativity

Bullseye

On one of my long-haul bus rides in Mexico, I listened to John Cleese’s interview with Jesse Thorn on MaximumFun.org’s Bullseye Podcast. It was terribly enlightening to listen to a master like him (someone I’ve always admired, anyway) reflect on life, his career and comedy. As a kid, I found Monty Python so hilarious simply because of its ridiculousness so listening to Cleese discuss the anatomy of their humour was a little like discovering a magician’s secrets.

“If somebody’s funny it means that they’re not functioning quite right… [And] I realised early on that if somebody’s going to behave inappropriately it’s more fun when they’re important than when they’re not important.”

Conceptually, Cleese considers himself a proponent of farce. He says the emotional tension leveraged by the genre is what makes him laugh the most. You’ll notice in his work, for example, the running theme of authority figures who are clearly unstable, inept at their job or downright silly – like a comedic treatment of the Peter Principle taken to the nth degree. Ineffective communication is another motif Cleese incorporates into his comedy.

“The greatest farces of all time are like intricate pieces of clockwork. In the first 20 minutes [everything is] established and it’s as though the playwright has wound up the plot which then can kind of – like a spring – [unwind] right through til the end… without introducing any new elements.”

Despite the goofiness, Cleese treats writing comedy as an “intellectual task”. He works hard at maintaining the structural integrity and internal consistency of his jokes, citing the influence of his and fellow Cambridge alumnus Graham Chapman’s scientific training (Cleese has a physics and law background, and Chapman studied medicine).

“Once I got into show business I was so scared of being bad that I used to work rather harder than any of my contemporaries on trying to avoid being bad.”

Cleese also speaks candidly about the unpredictability of the creative process and his relationship with fear of failure. It was comforting to learn how hard he worked to get where he is today, how he pushed through nerves and self-doubt like the rest of us. Amazingly to me, Cleese felt the same way when he read 30 years ago that Claude Monet would wake up every morning with shaky hands, full of nerves “that he wouldn’t be able to do it that day”.

Indeed, this authenticity is a hallmark of the Bullseye Podcast, thanks greatly to host Jesse Thorn’s incisive yet empathetic interview style. Take, for example, the episode’s other interview with Chris Rock. I used to be put off by Rock’s bombastic, in-your-face delivery style but there’s definitely more to the man than vulgarity and shock factor. Like Cleese, Rock reminisces on the late nights and long weeks of hard work he put in to build up his career – did you know he’s also written theatre productions and directed feature films? He also discusses his motivations and future legacy, displaying a profound awareness of both himself and his place in the modern American theatrical landscape. Other episodes feature favourites of mine such as John Oliver, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Big Boi from OutKast.

“You don’t know when it’s going to flow and that’s something that makes you anxious but then you begin to learn that it somehow averages out.”

Learning a foreign language probably doesn’t qualify as an artistic pursuit, but I definitely consider it a creative one in that (1) it’s often a labour of love and (2) extra practice doesn’t always translate directly into noticeable improvement. For this reason, I’d highly recommend The Bullseye Podcast to language learners seeking guidance on what it takes to succeed in personal, long-term projects. That is, the importance of knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and understanding your motivations and what you’re aiming for.

Thanks for reading! Don’t miss a post, hit “Follow Tim Spricht” (right-hand panel) to get me delivered to your inbox. And I appreciate all forms of love – leave a comment below, tweet me @TimSpricht or send me an email at timspricht@gmail.com.

Besides the Bullseye Podcast, John Cleese and Chris Rock, this post was inspired by the various works of actor-writer-director-comedians I’ve been bingeing lately:

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