"I regard Newt Gingrich as the architect of this terrible, paranoid situation," John Cleese says, unprompted, about our current political climate when I catch up with him to discuss his current tour with fellow former Monty Python member Eric Idle, what comes next, and his take on the current state of politics. "When Gingrich was the Speaker of the House, he said that there could be no friendships across the aisle, and I think that, combined with Fox News, are the two most harmful things that have happened to America in the past 20 years."
Cleese is calling from Vancouver and the "very, very nice" tour bus he's sharing with Idle as they travel across the West Coast on their tour, dubbed Cleese and Idle: Together Again at Last… For the Very First Time, which will wind its way across the Southwest and end in New Orleans on December 3rd. When we speak, the celebrated actor, author and comedian has just celebrated his 77th birthday, but as our conversation unfolds, it becomes clear that he's as busy as ever, with no sign of stopping.
ESQ: Well, John, happy birthday. What did you do to celebrate?
Cleese: Nothing at all. I just had a drink with Eric after our show. It was my fourth year in a row on the road for my birthday. But we're going to celebrate it properly in a few days time, when we get to San Francisco, when we have a night off. But when I turned 77 yesterday, I was able to shake hands with Eric on stage, because we had reached a combined age of 150! That was something, and very nice, indeed.
When I was with you and the other Pythons in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival a few years ago, we all went to see the screening of Holy Grail, but you and Eric went off to dinner. I've always wondered, is that when you hatched the idea for this tour?
No, it wasn't. It came about because when I was in L.A., publicizing my book, So Anyway, I rang him up and said, "Well, I've got to do some publicity, and I'm doing an interview in Pasadena, can you come along and just talk to me?" And he was very happy to do that. When he arrived, he said to me, "Well, what are we going to talk about?" And I said, "I haven't the slightest idea, let's just go on and see where we go!" And we had such a good time, and the audience had such a good time, that thought stayed with us. But it was not until about several months later that I was talking to a mutual friend of ours and I said how it was so easy doing that show with Eric, and that it would be great to do some kind of tour with him, and he said, "I think Eric's thinking the same thing." So I rang him up and he said, "Well, why not?"
I mean, the Pythons can never tour again. Michael doesn't want to, Terry's having memory problems, which of course we knew about before it was made public, and Terry Gilliam is the worst actor in the world—apart from his grotesques, which are sublime—so we thought, there's no reason we can't go out. We've got plenty to talk about. But people basically are coming because they want to laugh, and we want to make them laugh as much as we can, and that's certainly happening. But you've reminded me, when Eric and I went off that night in New York, well, yes, we did say, "What are we going to do?" And we basically realized that if Mike Palin didn't change his mind, there wasn't going to be any more shows with Python.
Was there a lot of pressure to do more shows after the O2 reunion? It seemed as though it went so well, there must have been a lot of money on the table and pressure to do more.
After the O2, and when offers came in from Australia and America, I certainly took them seriously. But when we decided to do the O2, I didn't realize that Terry had memory problems. I didn't notice it at that point. But by the time we came to do the show in the summer of 2014, quite early on, in rehearsal the first day, he said, "Look, I'm having some memory problems." But we were all forgetting our words, so we started finding ways of putting little bits of dialogue where he could read them, and we had teleprompters put in, which were useful for us all—particularly during the first three performances, before you get to remember what's coming next. So we got him through the shows and made jokes about it—not the fact that he had problems, but that he'd got the lines wrong. And the audience loved that. But then we had a meeting afterwards, and one or two of us said, "Are we going to do more shows? Because we're getting some very good offers." Michael said that he didn't really want to do any more shows and he didn't want to bring the Python show from the O2 to America.
We always had the idea that if somebody didn't want to do something, we weren't going to press them. But then we had a dinner, and I noticed Terry said very little. And then he let us know that there was a problem and that dementia had been diagnosed, and now he's made a public announcement about it. But he's physically fit, and goes for long walks, and he still loves his food and his wine and all that. He takes it all in, but it's hard for him to communicate properly. So when Michael Palin, his oldest and greatest friend, comes around, then, well, you know Michael, he does 99% of the talking. So that's Terry's very own private hell. [Laughs]
The thing about this stage of our career is that if people don't like you, then they don't come.
How's the tour going so far?
It's going terribly well, the audiences just love it. But, you see, the thing about this stage of our career is that if people don't like you, then they don't come. The audience is pre-selected to be friendly. It's not for people who don't know our work. The people who do buy tickets are very in tune with the kinds of references that we make. They're interested in people like Michael Palin and Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam and, of course, Graham Chapman, which they wouldn't be if they weren't fans. So it's a total fan's show, and they absolutely love it. And we're getting extraordinary receptions and very, very big crowds.
You toured the Southeast with Eric last year. Is the current show similar, or have you changed it up?
It's very different, and I've got to give kudos to Eric for that, because he had some wonderful ideas to develop things and change them up. The show we did last year was very successful, but the second half was me coming out and being funny for 20 minutes and Eric coming out and doing his songs for 20 minutes and then a Q&A. The audiences were very, very happy, but Eric said to me afterwards, "You know, actually the second half, it just becomes cabaret. The first half is about our relationship, and how we got to know each other and what we did and all that, so we can totally retool the second half." So now the second half goes through the breaking up of Python, or at least Python television, which takes us then into the Holy Grail film. Then we work our way through our careers: I talk about Fawlty Towers, Eric talks about shows he did, particularly very funny one he did with George Harrison, The Rutles, and then we move on to Life of Brian, and then Meaning of Life and then A Fish Called Wanda, and then we talk about Graham's death and, after we talk about Graham's death, we show the tribute in Aspen. Then we go into the O2 and wind up with a couple of Eric's newest songs. So it's very different from the second half last time around, and honestly it's more interesting.
Well, you haven't come to the Northeast yet, and there are certainly a lot of Python fans here. Do you have plans to get here soon?
Eric and I were talking about it last night and there's no question it'll happen sometime, but it might be 2018, because we both have so much going on in the next year.
Well, what else are you working on? Have you made any headway on the next volume of your memoirs?
I haven't gotten anywhere, because I haven't had time. My life is still surprisingly busy. If you just take right now, I have just been publicizing and co-directing a stage version of Fawlty Towers in Australia. I'm about to do an advertising campaign in England to do with the fact that the banks have stolen so much money by fraudulent representation schemes, and I'm trying to help people get their money back. I just agreed to do a sitcom with the BBC. There's apparently been some changes there, and I'm told there are now two people who know what they're doing, which is the first time in 20 years that's occurred. So I'm doing that probably in the spring. And there's a French farce that I've adapted for the stage that we're going to do a three-week production of next year in England, and we're hoping to bring that to the West End. Also, I've got a screenplay that a lot of people are interested in. I've also got 14 speeches in 16 days in the northeast in January, and then six more in the middle of March, scattered all over the bloody place—Palm Springs and Alaska included. So there's an enormous amount going on. I'm much busier than one would think at 77. I want to get down to the book, but I want to get down to it when I'm pretty uninterrupted, and it'll be a bit of time before I can do that.
When we began our conversation, and we were catching up, we were talking about the presidential race. How closely are you following things and what do you make of all of it?
Well, it looked as though at one stage after the debates that Hillary was running away with it. Now it appears to be closer. But maybe that's just a way of keeping people switched on to their televisions. I do follow FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver's site, which I think is solid gold. I think it's genius. But the extraordinary thing is neither Eric nor I have ever met a Trump voter. And, you know, if I could meet a Trump voter, I might understand it better. But I think what's happened is that they've become so distrustful of the media that they pay no attention at all to any of the information.
Well, Trump is out there today talking about the election being rigged. What do you make of that?
I know that the Republicans are saying that it's all rigged, but, I must say, I watch CNN, and I think that the people on CNN, and in the media in general, are fundamentally decent human beings, and they realize what a total disaster it would be if Trump was elected. But then you've got Fox on the other side. Of course there's a little truth in what that side is saying, but when you line up the people that are connected with Trump: Chris Christie, Rudy Guiliani, Roger Ailes. These are some of the most utterly corrupt and disgusting, power-hungry creatures to be found anywhere on the planet, and they're all there on Trump's side. I find it incomprehensible that anyone would support him. But here's the thing: Politicans lie, at some stage and sometimes. A couple of hundred years ago some English ambassador was described as an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country. So I can forgive them for a certain amount of lying. It's inevitable. I understand it. But there's not an honest word that comes out of Donald Trump's mouth as far as I can tell.
I suppose when people get angry—and people are certainly very angry—they identify with someone who's also angry.
So how do you account for his appeal?
I suppose when people get angry—and people are certainly very angry—they identify with someone who's also angry. But I'm not clear what points are being made in what Trump says, except that globalization can have some really harmful effects on employment and that a degree of protectionism is a viable option. I'm not desperately in favor of free trade all the time in all circumstances, so I would be sympathetic to that. But I just don't understand the appeal of [the rest of what he says]. And I just don't understand why the Clinton email thing was covered the way it was in the media, over and over, and that it was considered to be so important. I just don't understand that at all.
So you're with her?
Well, I was thinking today that the way I would put it is like this: Do you want someone running the United States who is basically in touch with reality, or do you want someone who isn't in touch with reality at all? I think the bigger point is that when Hillary lies, she knows she's lying, and I can accept that. But when Trump lies, he actually believes it because he is delusional.