It’s a quirk that, when an actor, comedian or whoever from TV, film, etc becomes one of your favourites, you feel as if you know them, as if you could sit down over a coffee and put the world to rights as you would with any friend. Natural as this may feel, it’s little wonder when the focus of your adulation is not on the same wavelength and this is probably a shock, should you ever actually sit down over that coffee.
Such were my musings last night when I went to catch John Cleese’s one-man show’s brief stop in Scotland. I am a big fan of humour, especially the surreal sort. I recall losing milk teeth as I fell about the floor at the Goon Show, loved the dead-pan-but-hilarious-constant tragedy of Hancock, came of age huddled with flatmates around Monty Python and still rate the brief but brilliant Fawlty Towers as the best sitcom. Ever.
When I think about it, Cleese was my lodestar, the one who made me laugh, irrespective of initial emotional state. No matter that he worked with equally brilliant people like Feldman, the Two Ronnies or the other five Pythons, he was so lankily unmistakable that he didn’t even need to break into a silly walk to make me smile. Not having a family member to cheer me up when the world seemed bleak, he unknowingly filled that need.
So, I sat in J10 with some misgiving that he could not sustain that life-long level of entertainment. But he did not disappoint. With nothing more than an AV screen for support, he gave me 90+ minutes of laughs. Much was nostalgia with which I was familiar—the class sketch from the Frost Show or the fire drill from Fawlty Towers on the AV. But it was the mordantly funny way he told his early life story (“when the Germans bombed Weston, it showed they had a sense of humour: there was nothing in Weston worth as much as the bombs they dropped”) and his brilliant irreverence among friends, as when he he gave the eulogy at Graham Chapman’s funeral as a modification of the parrot sketch because he “knew that Graham would have wanted you to be outraged in his honour” that was new and fresh and different.
Beyond any nostalgia, that’s what made the evening for me: his anything-but-PC iconoclasm that probably reached its peak when he fluently lambasted his (current) ex-wife and her lawyer, with clear contempt for any slander laws applicable in either Scotland or California, over a $20m divorce settlement (“it cost me $350 every time she had to look for her memory pills”). As he has said himself “Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited.”
In a world where an offhand remark can get anyone into media disfavour that deepens in proportion to their fame, where H&S rules and comedians are constrained to beyond the watershed because they can’t be funny without swearing, it was brilliant to witness someone still at the top of his comedic game not give a monkey’s for any of that and give 1,000+ people both barrels.