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John Cleese to America: 'You're raving mad'

Natasha Lindstrom
| Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, 7:06 p.m.
Pittsburghers packed into Heinz Hall in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday for the pithy with of John Cleese, 77, the English actor and writer who co-created the Monty Python comedy troupe, co-wrote the 1988 Academy Award-winning film 'A Fish Called Wanda' and reportedly will appear in the next 'Batman' film.
Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
Pittsburghers packed into Heinz Hall in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday for the pithy with of John Cleese, 77, the English actor and writer who co-created the Monty Python comedy troupe, co-wrote the 1988 Academy Award-winning film 'A Fish Called Wanda' and reportedly will appear in the next 'Batman' film.

English actor and “Monty Python” co-creator John Cleese doesn't hesitate to cite his two biggest pet peeves about Americans.

One is that we named one of our most beloved sports — football — after a body part that only one player on the field at a time can use to make contact with that “egg-shaped, leathery thing.”

The other? That U.S.-based flight attendants almost always seem to emphasize the least important word when making announcements, e.g. “The temperature in San Francisco IS 41 degrees.”

Cleese, 77 — whom The Sun reported Thursday will have “a significant part” in the next “Batman” film — spoke affectionately about his American fans Wednesday night at Heinz Hall in Downtown Pittsburgh as part of Robert Morris University's Pittsburgh Speakers Series .

“If I made them laugh, they have feelings of affection for me — or at least some of them do,” Cleese said. “When I think about “Monty Python,” I think it enables people to escape from the seriousness of the world.”

Here are snippets from the 90-minute talk:

On Trump beating Clinton

Moderator Larry Richert of KDKA Radio posed the question, “So what's the view of our new president from across the pond?”

Cleese replied dryly, “We think you're raving mad.”

The audience erupted into applause and laughter.

“And I'm saying that in part to make people laugh a bit, but it does seem crazy for us. We simply don't understand it,” Cleese continued. “But I'm fascinated by it because I had no idea how much Hillary was disliked.

“You know, I mean, I never liked her. Seriously. I tried to like her, but I didn't like her,” Cleese said to more clapping. “But I didn't really realize the degree of the dislike.

“And that sort of partly explains it. Because I think the Democrats chose just about the only person in America who wouldn't have beaten (President Donald) Trump.”

On being ‘partisan'

When asked about Trump's latest headline-making tweets, Cleese belted out a contagious spate of cackles spanning a solid 15 seconds.

“It does seem to be very, very strange that (Trump) claims that there were a million and a half people at the inauguration when there seems to be no basis for this at all.

“Everyone's examined ... the photographs, they've looked at the number of people on the Washington subway, there's nothing that backs this up at all, and yet the most important and powerful man in the world says there were a million and a half people there.

“To which the only answer is: No, there weren't.”

Cleese said a Trump supporter earlier that night accused him of being “partisan” for making such statements.

“Well, I don't think that's the right use of the word partisan,” Cleese argued. “It's not only that you can be loyal to a person or a group, you can also be loyal to certain principles.”

Cleese, who studied law at Cambridge University and has authored two books on psychology, said “as someone who was trained in science and law, I was taught that it was important if you make a statement you could produce some evidence to justify it.”

“It makes you wonder if democracy works at all,” Cleese said. “Because a democracy is based on an intelligent and well-informed electorate — and we don't have one.”

On filming ‘Holy Grail'

“We were in Scotland in March. It was just horrendous,” Cleese said of the rain-soaked, dreary time filming the 1975 box office hit with a still-devoted cult following, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” “We made the whole movie for 230,000 pounds (less than $400,000). We had nothing. We didn't even have enough umbrellas.”

The coconut halves mimicking galloping sounds in the movie's iconic opening scene? Comedic gold only in hindsight; they were a makeshift solution to not having money to use real horses.

Cleese nearly quit before filming had finished.

Then one night after shooting, he sipped a glass of wine from a bottle of French white burgundy that he says “was worth making ‘Holy Grail' to discover.”

On why Queen Elizabeth hasn't knighted him

“Because I'm a very naughty person,” Cleese said.

He noted people in England have mixed feelings about whether the monarchy should be abolished. He considers the royals to be “harmless.”

“I could've been a life peerage once,” he added, “but it was explained to me that I had to live in England in the winter, and it just wasn't worth it.”

On link between creativity, emotions

When asked why so many comedians seem to grapple with depression, Cleese said he thinks there's a stronger correlation between mental health challenges and creativity.

“Anything completely new comes from the unconscious,” Cleese said. He said he finds creative people tend to be better in touch with intense emotional feelings. “If too much of it comes up, if they can't control how much comes up, then they run into all sorts of problems.”

On (not) smoking pot

Cleese has a hunch that a significant segment of “Monty Python” fans watch his work while taking marijuana. He pondered aloud whether smoking weed makes his sketches funnier.

Cleese said he's never been into marijuana, and he makes it a point to perform while sober to stay sharp.

“Anything in the arts that's very good is achieved through precision,” he said.

On not giving up on love

Cleese, who's been married four times, told the audience, “I'm happy to say at the grand old age of 77, I have finally found true love.”

He credited his wife since 2012, English jewelry designer Jennifer Wade, as having “the most glorious sense of humor.”

He added, “We have discovered the secret to happiness: Don't have children.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or

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