by Hans ten Cate
Monday, 18 January 1999

The January 22 issue of Entertainment Weekly reported that John Cleese had accepted a position as visiting professor at Cornell University. The legendary comedian will conduct seminars on psychology, comic acting, and his film A Fish Called Wanda.

John Cleese will hold office hours in the historic Andrew Dickson White House on Cornell's central campus

John's status as visiting professor at Cornell is confirmed on the Cornell University website, where this bit of news was quietly entered into the university computers last month, on December 14. He will be "Professor at Large" at Cornell until 2004 and will have an office in the Andrew Dickson White House, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Cornell's first six presidents lived there but today it houses the Society for the Humanities and offices for visiting scholars, poets, and playwrights.

"I've always enjoyed teaching," Cleese told Entertainment Weekly. "Putting information across in an invigorating way is one of the most effective things I do." True enough. John Cleese does, in fact, have a few years teaching experience, has lectured extensively, and is known for having started a very profitable company selling business training videos, featuring Cleese in a large number of them.

Cleese's first job, at age nineteen, was teaching at his old prep school, St. Peter's, in his home town of Weston-super-Mare. He taught science, English, geography, history, and Latin and was fondly remembered there, even though he left to study at Cambridge two years later. An influential teacher and soccer coach, Cleese's memories of St. Peter's were strong ones. "I was happy there because I think it's one of the few times in my life when I had a sense of community," said Cleese.

After graduating Cambridge with a law degree, John Cleese was immediately side-tracked into the entertainment world, where he developed a strong sense of the inefficiencies of business. In 1971, Cleese and three reknowned entertainment personalities formed a company to sell training films. Based on the principle that humour could be used as an effective training tool, Video Arts still sells many of the original films (a large number of which feature Cleese as an actor, director, or writer), even though Cleese sold his interests in the firm ten years ago.

Cornell students may have to pay more this fall if they want to see John Cleese strip for a sex-ed demonstration, as he did in 1983's "Meaning of Life"

John Cleese has done a number of lecture tours and motivational speeches. In 1990, he spoke at Harvard Business School on the subject of "creativity and bureaucracy" (not an unfamiliar subject given his years at the BBC!). As a speaker, Cleese is something to be heard. His deliberate and brilliant use of the English vocabulary is what has made him such a successful sketch and comedy writer for so long.

Cleese's fascination with teachers (and other such authority figures) became a mainstay of his comedy for many years. His now-famous sex education sketch in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and role as Mr. Stimpson, a punctuality-obsessed headmaster, in Clockwise are examples.

John's pyschology seminars will, no doubt, cover such topics as healthy families and personal relationships, the primary subjects of his books, Families on How to Survive Them and Life and How to Survive It, which he co-wrote with his therapist Robyn Skynner. John is keenly interested in values and relationships in the business world, societies, and cultures. Cleese explored these in his books in dialogue form where John and his therapist ask each other a series of questions.

In any case, having Cleese as a professor should be a hoot. We're hoping to hear from future Cornell students on what it's like to have the Minister of Silly Walks in the classroom. If you are wondering if Cleese will reprise his sex-ed demo from Meaning of Life, Cleese told Entertainment Weekly: "Absolutely not, even if I could."



  • Nancy Mills, "Class System," in Entertainment Weekly, January 22/29, 1999, p. 14.
  • Jonathan Margolis, Cleese Encounters, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, p. 47.