CLEESE UNHAPPY WITH EVENING STANDARD ARTICLE
So, Has John Cleese Lost His Funny Bone?
THERE are not so many British comedy heroes around that we can afford
to be snippy about any of them. However, an exception has to made to
this rule in the case of John Cleese.
The straight-faced buffoon who silly-walked his way up and down the
nation's collective funny bone, the complex bigot Basil Fawlty who,
by turns, barked and cowered through the finest sitcom ever to appear
on television, has now become the most disastrous bore. The news that
his latest comedy series has been shown the door after only two episodes
is simply confirmation of a sad truth that was already widely whispered:
Cleese's humour has fallen off its perch, he is now officially an ex-comedian,
his only gags are old ones repeated parrot-fashion.
It falls to us to savour the irony of the fact that the fall which
ended his decline should take place in America. Last year, Cleese announced
that he was leaving these rain-lashed shores for the brain-softening
sunshine of California. Apart from the weather, the principal reason
he gave was that the British had somehow contrived to lose their sense
of humour. Citing his height and satirical bent as talents which had
mysteriously transformed themselves into intolerable burdens, Cleese
set off on the yellow brick road without so much as a kiss goodbye.
Now that he has run into a roadblock, it would be churlish not to smile.
Americans who used to bend our ears about how much they loved Fawlty and our Monty Python - heavy stress always on the second syllable of the second word - have turned on Cleese. His puzzlingly entitled show, Wednesday 9.30 (8.30 Central), has drawn vitriol from a nation that he must have thought had milk and honey coursing in its veins. "Bad" and "desperate" are just two of the adjectives buzzing angrily in the ether. The hubris of this perma-tanned, wannabe Bob Hope has been richly rewarded.
Beyond the fleeting pleasure in seeing a bitcher bitched at, there is no satisfaction to be gained from watching a talent on the skids.
Anyone who has maintained even a cursory interest in Cleese's career will know that the past 25 years have been an agonisingly slow death. With the exception of A Fish Called Wanda, the laughs have died in our throats.
Outside the straight-to-video quagmire, Fierce Creatures is the worst film many people have seen. Clockwise was OK, except that one could see the mechanism. The Sainsbury's commercials stopped me from entering a shop which I knew had perfectly decent butter and ice-cream.
These, however, were merely symptoms of a deeper malaise. The root of the problem was that Cleese decided that comedy was something he could knock off in his spare time, and that quality time should be spent at the deep end of life's swimming pool. He formed a company which made videos for corporate clients and lots of money for him. He went to a shrink obsessively, possibly in the belief that inside every tall satirist is a small Woody Allen trying to get out. He married and divorced a few women, and started writing books full of condescending psychobabble.
He began to analyse humour as if it were susceptible to a microscope. The humour drained from him visibly, as if he were attached to a reverse life-support system.
The message for Cleese is simple: come home. We knew you were having a funny turn when you suggested that a comedian could nurture his gifts in California. There are no banana skins there, all impromptu mayhem and spontaneous drama - the very stuff of his comic genius - have been surgically removed. The only answer is to come home and face the weather and the critics.
Our weird neuroses and peculiar accommodation with life will feed your muse again.
Like mushrooms, our humour thrives in the dark and damp. California will reduce you to a wrinkled prune. If you don't return, all is lost. You will have reserved your place in history, and it will be as a latterday Norman Wisdom. That would be a shame.