by Hans ten Cate
Saturday, 22 June 2002

John Cleese said in a recent interview "I'm getting so old now that people are giving me awards before I die."

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John Cleese was in Banff, Canada recently to receive the Sir Peter Ustinov/Comedy Network Award at the 2002 Banff TV Festival.

Back in February, upon accepting the invitation, Cleese said: “Of course, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t deserve it. Obviously I do. And, frankly, it has been some time coming. But let ’s not get into all that, as it will impinge my humility.”

John needed little excuse to come to Banff “ of the most beautiful places I've ever been in my life, I thought I would take my wife along, and we'll have a lovely few days. They're giving me this lifetime award, they'll run some of my stuff, I'll do a press
conference and some interviews ... it should be great fun. I genuinely feel very comfortable in Canada. If you'd only move it a few thousand miles south, I'll come and live there.” [1]

John Cleese with CTV newsman Lloyd Robertson and Robert MacNeil (of the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour) at the Rimrock Dinner


John was present at the Rimrock Dinner on Saturday, June 8 to celebrate the opening of the 23rd Banff Television Festival and rub elbows with television producers and executives. The official festival ran from June 9 through 14.

Showcase of Excellence

On Monday, June 10, Cleese participated in a live stage discussion, Showcase of Excellence: John Cleese & A Salute to Canadian Comedy, with interviewer Ralph Benmergui (a Canadian broadcast journalist). Benmergui probed Cleese's perspective on his long and illustrious career on both sides of the Atlantic, the roots of comedy, and his current perspectives on the industry.

“Monty Python was all about how intrinsically insane life is on this planet,” said Cleese. “Back then I thought if you made fun of the insanity, it would go away. Of course that didn't happen. You think you can change the world but then in the end you realize that there's no hope.” [2]


“Life, I think, is far madder than I ever guessed, and I think it has slightly affected my ability to write comedy,” Cleese said in the inteview. “When I was growing up, England seemed stuffy and there were areas of stupidity, but basically it seemed kind of decent and I thought the people in charge knew what they were doing. And now, instead of seeing the world as basically sane with pockets of insanity, I see the photographic negative of that -- the world basically being insane with little pockets of sanity, like public service broadcasting, and immediately I want to get over there and be a part of it.” [3]

Not that Cleese doesn't enjoy the sublimely silly. Cleese said that his favourite Python sketch is the Cheese Shop. Cleese explained that perhaps it had to do with the fact that his father's name was Reginald Cheese (who changed it to Cleese to avoid being teased). Cleese also grew up in Somerset, near Cheddar, and had a friend named Barney Butter. "It was very much a dairy area," Cleese explained. [3]

Cleese also confided to a crowd of 1,500 that his mother reiterated often that he was "definitely, definitely an accident. My mother didn't really want to have a child so my presence wasn't that welcome," he added. [2]

John Cleese with interviewer Ralph Benmergui


This, coupled, with his unusual physical height, made for an awkward childhood. “I didn ’t mix well,” said Cleese about his early school days. At age 12 he was alredy six feet tall. “Six feet of chewed string” was how one teacher described him. “It was hard to blend into the background. I realized if I made jokes and people laughed I got acceptance and popularity.”

Cleese attributes his sense of humor to his parents. “I definitely had a very black sense of humour,and so did my parents.”

“My mother,who died eventually at age 101 (18 months ago) used to ring me up (in her 90s) to tell me how bad her life was. I finally said ‘Look,I know a little man in Fulham and he can come down and kill you.’ There was silence at first; then she started hooting with laughter.” [4] It was one of John's favorite running jokes.


John felt right at home with the Canadian audience and later told Maclean's editor Brian Bergman that the Canadian's share a sense of humor that is closer to the British than the Americans. “You know, one of Spike Milligan's great influences was [Canadian humorist] Stephen Leacock. I also think Leacock is absolutely wonderful. There may be a shared sense of the ridiculous. Temperamentally the Canadians I know seem very similar to the British, though more relaxed, and less interested in class distinctions.” [5]

But when asked if Cleese would be entertaining Canadians again with any comedic ventures, Cleese was unsure. “The trouble with comedy is that you don't really learn anything doing it,” he said. “If I had another existence and God said, 'No, you can't be a comic,' that would not be a problem at all. I could imagine, for instance, being a biologist.” [3] Which explains somewhat Cleese's penchant for more intelligent projects like The Human Face, his book Life and How to Survive It, and his management training videos.

In addition to talking about his personal aspirations in comedy and beyond, Cleese also provided criticism of today's television executives and the state of programming in the U.K. (comments that did not go unnoticed on the other side of the Atlantic). Read more about John's comments in the next Daily Llama.

23rd Banff Rockie Awards

From the Desk of Sir Peter Ustinov

I often think of Banff with emotion – looking out of the hotel window in the dawn’s early light, to see an elderly elk searching a dust bin for a discarded spaghetti carbonara from the night before, as a dietary supplement. Buying a ring for my wife from a zestful Hindu trader, with a stone called a spinel, ten times as cheap and twice as beautiful as a ruby. And telling Walter Cronkite that he is the only journalist with the ability to make good news exciting.

And now John Cleese is to get my award! My cup, wherever it is, overfloweth! His is a wonderful talent, which first came to my notice (Scottish accent from here on!) when he was rector at St. Andrew’s University and I fulfilled a commensurate function at neighbouring Dundee. We didn’a see eye to eye then, and apart from praising the artist and admiring the man, I dinna see why I should make fairther concession nü! I can only say, I wish I were amongst you!

Source: Banff Bulletin, Issue Six, June 11, 2002, p. 9

That evening, The 23rd Banff Rockie Awards Show was held at the Eric Harvie Theatre. Recognizing the best television programming in the world in 14 program categories, the awards also included the Sir Peter Ustinov/Comedy Network Award to John Cleese.


The Sir Peter Ustinov/Comedy Network Award is given in recognition of outstanding achievement in a body of comedy work. Previous winners have included John Candy, Martin Short, Tracey Ullman, and Kelsey Grammar.

“Fawlty Towers comes as close to perfection as any situation comedy ever written,” Pat Ferns, president of the Banff Television Foundation, said in February. “John Cleese's genius is that he knows life and he knows his audience. His command of all forms of comedy, from physical to verbal, from slapstick to satire, makes him a true master.”

“I would first like to thank me...” said Cleese in his acceptance speech on Monday night, “without whom none of this would have been possible.” [5]

Cleese's documentary The Human Face was also up for a Rockie award that evening, but lost the award to Channel 4/CNN's Beneath the Veil.

“I have to tell you honestly,” Cleese confessed to Toronto Star reporter Rob Salem, “I would like to do more of that sort of stuff, but I simply can't afford to do it. Because, of course, it doesn't pull in vast figures, and it's not what I'm really known for, and for something like 10 months' work I got literally the same as I got for one speech that I made in Boca Raton, Florida. So to take on something like that is fine, provided it has nothing to do with earning your yearly cash flow." [1]

So what would his next documentary be? Cleese mentioned at the Festival that his next dream project is an exploration of famous vineyards, interviewing the world's best winemakers and learning about the complexities of wine. [3] Salut, John!

John Cleese accepting the Sir Peter Ustinov/Comedy Network Award at the 23rd Banff Rockie Awards show.




  • [1] Rob Salem, "No Faulting Cleese - Honour in Banff, Comedy Classics Revived on TV," in the Toronto Star, June 10, 2002, p. E02.
  • [2] Gayle MacDonald, "The seriously funny life of John Cleese The Minister of Silly Walks wanted his humour to change the world. It didn't but he's okay with that," The Globe and Mail (Toronto), June 13, 2002, p. R1
  • [3] Robert Remington, "John Cleese declares British TV comedy dead as a parrot: Former Python believes series would never be made today," in the National Post (Toronto), June 11, 2002, p. AL3
  • [4] Banff Bulletin, Issue Six, June 11, 2002, p. 9
  • [5] Brian Bergman, "Raging with laughter: John Cleese talks about the roots of his comedy," Macleans (and on, June 24, 2002