Cleese towers over comedy, past and present

John Cleese is one of the towering figures of comedy, literally and figuratively. Long ago, his "Monty Python" and "Fawlty Towers" shows were brilliant; now he's part of a clever new show, "Hold the Sunset," which starts Wednesday (Sept. 12) on the Britbox screening service. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The late Douglas
Adams offered a viable theory of comedy:

All truly funny
people, he said, are exactly 6-feet-5 inches tall. For proof, he
mentioned himself (author of the “Hitchhiker's Guide” and “Dirk
Gentley” books), plus another author (P.K. Chesterton) and actors
John Cleese and Peter Cook.

Sure, we might
dispute the specifics. (Some sources put Chesterton at 6-4 and Cook
at 6-2), but Cleese agrees with the concept. “Yes, this is true,”
he said. “The very best comedians are very, very tall.”

He mentions a
glaring exception – Ronnie Corbett, the late British comedian, was
just under 5-foot – but adds: “He was the exception that proves
the rule.”

Now Cleese's
towering brand of comedy returns to TV. “Hold the Sunset” -- on
the Britbox streaming service – is his first situation comedy in 39
years. “My No. 1 mission was to get John back on the BBC,” said
Chris Sussman, the “Sunset” producer.

No extra work was
required; the “Sunset” scripts were already written. The cast
includes two acclaimed writers – Cleese (“Monty Python,”
“Fawlty Towers”) and Joanna Scanlan (“Getting On”) -- but
there was no call for them to improvise. “It is really beautiul,
beautiful, nuanced writing,” Scanlan said.

That left Cleese
with easy work. “For the first time in my life,” he said, “I'm
playing myself .... I just sit there making snarky remarks and hoping
someone else will open the front door.”

Cleese, 78, and
Alison Steadman, 72, play widowers who are ready to marry – until
they're descended upon by her son, daughter (Scanlan) and
daughter-in-law. The commotion grows and Cleese withdraws ... which
may be his natural state.

His humor, after
all, started when he felt like an outsider. “It was a survival
mechanism when I went to school,” he told the Television Critics
Association. “I was very tall and everybody teased me for being
called 'Cheese.' I found if I could make them laugh, somehow the
atmosphere improved.”

The family surname
really was “Cheese,” he wrote in his memoir (“So, Anyway ...,”
Random House, 2014). That was changed before he was born, but his
unusual look remained. “I would pass six-foot before I was 12,”
he wrote. “I had 'outgrown my strength,' and my physical weakness
meant that I was uncoordinated and awkward.” His gym teacher called
him “six foot of chewed string.”

His inclinations
were equally mild. Cleese grew up in a village, with no siblings.
“Everyday sanity is harder for 'only children,'” he wrote. “They
have nothing to moderate or dilute parents' influence.”

His dad, a calm
insurance man, didn't require much dilution, but his nervous mom did.
“Mother experienced the cosmos as a vast, limitless booby trap.”

So Cleese squirmed
at the notion of being noticed ... until he began doing sketches in
school. After seeing Cook's “Beyond the Fringe,” he cranked up
the comedy ... but still considered this only a diversion. He studied
law at Cambridge and even had a job offer from a law firm ... but was
lured away by two other offers – take the college show to London's
West End and write comedy for BBC.

That led to the
“Monty Python” TV show and movies, then to “Fawlty Towers”
and beyond.

Now his life has
slowed down – and his feelings about his height have changed.
“Trying to get into things like cars becomes a major undertaking,”
Cleese said. “For the first 60 years of my life, I was very
grateful that I was tall. And now it's very inconvenient.”

He's had a long
career, working with people in different contexts. Charles McKeown,
who wrote all the “Hold the Sunset” scripts, was an actor in many
of the films by “Python” people.

Cleese recalls
“Life of Brian,” with “that wonderful moment when an old man
with a white stick shouted, 'I was blind and now I can see' – and
falls into a pit. That was Charles. Funniest moment.”

-- “Hold the
Sunset,” any time starting Wednesday (Sept. 12),

-- That's a
subscription screening service started by two British groups, BBC and


It's the brand new -- and sort of old -- TV season

Hey, television is a moving target these days. On Sunday (Sept. 9), I sent my six-part season-preview package to papers and put the sories here. (Scroll down for the others.) The next day, I had to update it, to reflect Les Moonves' departure from CBS. Here's the new version, which also includes some other improvements.

By Mike Hughes

Each September, TV
viewers look for new shows, new people, new ideas.

So what are this
year's key shows? There's “Magnum” and “Murphy Brown,”
“Charmed” and “Sabrina,” “Last Man Standing” and
“Roseanne” without Roseanne and ...

Wait, what year is
this, anyway? “Standing” debuted in 2011, but the others
mentioned above range from 1980 (“Magnum PI”) to 1998
(“Charmed”); still, they're crucial to the season that will
officially start on Sept. 24, 2018.

Yes, there are newer
shows worth noting. ABC's “The Rookie” (Nathan Fillion as a
40-year-old newcomer cop) particularly feels like a hit. But the
revival flurry has changed everything.

Last year it was
“Will & Grace” coming back after 20 years and “Roseanne”
after 30. Both had the original casts; both pleased critics and
scored in the ratings.

Remakes seemed
viable – especially for “Murphy Brown,” said creator Diane
English. “When we left these characters in 1998, there was no
Internet. There was no social media. Cable news was just getting
started.” To put the old characters in this new world “was very
rich for us, very, very rich.”

Her revival has the
original cast. By comparison, “Magnum” will star Jay Hernandez –
who was 2 when the original began and 10 when it ended. “I used to
watch it as a kid,” he said. “I was a big fan.”

Now he's the one
driving the sleek cars and charming the people. “Thomas Magnum
survived on his charm,” said Peter Lenkov, who created the reboot.
“He lived on the good graces of his friends. (He) didn't use a gun.
He was somebody who was the underdog in most situations.”

Now “Magnum” is
likely to be a ratings hit; so is “Murphy Brown” ... despite the
internal troubles at their network. Les Moonves – who led CBS for
two decades of ratings power – resigned after a second wave of
sexual-abuse allegations from his past.

“Leslie has been
an excellent boss and a mentor for a long time,” Kelly Kahl, CBS'
programming chief, said to the Television Critics Association, prior
to the new allegations and the resignation. “And he put me in this
job. (But) all allegations need to be and are being taken seriously.”

Now Kahl and his top
aide are the lone men at the top of CBS. “We have 61-percent female
executives at the VP level or higher,” Kahl said. “The heads of
drama development, comedy development, current programming,
alternative, daytime, scheduling are all women.”

Meanwhile, the women
running (or co-running) two other networks face their own problems.

At ABC, it was a
late-night tweet that got Roseanne Barr fired. The network was
planning a powerhouse Tuesday line-up, with top newcomers “The
Rookie” and “The Kids Are Alright”; now the night needs viewers
to accept a no-Roseanne “Roseanne,” suddenly redubbed “The

And at Fox, it's a
fresh twist: Its movie studio is being sold to Disney (which owns
ABC) ... leaving Fox as the only network without the pipeline of a
big-deal studio.

Dana Walden, co-head
of Fox, insists that's good. “It will be the only network to
operate with complete independence,” she said, bringing “a great
opportunity (for) vibrant, independent studios.”

show-ownership can be crucial. It's one reason ABC canceled “Last
Man Standing” ... and Fox picked it up a year later. Walden also
said it's a reason “Lucifer” wasn't renewed by Fox. “Given that
it was owned by an outside studio at the time, we couldn't justify
the economics.”

Then Netflix, with
its international audience, grabbed “Lucifer.” The show “has
really resonated with audiences in parts of the world where we have
licensed it,” said Netflix programmer Cindy Holland.

For that matter,
Netflix has grabbed a lot of shows. It has signed long-term deals
with the top producers for ABC (Shonda Rhimes of “Grey's Anatomy”
and “Scandal”) and Fox/FX (Ryan Murphy of “Glee” and
“American Horror Story”). And it has even disrupted the witchly
world of CW.

That mini-network
often focuses on fantasy, youth and women, so it seemed logical to
plan remakes of two witch shows. This fall, it will have “Charmed,”
but not the other one.

“'Sabrina' was development here,” said CW chief Mark Pedowitz. “The studio
came to ... me and said, 'We have a two-year commitment from
Netflix.' I said, 'Go with God. It's the right thing to do for your

Netflix's strategy –
making big deals and trying everything -- has been decried by others.
At FX, John Landgraf talks about curating for quality; at HBO, Casey
Bloys echoes that. “There is no plan to dilute HBO programming,”
he said. “No one is asking us to take pitches for a 'Love Boat'

At Netflix, Holland
says a mass approach is fine. “Quality and quantity are not
mutually exclusive.”

Maybe. We'll soon
see if this high-quantity season can also deliver some quality.

TV's best new dramas seem old ("Magnum") and new ("The Rookie")

Yes, there are some good TV dramas this fall. Many critics dislike the new "Magnum," but I think it's terrific; most like "The Rookie." Here's the drama round-up I sent to papers, as part of a six-part season preview. To find the mainbar, scroll up; to find the others, starting with sci-fi and fantasy, scroll down. 

By Mike Hughes

Television still
likes the drama of daily life ... as long as those lives include
cops, crooks or wobbly psyches.

The new season has
lots of variations on crime shows, plus a few looks at love (true or
twisted) and life. Here's a look at what's new:


The best

-- “The Rookie”
(10 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC, Oct. 16). At 40, John has a heroic moment ...
then makes a big move: He dumps his comfortably unexceptional life
and becomes a Los Angeles cop. With Nathan Fillion, 47, starring,
this is the rare show that has it all – large bits of drama, small
bits of humor, occasional action ... and some stories that are
wrapped up by the end of the hour.

-- “Magnum P.I.”
(9 p.m. Mondays, CBS, Sept. 24). Yes, plenty of critics have grumbled
about the show and the obvious fact that Jay Hernandez is no Tom
Selleck. He's seven-and-a-half inches shorter and, by our
calculation, only 58 percent as handsome. Let's set that aside,
though; Hernandez is good and the show is terrific. Slick and sleek,
it has Magnum and his former war buddies racing around the Hawaiian
sunshine, thwarting bad guys,. Perdita Weeks is a great addition as a
very different Higgins.

The rest

-- “Mayans MC”
(10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX, started Sept. 5). Almost four years after
“Sons of Anarchy” ended, fans finally have this spin-off. In the
first two episodes, we've learned that the two brothers have had big
secrets. One is a member of the tough motorcycle club; the other, an
ex-con, is just starting. The result is intense, brutal and often

-- “You” (10
p.m. Sundays, Lifetime, started Sept. 9). Smartly written and
beautifully filmed, this at first seems like the best love story ever
... then quickly settles for being one of the best stalker stories.
There's great work from director Lee Krieger and his stars, Penn
Badgely and Elizabeth Lail.

-- “A Million
Little Things” (10 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC, Sept. 26). Think of this
as “This Is Us” without the family ties. Four guys are
hockey-game buddies, bringing their wives and loves into the
friendship. Then something happens that makes them question
everything. The result has substance, depth ... and, alas, lots of
lingering questions.

-- “FBI” (9 p.m.
Tuesdays, CBS, Sept. 25). TV has tried the FBI before, but not like
this. Now the stakes are higher, the technical abilities are steeper
... and the show has a female star. That's Missy Peregrym, who was
terrific if “Rookie Blue” and others; here, she's confined to a
one-note character in a show that – like most from producer Dick
Wolf – sometimes feels flat and stiff.

-- “New Amsterdam”
(10 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC, Sept. 25). The setting is a mega-hospital,
one that's been in New York almost forever. A new medical director
(Ryan Eggold of “The Blacklist”) makes sweeping changes ...
including firing an entire department. That's a bit abrupt, but there
are signs this could evolve into a solid show.

-- “All American”
(9 p.m. Wednesdays, CW, Oct. 10). Growing up in a tough neighborhood,
Spencer has one way out: He's a football star ... and an ambitious
coach (Taye Diggs) can get him a transfer to a glitzy Beverly Hills
High School. An interesting, culture-clash tale, this is partly based
on a true story ... but some of the soap-style twists strain its

The enigmas

-- “Kidding” (10
p.m. Sundays, Showtime, started Sept. 9). Jim Carrey is superb as a
caring kid-show host whose life – and, maybe, mind – crumbled
after his son's death. But despite some good moments, the show
becomes a monotone, pushing him deeper into despair.

-- “Mr. Inbetween”
(11 p.m. Tuesdays, FX, Sept. 25). Back in 2005, this was a
micro-budget Australian movie, seen by approximately no one, not even
Australians. Now it's a TV series ... and an oddly charming one,
about a guy balancing his worlds as good dad and a calm hitman. One
scene – involving his daughter's legends, from Santa to unicorns –
is a classic.

And more

There are lots more
shows out there, including several we haven't seen yet. Some top

-- “The Good Cop”
(Sept. 21, Netflix). With “Monk,” writer-producer Andy Breckman
proved that a crime-of-the-week drama could also have humor and
heart. Now he has Josh Groban as a straight-arrow cop whose dad (Tony
Danza) is an ex-cop, used to bending the rules.

-- “Wanderlust”
(Oct. 19, Netflix). Toni Collette is a psychologist who – after a
near-death experience -- decides to broaden her life.

-- “Homecoming”
(Nov. 2, Amazon Prime). Two great talents – Julia Roberts ad “Mr.
Robot” creator Sam Esmail – combine, in a story of bureaucracy
gone bad. A sampling is compelling.

-- “Little Drummer
Girl” (starts Nov. 19, AMC). After winning praise and awards with
“The Night Manager,” AMC has another John LeCarre novel. This one
– which was a 1984 Diane Keaton movie – has an actress (Florence
Pugh) pulled into intrigue by an Israeli spy (Alexander Skarsgard).

TV's new sci-fi/fantasy and beyond -- from werewolves to time loss to God

Any year with some fantasy and sci-fi and such is a good one ... even if none of the shows stand out. Here's the round-up I sent to papers, in the six-part season preview. To find the others, scroll up and down from here.


By Mike Hughes

Television likes to
visit the extremes, to talk about thinks dark (witches and vampires
and vanished time) and bright (God).

Now all of those
come up in some of this fall's fantasy shows. They include:

The best

-- “Manifest”
(10 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC, Sept. 25). A lot of small things can go wrong
on an airplane – bumpy ride, bad pretzels, late arrival. But this
arrival is REALLY late. The passengers and crew people think they've
been flying for a few hours; the airport says they disappeared for
five years. As a mini-series, this would be fascinating; as an
ongoing series? The big networks have sometimes failed to finish the
intriguing stories they start, but we'll hope NBC does better this

The rest

-- “God Friended
Me” (8 p.m. Sundays – but 8:30 p.m. for the opener, due to
football – CBS, Sept. 30). To the shock of his preacher father (Joe
Morton), Miles uses his podcast to disparage the idea of God. Then
comes a note that God has friended him on Facebook. Is it a prank?
Miles thinks so, but probes it with two helpers ... confronting fresh
surprises. The result is flawed, but fairly fun.

-- “The Haunting
of Hill House” (Oct. 12, Netflix). The 1963 movie, considered a
classic, had an invited group introduced to the supernatural, inside
a 90-year-old New England house. It was remade in 1999 and now
returns as a series that includes the talented Timothy Hutton.

-- “Charmed” (9
p.m. Sundays, CW, Oct. 14). This can be a lot to absorb shortly
after your mother's death: Two young women learn that there's a third
sister ... and that each of them is a witch with a separate power.
This reboot of an old series does a fairly good job of mixing dark
drama with some lighter moments, many of them from Rupert Evans as
their new mentor.

-- “Legacies” (9
p.m. Thursdays, CW, Oct. 25. In the final “Originals” episodes,
everyone focused on preserving Hope. As the daughter of Niklaus and
Hayley, she's the world's only witch-werewolf-vampire tribred. Now
she's 17 and back at the Salvatore School for the Young & Gifted
in Mystic Falls. Alaric is in charge; his twins are students. We
haven't seen this yet, but the producers have a strong track record
(via “Vampire Diaries” and “Originals”) and a likable star
(Danielle Rose Russell).

-- “Chilling
Adventures of Sabrina” (Oct. 26, Netflix). The cheery Archie comics
have already been transformed into the dark (but well-crafted)
“Riverdale.” Now it's the turn for Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Many of the “Riverdale” people are involved, including producer
Greg Berlanti, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and talented director
Lee Krieger.

-- “Tell Me a
Story” (Oct. 31, CBS All Access). Some of old Grimm tales were
mighty grim. (Blowing houses down? ... Eating children? ... Carving
Grandma out of a wolf's stomach?) Now those three stories -- “Three
Little Pigs,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Riding Hood”
-- are blended together in modern New York. Kim Cattrall and Paul
Wesley are in support.

Also scary

Plenty of stories
can be creepy without being supernatural. Two examples are:

-- “The Purge”
(10 p.m. Tuesdays, USA, started Sept. 4). This uses the notion of the
“Purge” movies: For one night a year, laws don't apply. Rich
people hide behind their barricades, hoping the poor will purge each
other. On this nasty night, we follow three stories, each well-told:
A Marine tries to rescue his sister from a cult .... An ambitious
woman hires an assassin .... And a decent couple visits a mansion,
hoping to get a donation for charity.

-- “Into the Dark”
(Oct. 5, Netflix). This is a monthly anthology series, keyed to
holidays. Naturally, it starts with Halloween.

Comedies were soaring ... then sort of crashed

This is an updated version of the TV comedy round-up, one piece of the six-part season preview I sent to papers. The updates involve "Murphy Brown" and "Forever," which weren't available previously. Scroll down and you'll see the stories on mini-series and on non-fiction; scroll up and you'll see the others.


By Mike Hughes

For a moment, fans
of traditional comedies – the kind done with a studio audience –
were delighted.

“Roseanne” and
“Will & Grace” were back and funny. They joined other top
returning shows – led by “The Big Bang Theory” and “Mom” --
with new ones (including “The Cool Kids”) on the way.

Then it all crashed.
Roseanne Barr was dropped from “Roseanne,” which became “The
Conners.” Also, “Big Bang” announced this will be its final
season. And many of the comedy newcomers are so-so.

Still, there's hope
– and there's a new “Murphy Brown.” Here's a comedy preview:

The best

-- “The Kids Are
Alright” (8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Oct. 16, ABC). In real life, Tim
Doyle grew up in an Irish Catholic family, surrounded by six
brothers. Now he turns that into a vibrant comedy, centering on the
one boy who wants a stealth life in theater. Mary McCormack and
Michael Cutlitz avoid all cliches as the bright and caring, if
overwhelmed, parents.

-- “Hold the
Sunset” (arrived Sept. 12, Britbox). After triumphing with “Fawlty
Towers,” John Cleese managed to wait 39 years before doing another
sitution comedy. Now, at 78, he's one piece of this British delight.
He and his neighbor, both widowed, are ready to marry; then her grown
kids manage to crumble in loud and funny ways.

-- “Forever”
(Sept. 14, Amazon Prime). A husband and wife (Fred Armisen and Maya
Rudolph) make a drastic decision: This year's vacation will involve
skiing, not fishing. The result is done with quiet, offbeat charm;
it's Armisen's third cable gem, alongside “Portlandia” and
“Documentary Now.”

-- “The Cool Kids”
(8:30 p.m. Fridays, Fox, Sept. 28). Here is a throwback comedy –
broad, silly, noisy and surprisingly appealing. Martin Mull, Leslie
Jordan and David Alan Grier figure they're the cool ones in this
retirement community ... then are reluctant to let Vicki Lawrence
share the turf. Jordan's brash style is the perfect counterpoint for
the droll approaches of the other skilled pros.

The rest

-- “Rel” (9:30
p.m. Sundays, Fox, Sept. 30, but debuted Sept. 9). Borrowing from his
real life, Lil Rel Howery plays a divorced dad. This is broad –
sometimes too broad – humor, sometimes stabilized by Sinbad as
Rel's dad.

-- “Single
Parents” (9:30 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC, Sept. 26). At an upscale
school, one guy (Taran Killam) wants to be a superdad; others (Brad
Garrett, Leighton Meester, Jake Choi) just want to get by. Then they
decide to convert him, with fairly funny results.

-- “Murphy Brown”
(9:30 p.m. Thursdays, NBC, Sept. 27). This is no match for the great
comedies, ones where laughs flow naturally from dialog; instead,
“Murphy” is too often a series of disconnected one-liners. Still,
some of those lines are sharp and smart; there are enough to keep us

-- “Last Man
Standing” (8 p.m. Fridays, Fox, Sept. 28). OK, this isn't
completely new; it had six successful seasons, before ABC canceled
it. After a year off, it's back, recasting some of the kids. We're
rooting for it ... but the opener is fairly stiff and only mildly

-- “The
Neighborhood” (8 p.m. Mondays, CBS, Oct. 1). Calvin (Cedric the
Entertainer) is happy with this mostly black neighborhood in Los
Angeles. Then his new neighbor (Max Greenfield) seems too friendly,
too suburban ... and way too white. It's an erratic comedy, but one
that tries hard.

-- “Happy
Together” (8:30 p.m. Mondays, CBS, Oct. 1). For a year, Harry
Styles – a hot pop star, fresh from One Direction – secretly
lived in the quiet home of Ben Winston. Now Winston (who produces
James Corden's shows) has exaggerated this for a comedy. These
middle-class folks (Amber Stevens West and Damon Wayans Jr.) are very
likable; the show is merely OK.

-- “I Feel Bad”
(9:30 p.m. Thursdays, NBC, Oct. 4, but debuts 10 p.m. Wednesday,
Sept. 19). Emet (Serayu Blue) has a great career, a nice husband
(Paul Adelstein), good kids ... and zero time. Is she really happy?
Is she supposed to be? It's an intelligent comedy, if not always an
entertaining one.

And more

There are some other
comedies we haven't seen yet. Two of the most notable are:

-- “Camping” (10
p.m. Sundays, Oct. 14, HBO). Jenni Konner and her former “Girls”
star, Lena Dunham, have written and directed this tale of families
trying to have fun in the wild. Kathryn (Jennifer Garner) is
organized and enthusiastic; her husband (David Tennant) is not.

-- “The Kominsky
Method” (Nov. 16, Netflix). Chuck Lorre, the comedy master of “Big
Bang” and “Mom” and more, has Oscar-winners Michael Douglas,
73, and Alan Arkin, 84. They play Hollywood veterans, which they are.