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), www.britbox.com.

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