In a Q&A with comedy legend John Cleese moderated by Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie this week, Cleese reflected on writing with the Monty Python troupe, shared an alternate ending for “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and revealed the secret of happiness.
McRobbie, a longtime Monty Python fan, opened the interview by describing Cleese as “the greatest comedian of our age,” and when Cleese came on stage, he made sure to emphasize the last three words “of our age” when he asked McRobbie what he meant.
Cleese, a world-renowned comedian, actor, producer and screenwriter now in his 70s, can still fill a room with laughs.
Photos by James Brosher, IU Communications
The interview at the IU Auditorium began with laughter, and the jokes didn’t stop coming for the audience, which was primed for hilarity after having just watched the classic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” a movie Cleese called “overrated.”
“The ending annoys me the most,” he said.
Cleese described the closing scenes as boring, too long and cliché as he showed an alternate ending with parts of the film cut out.
“It ends the way it does because we couldn’t think of any other way,” Cleese said with a laugh.
When writing with his fellow Pythons, laughter was key to knowing whether a certain sketch or scene would work.
“The only criteria was that the others laughed,” Cleese said.
He described coming up with the now-famous cheese shop sketch from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” with his writing partner Graham Chapman.
“Do you know the cheese sketch?” he asked McRobbie.
“The whole world knows the cheese sketch,” he replied.
Laughter and applause followed from the audience who knew the reference to the silly sketch in which a customer attempts to buy cheese at a cheese shop and discovers that they have no cheese to sell.
When their fellow Pythons read the sketch, they were silent until Michael Palin started giggling and eventually fell out of his chair with laughter.
“That was my happiest moment,” Cleese said.
As the six Pythons – Chapman, Cleese, Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle – began writing together in the 1960s, decisions about the show were based on what in the script would make the others laugh.
“We were always squabbling about the script,” Cleese said. “We did not extemporize.”
Although the Pythons’ stuck to the script on camera, behind the scenes they weren’t always certain that sharing their comedy with a wider audience would work out.
When Cleese described pitching the idea for “Monty Python and the Flying Circus” to the BBC, he said they didn’t have any idea what they would do beyond wanting to put together a comedy show and make people laugh, yet the BBC took a risk and gave them 13 programs.
Like their show on the BBC, some of their films would not have ever been produced if it hadn’t been for others who simply thought the Pythons were funny and were willing to take a risk on an investment.
Funding from rock stars made “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” possible. Cleese and his fellow Pythons had to find $400,000, and the money eventually came from bands including Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
The Pythons’ next film, “Life of Brian,” which Cleese admitted he liked more than “Holy Grail,” was funded by a member of the Beatles who said he simply wanted to watch the film after reading the script.
“If it wasn’t for George Harrison, we wouldn’t have ‘Life of Brian,’” Cleese said.
The Q&A was chock full of interesting tidbits about Cleese’s career and, like a true comedian, he sprinkled in joke after joke. He also ended with a bit of wisdom for the crowd when he revealed the secret of happiness.
“Don’t have children,” Cleese said. “Children are responsible for most of the misery of the world. You worry yourself sick about them. They cost a fortune. Then, they grow up like their mothers.”
He also struck a deal with McRobbie, which the audience hoped wasn’t just a joke.
“Ask me back next year, and we’ll do ‘Life of Brian,’” Cleese said.