John Cleese: ‘After 50 years trying to make people laugh you can usually guess what’s coming next’

The actor says he’s offered some "interesting" work but says most of it is "not top class”

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John Cleese has plenty of high-profile projects under his belt – Fawlty Towers, Monty Python and more recently James Bond – but he admits that, these days, while he is offered “some interesting things”, they’re not always “top class”.

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“People often ask me ‘Why did you do this? Why did you do that?’ rather as though I’m able to control the offers that are coming in. All that’s happening is that I’m getting offered stuff, most of which is not top class,” Cleese told RadioTimes.com.

“I think in my whole career – apart from things I’ve written myself or co-written – the things where I have been sent a script that I thought were first class: I would say Clockwise and I would say that my scenes in Rat Race and The Out-of-Towners were very, very well written and I hardly had to change a syllable.

“Almost everything else – and I may be forgetting things – almost everything else I’ve had to pull it into shape.”

But Cleese, who provides the voice for a racing plane called Bulldog in upcoming Disney movie Planes, says animated scripts have often had a lot of polishing.

“You’re working with people who’ve worked a long time on the script and not just rushed off a first draft. It’s been through a number of drafts and they’re still looking to improve it. So at the end of the day they may say, ‘Do you have any suggestions?’ and you say ‘Why don’t we say this instead of that and why don’t we invert this phrase’… this kind of thing.

“Then sometimes you come back and think, ‘Oh I know this scene, haven’t I done this?’ and they’ve been away and re-written it. They know more about it than I do. So I may be puzzled by something, and if I’m puzzled by something it can either mean that I’ve missed an important point or that I’m on to something, that it doesn’t quite work and that’s why it’s puzzling.”

On alterations to his own scripts, Cleese says: “If I’ve been writing a script for six months and people start telling me that a line is not right, then I’ll always listen to them as they may be right.

“But statistically it’s unlikely that they will be more right than I am…”

“I’ll listen to them, but I will certainly be able to make my mind up and say ‘Oh no I don’t like that, I don’t think that works’ once I’ve thought about it.”

Not that it’s just the stars who spot potential issues with scripts. “Sometimes audiences will tell you some things you’d never have anticipated,” Cleese reveals.

“With Michael Palin’s scene [in A Fish Called Wanda] when Kevin Kline was eating his fish, people started telling me in previews that the audience was worried that Michael couldn’t breathe. And I just couldn’t understand this. What do you mean Michael can’t breathe? It’s a movie. At the end of the take we take the apple out of his mouth and he breathes, and when he’s got his breath back, we do another take.

“Then we started showing the movie cut to audiences and they were so worried that he was uncomfortable – it’s crazy. Makes no sense at all. Whereas when we killed the old woman or killed the dogs nobody was the slightest bit worried.”

So what does Cleese like to sit down and watch these days? As it turns out, not a lot…

“Do you know, almost the only thing I watch on television now is live sport. To be perfectly honest I get more out of reading. And that’s not being snotty – emotionally I find reading much more rewarding than watching television.

“The problem is that after you’ve spent 50 years trying to make people laugh you can guess what most people are going to do when they try to be funny. So there’s no moment when you suddenly think ‘Oh, that’s marvelous, so fresh, so original.’ You sort of say, ‘That’s fine, there’s nothing terrible about it’…”

See John Cleese’s latest project, Disney’s Planes, when it lands in cinemas on 16 August, and get a sneak peek of his character Bulldog here… 

 

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