If you’re John Cleese, be careful who you call humorless

June 25, 2014

Anyone who’s ever tried to build a brand will tell you how hard it is. And anyone who’s ever lost a brand, or tarnished one, will tell you how easy it is. A misstep or two and suddenly your century-old Coke is New Coke and then, in a scramble, Classic Coke.

Which brings us to the formerly hilarious John Cleese, he of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and A Fish Called Wanda, among other things.

Among those other things, Cleese also played Q in the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films. But it seems he’s no fan of the Daniel Craig Bonds, calling them humorless.

“The big money was coming from Asia, from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, where the audiences go to watch the action sequences, and that’s why in my opinion the action sequences go on for too long, and it’s a fundamental flaw,” Cleese said. “The audiences in Asia are not going for the subtle British humor or the class jokes.”

I, as it happens, am a huge fan of “subtle British humor,” and for decades yielded to no man in my affection for Cleese’s comedic talents. So much so that a few years ago the wife and I bought tickets for his one-man show that had been mounted, he cheerfully admitted, to make back some of what he’d had “stolen” in his latest divorce.

The theater was nearly full, and before Cleese came out there was a giddy buzz, everyone anticipating an evening of frolic and merriment. Total strangers were sharing favorite moments and scenes from his oeuvre.

Alas, the preshow buzz was the evening’s highlight. Cleese walked out on stage and explained that he’d had dental surgery that day and “might” still be under the influence of the drugs. He’d have canceled the show, he said, but couldn’t afford to because of the divorce.

Badda-bing, he intended that as a laugh line. Hardy har har har.

From there it got worse. Cleese mixed film clips from the breadth of his career, as well as some autobiographical footage, with alleged commentary. Aside from the pleasure of reliving scenes that we’d all laughed at dozens of times, and could have seen at home for free in our jammies, the show was less funny than open-mic night at the Stockton Holiday Inn.

Had the show been conceived of that afternoon? Maybe. And the performance—well, to call it a performance is an insult to those brave souls at open-mic night. Every syllable was informed by two things: Cleese’s bitterness at having to be out there and his contempt for the people who’d been stupid enough to pay for the privilege.

The final bit concluded with his walking off into the wings, but no one could tell whether that was actually the end. To clue us—at long last!—that it was, he took two steps out and slumped behind a prop while waving (embarrassedly?) for a few seconds.

Tepid hardly describes the applause. And as we hurried out it was clear from the not-so-murmured grumbles that he’d damaged his brand. I suspect I’m not alone in noting that my trusty Python and Fawlty Towers collection of DVDs that I’d returned to at least once a year for decades (upgraded from VHS’s) has since been mothballed.

The day after, I wrote him a letter to the address then listed on his website, in care of his talent agency. The final paragraph:

During the show you said you sweated blood, agonizing over what to say, the night before Graham Chapman’s memorial service. I only wish that your effort last night in front of Cleesionados who’d shelled out $75 a seat evinced half the effort of that unpaid gig for an audience of your peers.

I never heard back. The feeling is mutual.

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