Wednesday, February 4, 2015

John Cleese on Comedy and Intelligence: Are we losing it? –Intelligence, that is?

In reading interviews of John Cleese of Monty Python fame, I was surprised to see a common a theme—John Cleese longs for more intelligence these days. Maybe I better let him explain that.

The millenials
“In my day, anyone who was vaguely educated—in other words, they knew where Pakistan was—
would give you the opportunity for all kinds of humor,” he says. Mr. Cleese thinks that too much comedy revolves around sex and other “mundane” topics.  He worries that the “general feeling [among the younger set] is that anything that doesn’t affect you personally is not worth knowing about.” So there’s a smaller universe of shared knowledge for comedy writers to draw from.

This is not good news if you are a comedy lover because there is less variety in the comedy you are served.  It’s getting to be a one-page menu.

Political correctness
Cleese thinks some of the blame is due to PC.  “Political correctness started out as a very good idea. But it got latched onto by people who hang onto a small number of truths. In my stand-up, I’ll make jokes about Germans, Canadians, the English and the French. And then I say, ‘There’s this Mexican joke.’ And the place freezes. Why is everyone uncomfortable? Is that because the Mexicans need particular protection?  There is a lot of condescension in it…. Of course, jokes about Muslim fundamentalists are problematic because they threaten to kill you.”    

He continues, “There can be major developments in the Ukraine and ISIS and Putin, and the top story…will be that [someone] has used one of the ‘forbidden words.’”

Laughing at ourselves is good medicine
Cleese states that most comedy is critical of human behavior; it is saying, “This is not a smart way to behave.” Although Cleese is always pushing boundaries, he still longs for smart subjects. He even claims Monty Python fans are smarter than fans of the Rolling Stones or the San Francisco 49ers.

That certainly made me feel better: “Gee,” I said to myself, “maybe I’m smart after all.” One of my favorite short comedy films is The Crimson Permanent Assurance, which is at least a little bit funnier if you understand something about corporate raiders and takeovers.  

If you want to take a peek, you can click the following link, but I don’t guarantee it will always work:

So what’s a comedy lover to do?  Expand our universe, of course. Improve our behavior so that we are not the butt of jokes. And keep living.

“Weekend Confidential” by Alexandra Wolfe, Wall Street Journal, 11-15-14
“10 Questions” by Belinda Luscombe, Time, 11-17-14
“Former Monty Python John Cleese,” The Independent [UK], 2-4-15


  1. What a lovely post, thanks for sharing. JC is wonderful. Did you ever see him in Clockwise? It's a little known delight between Fawlty Towers and Fish Called Wanda.

  2. Ed, have not seen Clockwise. Need to put it on my list.