It is now 40 years since the legendary and hugely influential comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus was first broadcast in the U.K. How do we know this? Well, partly because Python member John Cleese is so unbelievably decrepit. “I’m old and incontinent!” laughs the comedian. The Python crew’s 40th anniversary is also being marked by a series of events. Tonight the five surviving members (Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam) will reunite for an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Tomorrow they will grace (and possibly silly walk across) the stage of New York’s Ziegfeld Theater where they will be given a special award from The British Academy of Film and Television Arts. “I think they’re giving it to us out of embarrassment for the fact that they never gave us one when we were doing the shows, which is quite funny,” says Cleese.
And there’s more silliness! IFC will broadcast the debut show in a six-part Python documentary called Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut) on Oct. 18 at 9PM ET/PT. Got anything sharp-tongued to say about that, Mr Cleese? “Some lunatic Americans have made six one-hour documentaries about Python” he confirms. “We were all very dubious about it, until we heard that people like Steve Martin were going to be interviewed. And I spoke to an American journalist last week who’d seen it and said it was surprisingly interesting. He had my reservations: not Python again! But there’s still quite a lot of interest about Python in America. In England it’s pretty much passé. In America it’s still a source of enthusiasm. People say, ‘Why are you a professor at an American college and not an English college?’ And the answer is, ‘because they asked me.’”
After the break, the comedian talks about why Terry Gilliam likes it when Cleese’s films fail, the new Fawlty Towers box set, and not being as obsessed with sex as some people think.
Entertainment Weekly: The actor David Kelly is interviewed in the new box set edition of your sitcom Fawlty Towers and recalls you as being “obsessed with being worried about sex.” Do you know what he means by that?
John Cleese: There was nothing about sex in that episode. I find that very hard to believe. I don’t know how David Kelly would have had time to observe that. Had I been interested in sex during the course of rehearsal, there wouldn’t have been time to manifest it. One of the things I’ve discovered as you get older is that every single person has completely different memories about the same event. The Pythons all remember completely different things. I’m totally puzzled by that comment.
The set also features a rare interview with your ex-wife Connie Booth, who played Polly and also co-wrote the show. Why has she been so reluctant to talk about Fawlty Towers?
She went off and trained as a therapist. She took very seriously the concern that, if she started appearing on television, her patients might be slightly thrown by that.
Is it fair to say there’s a friendly rivalry between the Pythons when it comes to solo projects?
Oh, I wouldn’t call it particularly friendly. I would say there was a fairly thriving sibling rivalry. There was a stage some 30 years ago when I noticed that we never talked about each other’s projects. I used to bring it up, because it seemed to cause a certain amount of discomfort. That was a bit wicked of me. I always felt Gilliam wasn’t terribly happy about the success of A Fish Called Wanda. He felt he was the filmmaker in the group. But Fierce Creatures (Cleese’s less successful Wanda follow-up) made him feel much better.
More and more, people seem to say that The Office is the best British comedy show of all-time, rather than Fawlty Towers or Monty Python. Do you have a Ricky Gervais doll you stick pins into whenever you hear that?
No, no. I always think when you start to rank the best things it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s just like the Oscars. Often, to say that one performance is better than another is next to meaningless. What I do think is that there are certain top class comedies and it’s nice to be in that group. I thought The Office was excellent. I do think that the era that has passed in Britain was a Golden Age. When I see the comedy on television now I don’t think it’s as good by and large. The ability that a lot of the writers used to have to structure the comedy really well has been rather lost.