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Funny Guy John Cleese Riffs On 'Why There Is No Hope' In His New Show


For a funny guy, John Cleese can be awfully grim. The British actor is best known for being part of the Monty Python comedy troupe, also the TV series "Fawlty Towers," the movie "A Fish Called Wanda." We caught up yesterday on Zoom because Cleese is about to launch a virtual one-man show. It is called "Why There Is No Hope." And believe it or not, he came up with that title long before a global pandemic. It actually grew out of a question he asked his therapist 15 years ago.

JOHN CLEESE: How many people in your profession really know what they're doing? And he said, about 10%. And it was a shock. I then started asking other people, how many people in your profession know what they're doing? And this figure is 10 to 15%. I think a couple of times it went as low as five, or once or twice it went as high as 20. But it means that six out of seven people really don't know what they're doing.

GREENE: Well, this leads to a potentially impolite question. And I apologize for it. But, John Cleese, do you know what you're talking about?

CLEESE: Not really. No.

GREENE: (Laughter) OK.

CLEESE: Well, I have a few ideas, first of which are ideas I took from other people. And I put them together. And on the whole, people find them quite persuasive. And I'm able to quote little bits of research here and there to back them up. Some areas I do know. But I'm always learning something new.

GREENE: On the topic of "Why There Is No Hope," are you going to work in some pandemic-related content into this show? Or are you going to avoid that?

CLEESE: Well, it seems to me that the great problem is that very few people are behaving rationally. And the people who say we must follow the science have notions that the science changes about every 48 hours. So I don't know if there's anything that I can say about this. I don't begin to understand it. I really don't. I talk about a lot of things, including science. And I talk about - do you know of Tetlock's research on pundits?

GREENE: I don't.

CLEESE: You should. Tetlock is a psychologist at the University of Philadelphia. And he asked 284 pundits in social fields, economic fields, political fields. And he asked them what was going to happen in five or ten years. And he discovered they were hopeless. They're completely clueless. And the interesting thing is that the most famous pundits were the worst prognosticated.

GREENE: Oh, that's helpful.

CLEESE: Yeah. Well, that is helpful because when I was young, I thought the world was basically sane with patches of insanity. And now I know it's exactly the other way around. The world is basically mad. And what I'm saying is there's no chance that we'll ever be living in a sensible, kind, generous, well-thought-out society.

GREENE: Speaking of society, today, our chat turned more serious. Fans of Cleese will remember his comedy series "Fawlty Towers." He plays Basil Fawlty, an inept, really rude English hotel owner. He treats his staff, his guests, his wife with little regard. Recently, John Cleese found himself caught up in a controversy over an episode from 1975 called "The Germans."


CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Is there something wrong?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Would you stop talking about the war?

CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Me? You started it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We did not start it.

CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Yes, you did. You invaded Poland. Here.


GREENE: So later in this episode, the other character there, the major, uses highly offensive language, including the N-word. The BBC recently made the 1975 episode unavailable on its streaming platforms for a time. And they've now added warning language. John Cleese thought the show was clearly trying to paint a racist character in a negative light. He didn't understand the BBC's decision.

CLEESE: It was stupidity. You see, what people don't understand, there's two ways of criticizing people. One is a direct criticism. And the other is to present their views as they would present them, but to make sure that everyone realizes that the person presenting those rules is a fool. And literal-minded people, who are the curse of the planet, can't understand that. They think if you say something, you must mean it literally.

GREENE: I mean, this is such - I mean, in today's climate, I guess there's some who would say, like, you know, if a word like that is really painful, would you rather have a chance to watch the show without ever being exposed to that word? I mean, is there an argument there?

CLEESE: I've never really tried to cage up my humor to stupid people. I mean, if you've got to think, well, will unintelligent people enjoy this joke? Or will one or two stupid people misunderstand and be offended by it, than the answer is, sorry, stupid people, but there are certain disadvantages to being stupid.

GREENE: But I guess there are some people who are not stupid who would find that word very painful, right?

CLEESE: Well, if they were stupid enough to realize that we weren't making fun of the person who said it, I think this is political correctness at its stupidest because it is not understanding the nature of humor.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you the final question. I know you have a book coming out called "On Creativity." I just - I'm trying to connect these two projects. Like, if you see no hope for us right now with a global pandemic and all this other stuff going on, do you have a creative solution for getting out of this mess?

CLEESE: I'm not saying there is no hope other than there is no hope in expecting that we'll ever have a reasonably intelligent, well-run society. But what I point out is that, at the end, is I quote The Serenity Prayer. So it says, let us have the courage to change things we can change and the patience to put up with things we can't change and the wisdom to understand the two. Well, what I'm saying is that there's certain areas where there's no hope that we'll ever improve. But it doesn't mean we can't live very happy lives, particularly if we concentrate on trying to be nice to people.

But if - to go back to your point about some people might be offended. Well, you've got hundreds and hundreds of people at a big party having a good time. And then the maid and the aunt, or the maid and the uncle, comes down the stairs. And everybody stops having a good time and just stands there trying not to upset the aunt or uncle until they go upstairs. And they go on having a good time again. So should we be constructing ethics about what can be said and what cannot be said judged by the standards of the most touchy, fragile and least robust people in society?

GREENE: John Cleese, break a leg in your virtual show. We'll be watching. And real pleasure talking to you.

CLEESE: Nice talking to you, David.


GREENE: The actor John Cleese has a virtual one-man show. It's called "Why There Is No Hope." It becomes available on Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.