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Transcript of John Cleese Interview with Greg Lukianoff

When in doubt, listen to John Cleese. FIRE’s President and CEO Greg Lukianoff sits down with comedy legend John Cleese to discuss comedy, cancel culture, and the religious controversy around the 1979 comedy classic Life of Brian.

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John Cleese and FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff

What’s the worst movie you ever made?

Greg: Well, I wanted to ask you John, what's the least famous movie you ever did?

John: There were so many, which is why they deservedly are the least famous movies. “Pink Panther 2” — I adore Steve [Martin]. I think he is perhaps my favorite comedian in the last 50 years, but that one I didn't think worked. And my daughter always introduces me to an audience as: “Star of 'Pink Panther 2.'" “Pluto Nash,” where I played the voice of the chauffeur with Eddie Murphy, who, of course, did “Pluto Nash.” 

Greg: You did "Pluto Nash"?

John: They were terrible. Wasn’t it terrible?

Greg: This is the great John Cleese, who you might know from such films as “Pink Panther 2” and “Pluto Nash.”

Who are your favorite comedians?

Greg: So in an interview with Steven Colbert, you talked about a lot of your favorite influences being American comics.

John: Absolutely.

Greg: So who were your favorites?

John: Well, you know, when I started all those years ago, Laurel Hardy, because Laurel was English, but Hardy was American. And then I think after that I discovered the Marx Brothers, you see, who were wonderful, and I started getting Nicholls and May, and Bob Newhart and Shelly Berman, and all this new stuff — late '50s. Then, there were one or two incredibly important shows in England, that was “The Goon Show” in the '50s — that was the one when we were 15, we all talked about the next morning on the playground, you know — what about the line,  oh you remember and then he said that — that was just like, “Python” years later, which is why I understood it so well. 

Greg: Well, I mean, I was a kid growing up in the '80s, and what we talked about — just like you talked about “The Goon Show” — was old “Monty Python.”

The Life of Brian controversies

Greg: In terms of some of the backlash to “Life of Brian” — did you consider that sort of proto-cancel culture? Or what did you think of it at the time?

John: Well, we didn't have the phrase in those days, but there were always people who would complain. 

[Clip of John Cleese discussing the "Life of Brian" controversy on “Friday Night, Saturday Morning”]

John: We were never that upset by it because we knew that, even if they banned it in Norway — I mean the Swedes advertised as the film was so funny it had to be banned in Norway. And when we were going to come here and do publicity in New York for the film, they they rang us after a week or so, and they said, “You don’t have to come over. The protesters have done it for you.” Quite literally, because they were protesting outside, they had wonderful placards saying, “Monty Python is an agent of the devil.”

Greg: That would look good on a T-shirt.

John: And it’s absolutely extraordinary because when you look at that film, the smart Christians realize it’s nothing against the teaching of Christ — the teaching of Christ is a beautiful thing.

[Clip of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman in "Life of Brian" calling on people to "think for yourselves"]

John: So there are people who will take a religious teaching and turn it on its head. We should be making fun of those. It would be a sin not to. And I think that what happens in a lot of churches is that you start out with a genius, and people take the teaching — and then the next generation maybe have seen these people and are in awe of them and take the teaching really seriously — and then the third generation comes along, because they're quite impressed by the previous generation and it’s becoming very popular — and the fifth generation of recruits are coming along because there's a good dental plan and five weeks holiday. Do you see what I mean? So that you start off with a teaching like Christ, and you finish up burning people alive yeah for not agreeing with some detail of his gospel of love. That is insane, and we should make lots of fun of that because I don't think Jesus would have approved.

Greg: As far as, like, all of the incredibly funny lines in “Life of Brian,” the one moment that just never stopped tickling me is when he announces to the entire crowd that “we're all individuals” and just one guy shouts out, “I'm not!” 

John: He says, “You’ve got to think for yourselves!” “Yes, we’ve got to think for ourselves.” “You're all individuals!” “Yes, we're all individuals.” “I'm not!” And they all go, “Shhh!” And the funny thing about that joke is it doesn't actually mean anything. If you look at it logically, you see what I mean, it’s completely — and that's often what makes us laugh the most is something that's completely silly, like in “Python,” you know the fish-slapping dance? Python fans will know when Michael runs up and does that, and then I hit him with the big fish he falls into the canal.

[Clip of Monty Python's "Fish-Slapping Dance"]

John: I often say, I'm wondering if in years to come media study students will have to write an essay on what that means. It is completely meaningless! And everybody thinks it's terribly funny. But we didn't take it that seriously. We knew it was being seen, and we had one or two discussions about it, and on the whole we got a lot of support from Christians, almost apologizing for the Christians who didn't get the point of it, which is that because you’re a follower of Christ does not mean you’re above any criticism. In fact, I’ve got a formulation which I quite like when people ask me about censoring comedy, I say, “I don't think people without much of a sense of humor should be allowed to determine what people with a sense of humor are allowed to laugh at.” I mean, put like that, it's ridiculous! So the only thing you can ask them to do is if you don't like something, don't watch it! Because there’s other people who do like it. 

Greg: Completely agreed.

John: So it’s very important that people like me, with my little gathering of friends, speak out, because the people can hear there's other opinions out there. When we wrote “Life of Brian” we could not find a studio in England or America that would give us $3 million — £2 million — not a lot of money. We could not find a single studio that would touch it.  And so the wonderful George Harrison got a script from Eric Idle, who was a friend — read it — and he rang Eric the next day said he laughed so much he’d fallen out of bed. And he said, [imitating George Harrison] “I want to put the movie up.” and Eric said, “What?” [Imitating George Harrison] “I want to put the movie up. Get the mortgage for house.” And Eric said, “This is wonderful! Why?” And George said, [imitating George Harrison] “I want to see the movie.” It’s absolutely true.

[Clip of Monty Python's John Cleese as a pharisee in "Life of Brian"]

​​Can comedy puncture our beliefs?

Greg: So why is it so important to even have the right to puncture beliefs that people really hold dear? 

John: Maybe you don't puncture them. There's no reason you shouldn't try to. There's a great difference between solemn and serious, and people don't realize it. Solemn is state funeral — you're not supposed to go around before the service putting whoopee cushions, you know? That's solemn. I think very pompous people like solemn. The thing about comedy, I believe, is it's slightly subversive. If you have a lot of people laughing together, it’s hard to pretend that one is much more important than another, but you can in a very solemn atmosphere. So I think that very pompous people — people very into power and status — rather dislike comedy and have a negative view of it because their pomposity can’t exist if there’s comedy around

Greg: Do you know Steven Pinker?

John: Yes.

Greg: He’s a friend, and he’s on our advisory council — he’s brilliant, obviously. But his whole theory on how comedy evolved was to take people down a peg.

John: Well that was the idea in the court, right? The court jester was that — he was allowed to make jokes which if anyone else had made them, you know, could be in real trouble. But he was allowed to, and that was a kind of safety valve. Because comedy or humor is a way sometimes of gently teasing people which is a way of pointing out something to them that they might go away and think about afterwards, which they couldn't take on board if it's a frontal attack. If you attack people, inevitably, people are going to put all their defenses up. Whereas if you do it in a gentle and humorous way, maybe their minds may be able to stay open. I interviewed the Dalai Lama once, and he said what he liked about laughter is that when people laugh they could have new ideas. And I think the moment you get the relaxation that always comes with laughter, then people become more flexible. The more anxious they are, the more they hang on to their beliefs, you know. So I think humor is a terribly good way of introducing questions to people who might otherwise feel very defensive if they were confronted with the question. 

How can comedy liberate us?

Greg: So how can comedy liberate us?

John: Well I think the best thing I've ever read on comedy was called “Laughter,” or “Le Rire,” by Henry Bergson. And he basically says that we laugh at people whose behavior has become mechanical, not flexible. In other words, if someone is there and is reacting absolutely appropriately to what's going on around them, there's nothing funny about them. It's where what they're doing is inappropriate, that's when we start thinking, you know, this is funny. And so I think it's almost like a touchstone, that if we laugh at someone, there's very probably a good reason why that person needs to change something. Of course it can be nasty laughter but that isn't intended to be funny. That's only intended to hurt, you see.

Greg: And be cruel.

John: When you can make jokes with friends — I mean in England, we find it very hard to say for a man to say to another man, “I love you,” you know? Whereas if you say, “You fucking bastard, I hate your guts.” He knows that you love him because you couldn't possibly say that to anyone if you didn't love him. And that's the sort of subtlety that I think some of the woke people would find difficult — because they think all hot comedy is critical and therefore all comedy is unkind. And the answer is, “No.” It's a wonderful guide to how we could become better human beings, provided it's done with love — affection!

[Clip of Monty Python's John Cleese from "Life of Brian"]

Has cancel culture changed?

Greg: In terms of what you saw in response to “Life of Brian” and the kind of cancel culture we've seen over the last 10 years, how do you think these two periods compare?

John: I think what I experience as people who are upset and offended by things, and once or twice I've done things and afterwards I thought, “That crossed the line, I shouldn't have done that.” But people would get upset, and they would complain to the BBC or something like that, or they might get up and walk out of a show. The thing about cancel culture is it seems to be very organized, and someone, and I think it might have been you, told me that there have been more academics fired in the last few years than in the McCarthy era.

Greg: Yeah. It was astounding to me too because we count cancel culture as beginning in 2014, and in the nine-and-a-half years since 2014 — because our data comes from July — it's almost 200 professors fired. And McCarthyism, from 1947 to 1957, the standard estimate from the time was about 62 communist professors fired, and roughly about a hundred fired for opinion overall. So it’s one of those things. I'm not trying to say that they’re identical — 

John: It's much more organized, and it's not just protest. It's trying to get people fired. I don't mind people protesting, that's fine. But if you set out to get somebody fired, and what I what I feel is that's very totalitarian. When we were on “The Dinosaur Hour,” which was my show you came on, we decided to do a program of our work . . .  

[Clip of John Cleese and Greg Lukianoff from "The Dinosaur Hour"]

Cognitive behavioral therapy, Stoicism, and Buddhism

John: And we asked various people, you know, who held woke — extreme woke — not just the “let's be kind and nice,” because nobody's going to argue with that — and 14 of them, all 14 who were asked, refused to do it. And one said, the very fact that you're going to discuss it is the problem. In other words, we have a set of ideas, and if you don't agree with us on everything, you hate us, and we're going to try and get you fired. It's crazy. But what I'm fascinated by is that it all started with you having severe depression.

Greg: Yes.

John: The thing that grasped me most strongly was the idea that you benefited enormously in your depression from cognitive behavioral therapy, where you take feelings and ideas and you say well is this useful to you or not? Or, which bits are useful and which aren't? You examine them, and I had been so appalled by one branch of wokery that said that whatever you feel is incontestable. You cannot look at it or examine it. That's truth! And to think that anyone could say that after 200 years of Sigmund Freud. I mean, therapy is about looking at your emotions and trying to see what's helpful and what isn't helpful — how they break down. That's what a Buddhist would do all the time — examine his feelings or her feelings. “What is this about? How much is this about my ego? How much is this about something else?” That's the only way you can get any control over your emotions. Why do you think they get to the point of saying, “If you have a feeling, it must be right”?

Greg: I think it sounds deceptively nice. I think it sounds, at a very shallow level, nice. But I do think a lot of what might be called “wokery” developed as ways of winning arguments in dormitories in the 1990s.

John: That's right!

Greg: It's tactical more than it's actually makes any sense as a philosophy. And of course as a philosophy it makes you miserable. 

John: Exactly. It's the complete opposite of Stoicism, which I've rather admired. It's an extraordinary thing. Also the idea that I think some people say — that if you bump into someone by accident, and they experience it that you did it on purpose then you did it on purpose. 

Greg: One of the things in Coddling” we talk a lot about, and we both come from this perspective, is how much CBT reflects different things we both learned from Stoicism and from Buddhism, both of which we've studied. And the idea that you think you could make someone, you know, happier by saying, “You know what: Life isn't pain.”

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John: There’s no difficulties. It's meant to be entirely easy. 

Greg: And if it's ever hard, you're doing something wrong. Which is just terrible advice. 

John: And if you're anxious, it's because there’s a real threat out there! When I get anxious, I know perfectly well that it's about something that happened to me about 70 years ago, you know? And I say to myself, “This is anxiety. It's not anything to do with what's going on now, so it's not very important.” And when I say that, of course, it slowly just goes away because I'm not taking it seriously. I think probably what they're saying is, “You should take people's feelings seriously.” Yes, seriously enough to examine them.

Greg: And, of course, I’m only half-British, so when I feel anxious, I just assume I must have said something wrong a month ago.

John: About the tsar.

Greg: Yes, about the tsar. 

How does censorship affect creativity?

Greg: What do you think the threat of censorship, or the threat of being canceled for that matter, does to the creative process? 

John: Well, what it does is it — the enemy of creativity is interruptions. And interruptions can come from inside as well as outside, and if the moment you think of something you think, “Oh will that offend?” And then you've interrupted yourself, so it will stop the creative flow, those kind of ideas.

Greg: And if you look at kind of like the history of the Soviet Union, you know, how much, how brutally they crush humor.

John: Yes, absolutely. 

Greg: That could get you thinking.

[Clip from Monty Python's "The Firing Squad")

Are comedians afraid of cancel culture?

Greg: Do you think comedians are afraid of cancel culture?

John: Oh yeah, and I have been thinking about this a lot the last few years. And I think it's very much connected with literal-mindedness. There are people who are literal-minded. If I say something to you ironically, then the words themselves mean the opposite of what I'm meaning. Can't be very nice not to understand that, so they don’t like — can’t cope with irony or sarcasm. Then if you have comic exaggeration, which most people know that is exaggeration, then they could take that literally as though it’s a statement of fact. You see what I mean? They don't get metaphor. I think you have to say to people, “Look, do you want to be on automatic. Do you just want to go through your life basically on automatic? You do certain things on certain days, you know, or you want to find out a little bit more about what's going on and and discover a bit more about a world that really is very interesting.” And if they say. “Well, I'd like to find out.” Like, you've got to say there's lots of people trying to stop you from having ideas and looking at stuff that's new. You know, all moments in my life that have been important in forming my personality came when I suddenly had a realization that something I believed wasn't the case. And once I realized that it changed my way of thinking. But you can't do that if the people around you are saying, “You mustn't think like that.” So you can stay on automatic if you want, but if you think that life might be more interesting than that, then you've got to ignore the people who are trying to stop you from learning something new. Can you believe that all the studios turned down “Life of Brian?” 

Greg: Unfortunately, I can.

John: The best film we ever made.

Greg: The funny thing is when it comes to cancel culture, you’re allowed to be as cruel to the people, and say the most inappropriate things to anyone you think is deemed worthy of canceling. So suddenly, you know, I watch this sometimes with regards to women. It’s suddenly like men who like to think of themselves as being very woke can say the most misogynistic things to women who they think have crossed a line. You know? It’s a story as old as time.

John: Well, one of the things that I do in my stage show is that I tell jokes that I think are very funny, and I say, “The point about these jokes is they're being rude about people, but in a very affectionate way.” Like why do Italian men grow mustaches? Because they want to look like their mothers. You see. Everybody loves the Italians. We all love them. They can't run a country, but they can run a restaurant. And we love their food, and they're great singers, and writers, you know. There's affection there. And then I say that these two Mexicans, and [John pauses for dramatic effect] and it's like that. And I say, “What happened?” The audience starts laughing at the fact they’re feeling uncomfortable. And what I say to them is, “If I can tell jokes about the Swedes and the Germans and the Canadians and Australians, and I can't tell jokes about the Mexicans, is that because the Mexicans are such weak pointless futile creatures they can't take a joke? That’s a bit condescending. Why don't you think they could take a joke like everyone else?” And that is something that puzzles them very much indeed, which is why so much of their thinking is completely confused. 

[Clip from Monty Python's "The Italian Lesson"]

Do you have hope for the future?

Greg: So, in terms of cancel culture, do you have hope for the future? The future of free speech? The future of comedy. Do you have hope for the future?

John: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s a close-run thing. A lot of people think the tide's just beginning to turn. 

Greg: Do you think it is?

John: I think it's very hard for me to know. I very seldom meet anybody who takes it seriously, and that's not because I'm meeting a sort of snotty academics. All my friends are rich or anything like that. Just ordinary people, like the guy who was driving me yesterday to the ComiCon. Most ordinary people don’t get it, and I think they’re right not to get it. A lot of people are very frightened of getting fired, and that’s awful, getting fired. There is good and bad in all of this, and the moment you think that you’re more perfect than you are, you’re more morally good than you are, then that’s trouble because then you get Carl Jung's “denial and projection,” right? You can't be nasty yourself, because you’re a lovely person, but you have nastiness in you, and you have to get rid of it, so you project it over there into another person or group and then attack it in them. Right? That’s a projection. Any time there’s a paranoid confrontation, that’s what’s going on. So the moment that people pretend or think that they're more perfect than they are, and that's why all this virtue signaling is so phony now, you know, you can tell some people, all they’re doing is trying to show how virtuous they are. But they also need to know they've got a nasty streak too because we all have, and I think that's why if you grow up in the Midwest, where most people think the same way, and live the same sort of way, you're not going to be as creative as someone who moves around. I mean, they say travel broadens the mind. Why? Because you see different ways of living, and you think, “Well I like that bit there, but I prefer this bit here.” That keeps you thinking and open to possibilities. You can't do that if you're just in one place. I think that was what happened to some of the Midwesterners who saw “Monty Python.” They thought, “Oh, this is never well! This is silly!”

Greg: So since, again, since you've been picking on the Midwest so much I demand you pick on Glasgow.

John: Glasgow? [Imitates Scottish person] You’ve no idea what they’re saying!

Greg: No, not one bit. So John, that was such a pleasure thank you so much for chatting, and I look forward to talking to you again soon.