DeFlip Side #189: A Touch of Cleese

DeFlip Side #189: Cleese A Lot.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

And if you’re anything like me, this tune will make you smile involuntarily.

Those of you in full grin know that this is the theme to the legendary British comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Like many an adolescent in the late 70s and early 80s, I discovered Monty Python on PBS and had my mind blown by its brilliance and irreverence. In many ways, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and John Cleese set my bar for good comedy.

Now it’s important for me to stress that, so that you really understand the surge of pure joy I felt a few weeks ago when I saw John Cleese’s name on the marquee of the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. My wife and I go to Westhampton a lot in the summer to visit the farmer’s market and chill with the dog, and part of that routine for me has always been checking out the theater, remarking that I should see this performer or that band — and then just keep walking.

Not this time.

It was an odd thrill to finally step into the theater lobby. It was an even greater one when the girl in the box office actually opened up the theater and let me test out the available seats. I was taking the whole thing maybe a bit too seriously. But it was to see John freaking Cleese.

Cleese is arguably the most iconic Python, appearing in their most infamous sketch — The Dead Parrot.

He also has one of the funniest and most memorable scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the Black Night who didn’t know when to quit.

But I most fondly remember him as the beleaguered Hungarian tourist who got the naughty phrase book.

And don’t even get me started on the brilliance that is Fawlty Towers. So you could definitely say that I had a lot of anticipation for this show. And I went in fully expecting to once again have my mind blown.

John Cleese live at The Westhampton Beach PAC

The projection above the stage bode well: a shot of Cleese in profile, with the show’s title “Why There is No Hope.” I’ll level with you. I was so excited at the mere fact that I was going to see John Cleese that it never even occurred to me to research the show beforehand. So the title struck me as an irreverent surprise.

Then the man himself came out — all 6′-5″ of his lanky frame evoking memories of silly walks as he took his place behind a music stand center stage, set down a sheaf of notes and launched into an hour-long monologue.

Now I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t such a college professor vibe. Granted, the dude is 78, so I didn’t expect him to flit around the stage like Robin Williams. But seeing Cleese so stationary only made me realize how much of his best comedy is tied up in his physicality.

As for the show itself, Cleese vamped on the current political climate in the U.K. and the U.S. and outlined in psychological and sociological terms why things won’t get any better — or, Why There is No Hope.

He talked about how people who rise to power are usually so fueled by greed and ego that they have no idea how incompetent they are — which gives them the confidence to strive for and win those positions of power. Meanwhile, those who are more qualified are far more cognizant of what they don’t know, and figure someone else will do a better job.

The tone was more wry and witty than wacky and inane, and it probably didn’t help that much of what Cleese was saying was a pastiche of factoids that I’ve been hearing on NPR for the last few years. But still, the man himself was solidly amusing, intelligent, and entertaining, and I thoroughly enjoyed the show.

And his inherent Clesse goofiness permeated the performance, especially during a Q & A session which closed out the night. It was then that he let go with some more freewheeling anecdotes about Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, working in Hollywood and his travels and travails as an entertainer. It was more in line with the Cleese I’d been expecting, and to put it in nerd terms, on par with a really good con appearance.

So what did I ask him? Well, that’s when my lack of show research struck again. I didn’t know he’d be taking questions, and I had nothing. I couldn’t come up with a single question for the comedy legend that didn’t feel trite or overdone. So I let other, more self-confident audience members take the lead. Which I guess makes me smarter by Cleese’s logic? Let’s stick with that.

Anyway, Cleese is sticking around the Northeast for the rest of the summer with another stage show that features a Q&A and a screening of the Holy Grail. You can find a link to tour dates and tickets below. If you’re a fan, definitely go see him. You’ll be glad you did.

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See John Cleese Live!