Decades before the internet meme was born, the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail spawned a litany of quotable lines. Many of them are so common, users may have no idea where they originated. Monty Python's Flying Circus founder John Cleese is content that it turned out that way.
"If you had actually watched us making (The Holy Grail) in Scotland in 1972, you'd have thought we'd be lucky to finish it," Cleese says. "You never know what's going to catch on. Sometimes people say 'It's just a flesh wound,' from the Black Knight sketch, and they are unaware that I had been in it. ... It's become part of the vocabulary."
Except for numerous reunion events and projects, the members mostly pursued independent projects after the 1983 film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. But The Holy Grail has a life of its own. Python troupe member Eric Idle adapted it into the Broadway musical Monty Python's Spamalot in 2004 (Cleese provided the voice of God).
Cleese also continues his own tour of Holy Grail screenings, which comes to Saenger Theatre April 6. Following the movie, he'll participate in a question and answer session moderated by his daughter, Camilla Cleese. He's made it clear his least favorite question is to be asked to name his favorite Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch, but he's willing to talk about anything.
"The question that made me laugh most was in Florida when I was doing a show with (fellow Python member) Eric Idle," Cleese says. "A woman — nice, well-dressed, middle-aged woman — asked, 'Did the Queen kill (Princess) Diana?' Two thousand people all gasped. I was the only person laughing."
Cleese is comfortable with absurdity, humorous and otherwise, which is on regular display on his Twitter feed. It's full of quips and jokes and his comments about political and social matters. Cleese often weighs in on daily news, and he recently waded into a flurry of responses to Russian President Vladimir Putin's suggestion to create a "humanitarian corridor" in war-torn Syria.
"I thought this idea of a 'humanitarian corridor' was hypocrisy beyond any other I'd ever read," Cleese says. "I made jokes about when he was head of the KGB he'd have a humanitarian break in the middle of the torture session. I thought that said quite a lot about Putin. People responded."
Does Cleese like getting into political spats on social media?
"It's good fun," Cleese says. "It's like having a lot of pals out there and swapping jokes. I don't go back and forth with people very much. Sometimes they say things and I think they are wrong. In those cases, I try to point out humorously why what they are saying doesn't make much sense. ... Somebody came back on a very small point the other day and I did a little tweet about literal-mindedness and how there's an operation for it these days. The rude people are usually pretty stupid. It's interesting, the people who are most abusive — some of them are clearly (President Donald) Trump fans — they literally can't write 140 letters without making mistakes."
Cleese was a teacher before co-founding the Monty Python troupe, and he later launched a company that made professional training videos, in which he often portrayed clueless businessmen. He says he enjoys both comedy and teaching, but there's no crossover between the two. He's also not terribly optimistic about people resolving great social challenges and problems.
"I am deeply pessimistic about the state of the world," Cleese says. "When I am not doing The Holy Grail show, I do this show called Why There is No Hope. I lay out all the reasons why there is no hope we will ever have an intelligent, fair, kind, well-organized society. There's a chance. But we never had it. Occasionally something like that happens for a couple decades before it decays. ... You have to notice that. I think it was Bertrand Russell who said you have to accept what a very bad place the world is before you can enjoy yourself. Once you say, 'Yes, it's ridiculous, it's insane, it's a madhouse,' then you don't spend unnecessary energy trying to improve it. There are certain things you can improve. You can be nice to everyone you meet tomorrow. ...
"If there's distance you can laugh at something. But if you're in the middle of it, you can't. ... You can laugh at world history. It raises the question: Is life a tragedy or is it a comedy? I think it was (playwright) Arthur Miller who decided that on balance it's a comedy because it's so ridiculous."
Judging from his Twitter page, Cleese hasn't lost his sense of humor. The page features a replica of The Last Supper populated by characters from his movies and TV shows. The party includes the Grim Reaper (with salmon mousse) from The Meaning of Life, an inquisitor from the Flying Circus' Spanish Inquisition sketch, the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog from The Holy Grail, the waiter Manuel from Cleese's sitcom Fawlty Towers and Kevin Kline's bumbling weapons expert, Otto West, from A Fish Called Wanda. He may add more characters. Cleese's first TV sitcom since Fawlty Towers recently launched in Britain. In Hold the Sunset, he plays a recently retired and remarried man. The couple plan to relax and enjoy their later years together, but her 50-year-old son gets divorced and moves back into his mother's home.
Twitter is part of Cleese's plan to promote his work.
"This is the reason I went on Twitter," he says. "Because I don't trust the British press. That's across the board. I am not talking about the tabloid press. I am talking about The Mail, The Telegraph, The Times to a certain extent. I don't trust them. But if I want to get my project mentioned in their papers, then I have to agree to do an interview with them. And then they will write a piece about what a charmless, curmudgeonly, rude, sour, bitter old man I am. With Twitter, all I have to do is say I am performing at such and such a time, and this is what I'll be doing. I have five and three-quarters million followers."