Voices: John Cleese is irrelevant – just like all of my old comedy heroes
I’m a thirtysomething comedy nerd, so the past few years have not been kind to me. You can’t put on an episode of Father Ted or NewsRadio without feeling like you’re somehow complicit in some terrible crime (that doesn’t stop me from watching them; I just make sure to donate £10 to Mermaids every time I let out a shameful giggle). Let this be a lesson to you, kids: all of your heroes will betray you eventually.
John Cleese is a particularly sad case because if you go back and watch old Fawlty Towers or Monty Python’s Flying Circus, you don’t get any sense whatsoever that the man doing silly walks and trying to refund dead birds will one day be most famous for complaining about “cancel culture” in the middle of a global pandemic.
Cleese is always in the news now for getting upset about one thing or another, and most recently made headlines for tweeting “Can anyone (including BBC employees) tell me why the BBC has not shown Monty Python for a couple of decades?” It’s entirely possible that Shrek’s father-in-law was just having a bit of a senior moment and didn’t realise that a) Netflix owns the rights to the show now and b) the BBC has shown Monty Python several times over the past few decades, but fellow disappointment Graham Linehan weighed in with an answer that I think probably sums up what Cleese was fishing for: “They’d have to apologise for every other sketch.”
(Rob Schneider had a similar response, saying “They haven’t finished editing out the parts that don’t fit into their ideology. Which is the the entire series! [sic]”, but I never really had any expectations of the guy who made a living being the worst part of every Adam Sandler film.)
There’s this weird myth among John Cleese fans (and I’m talking modern John Cleese fans, who are mostly in it for the bad takes) that Monty Python was some kind of politically incorrect, anti-woke, deliberately offensive entity that your modern-day lefty snowflake couldn’t possibly handle. I think it’s because they hear “Monty Python was so subversive”, and instead of realising that “subversive” in this context means “they pushed the boundaries of what comedy could achieve and were well ahead of their time”, they just hear “racist”.
Sure, there’s some borderline stuff in there, but it was made in the 1970s. Even the most hard-line Stewart Lee fan is going to be able to make their peace with a couple of sketches where the premise boils down to “man in dress equals funny” if that sketch was made half a century ago. Hell, that’s basically the entire foundation of British comedy.
It really feels like at this point Cleese is either looking for reasons to be mad all the time, or reasons to pretend to be mad all the time so he can cash those sweet, sweet GB News cheques. If it’s the latter, honestly, good for him. A man’s got to eat.
But if it’s the former, and Cleese really does think that amidst rising poverty, a nosediving economy and the global march towards fascism, the greatest threat to the UK is 20-year-olds not liking a show he made 50 years ago, that’s just a bit sad.
We’ve had a Conservative government for what feels like the past thousand years; why are you so mad at the left? Because we said you can’t just put a dress on, call yourself something like “Mrs Winterbottom” and present that as a completed joke anymore? We don’t make the rules, John; the march of time and social progress does. If I could find your weird, inappropriate slavery joke funny I promise you I would, but I have this unfortunate condition called “knowing what slavery is” that makes that really difficult for me.
If John Cleese is just an old man yelling at a cloud, I guess that makes me an old man yelling at an old man yelling at a cloud, so I’m not really sure which one of us is worse. It’s just hard seeing somebody you used to respect seeming to try their hardest to become the exact thing they taught you to rebel against. I won’t use the Dark Knight quote because I’m not a hack, but it’s true what they say: all of your heroes will disappoint you if they stick around long enough.
Oh well, at least we’ll always have Eric Idle.