Fresh Out of Cleese

15 Oct

By James Robert Shaw (The Wind up Geek) and Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

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J: John Cleese is a living legend but don’t worry, he’ll be dead soon. He assured audiences that.

E: And when tickets to his Victoria shows sold out fast, I have to wonder when his Last Time to See Me Before I Die tour will get resurrected.

There’s plenty of good years left for Cleese to create more fabulous work. He is a very colourful comedian. But for whomever that person was who wrote up the marketing for this show, they left one huge plot hole which left some audiences asking questions about later.

There was no Q&A that was supposed to happen after the show. I can’t fault Cleese for wanting to leave early, especially when he’s now in his 70’s, but something was amiss.

J: He is a legend in this business not only as a great comic actor but also as a great writer. Some of the funniest material was written at least partly by Cleese. Many of my personal favourites include the British TV series At Last the 1948 Show, Doctor at Large, The Two Ronnies, Fawlty Towers and the feature film A Fish Called Wanda. At this stage of his career, John Cleese has enough credits to his name to host a two-hour retrospective of his life. And what a treat it is to sit through. Although at least some of this material you will find similar if you were in the audience of his 2011 Alimony tour, those on this side of the pond will be mostly unfamiliar with it.


E: As wonderfully retrospective as the show was, problems with ventilation made sitting through this show a chore. The McPherson Theatre really has to address the issue of the amount of body heat generated by a full house, along with the hot stage lamps can kill a show. Sitting at the very top of the theatre only made it worse, since heat naturally rises. I knew I was nodding off because of that, and not because of Cleese.

And I was more glued to this comedian’s retrospective in the second act when I finally got some water. But throughout the show, there were times where I found some of Cleese’s words lost, either drowned out by loud laughter or he did not complete his thought. Try as I might, I could not hear a few of the punch lines being said. At least the video clips had the audience silent throughout, and they were simply highlights of his 50 year career.

J: Before he entered the stage an introduction of Cleese was made via video screen with some of his more recognizable works being shown. Graham Chapman, Marty Feldman and Andrew Sachs were prominent throughout the video. And during the show he paid homage to Peter Sellers, Michael Palin, Bill Oddie, Graham Chapman (again), Ronnie Barker, Sir David Frost and much to every Victorians’ delight, Alice Munro. She’s not only a Nobel Prize winner for literature but she is the mother of Canadian actor (and St. Michael’s University alumni) Andrew Sabiston.

We were regaled with tales of the Cleese family before his birth (known then as Cheese) through Cleese’s own Cambridge Footlights years up to A Fish Called Wanda. To be honest, Cleese’s memoirs would be better served in book form than stage. The stage show is entertaining. But it’d do better in a publication so it can go into greater detail. If not a tell-all-book then most certainly a behind-the-scenes look at Britain’s artistic community.

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(left to right): John Cleese, Marty Feldman, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor

E: I think Cleese rushed through some of his material so that’s why some bits were not as good. Although I was entertained by his wit, I did not think much of having to sit through a scripted show. I would have preferred some of that Python randomness that made his early work fun. Comedy depends on a bit of improv, and this show had none.

I did however, become intrigued about how fine-tuning a television comedy series worked. Cleese mentioned that three or four cameras were used during the filming of Fawlty Towers and he explained how the editing process made this show. Without the finessing, I would not have been glued in to watching it every day when I first saw it on the tele. By seeing it again with the explanation this comedian offered, I have grown to appreciate this show much more.

The emerging artist known as Ed the video editor was glued to realizing how much of the comedy is generated by smart cuts and removal of just a few words to make the impact all the more hilarious.

J:What I found quite interesting was Cleese’s talk about David Frost, a man who played a large role in starting his career. You could see from Frost’s tone of speech that he must have been an influence on a character created by Eric Idle for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Or Cleese’s teacher Mr. Witmarsh being portrayed as the Emperor of Rome in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. One wonders jokingly if Michael Palin had the same teacher.

I found the second half of the performance filled with too many clips. And not much was said beyond A Fish Called Wanda. It’s as though none of Cleese’s other work of more recent years exist. What happened to Erik the Viking or his part in the James Bond films. Although what was intended was Cleese’s written work, I would have loved to hear how he came up with the story behind the recent hit animated film The Croods.

E: I can answer that, James. It had some of the black comedy stylings that I recognized as Grug looked upon his family, especially with grandma. Some of the character dynamics that was changed became more Flintstones-like than crude-ish. This might have been what Cleese was going after since he was writing a concept that dealt with a family of Neanderthals than Homo Sapiens trying to get along. But when Chris Sanders took over the project, a lot of Cleese’s ideas was most likely rewritten.

I’d almost say I know more about Sander’s career than Cleese, but then, I am a huge fan of everything this animator/director/writer has done. I believe Sanders wanted to change the focus in Cleese’s version to emphasize Eep’s growing independence. He might have retained some of Cleese’s wry wit when it came to how the other characters were related.

Clockwise: John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Andrew Sachs & Connie Booth

Clockwise: John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Andrew Sachs & Connie Booth

J: His love of dark comedy or at least darker characters is clearly evident in his role of Halfdan the Black from Erik the Viking. His part in the 1989 film about a group of vikings traveling to Valhalla to ask the Gods to end the age of Ragnarok, is one of his best. Cleese should play the villain more often.

E: Or he could remain in the dark. Although his choice to not fully interact with the audience is his prerogative, I thought this show was missing something to truly make it unique. Even James shows off Cleese’s style well. He’s talking more about what he liked about the show to himself than always responding to me in Siskel & Ebert fashion. That’s a shame really. Cleese’s show can make an impact if only what he had to say was improved just a little bit more.

J: I agree with Ed (although not with his observations of me) that Cleese was less interactive than a stand-up comedian and more like a headmaster teaching class, but with less chalk being thrown at me for not listening (don’t get any ideas Ed).

E: You should’ve seen James with his arms crossed and only unfolding to clap. I heard him chuckle, but did he truly laugh his arse off?

J: This tour is Cleese’s way to earn back millions lost to his recent ex-wife ($22 million roughly) before he retires or joins the choir invisible. If there is anything he should learn from his retrospect of his life is that history repeats itself, especially when it comes to the women he brings to the altar.

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