‘You’re about the sanest nation there is,” says the man who refers to himself as a tall, elderly, skinny, balding Englishman.
Because he’s John Cleese, the master of controlled comedic insanity, it’s hard to know whether he’s being complimentary. Isn’t a global reputation for sanity another way of saying Canada is boring, our polite country’s curse?
“I think America has become such an extroverted culture, so you feel a little pale by comparison,” says the 73-year-old veteran of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, a self-described introvert who’s travelling this low-key land with his Last Chance to See Me Before I Die show. “I want to say, no, no, you’re the normal ones.… What I like about Canadians is that I’ve never heard a Canadian who thought anything about Canada was exceptional. It’s why you’re deliciously sane.”
Mr. Cleese stopped by The Globe and Mail for a chat before the first of six Toronto performances. We half-hoped that he’d take the time to distract us with a silly walk or two and listen to our word-perfect renditions of the Dead Parrot sketch. But he was in a more thoughtful mode as he reflected on both the nature of humour and the dim lighting of the newspaper workplace – “Introverts get a chance to have a little more privacy because it’s darker,” he decided, seeing himself among us – heaped praise on the Tom Thomson paintings he discovered at the National Gallery, and explained why he’s tiring himself with yet another farewell tour.
“Farewell tours are very helpful, particularly when you’ve got alimony to pay off,” he says.
He lived in California for 12 years and paid the price when he divorced his third wife, an American psychotherapist, in 2008. “I’ve paid $22-million so far, and I think I have another $2-million to go,” said Mr. Cleese, who has since married for a fourth time and now lives in London. “So I should be out from under it in about Easter of next year.”
It’s a paradox of Mr. Cleese’s life that his unluckiness in marriage has kept him busy and enhanced the pleasure of his fans. He’d rather be writing his autobiography than touring non-stop (with six shows in Edmonton, three in Calgary, eight in Victoria, six in Vancouver), and he insists his deepest interests lie in the field of academic psychology. His favourite question in the Q and A sessions he holds at the end of each show is, “Why have you been married so many times?” The answer starts with his mother, an agoraphobic who told her shy only child that he was unwanted.
With his fourth marriage, he insists he’s finally got it right. “But of course the British press will hear that and hate me. The idea that anyone is having a happy, contented life is anathema to them.”
Contentment doesn’t come naturally to Mr. Cleese, and although he now consorts with the likes of Prince Charles, a fellow introvert forced onto the extrovert’s stage, much of his best early comedy was based on dissatisfaction with Britain’s stifling status quo. “One always thinks that as a comedian if you could make someone laugh at something, people will reflect and stop doing it. And the answer is that it has almost no effect at all.”
Comedy just exists, he says, to get us through the bad bits. “I’m not constantly irritated by the world at all. But as you get older, you do realize that the place is very much madder than anyone ever told you.”
There’s a danger in being the last sane man in a crazy world – particularly if your alimony payments depend on getting other people to laugh along with you. “There’s much less relaxation and enjoyment now,” says Mr. Cleese, a man who’s so out of touch with his time that he refuses to pose for cellphone photos with fans. “What’s it about? It’s about suddenly my life becomes much more worthwhile because I’ve been photographed with a famous person? It’s almost sick.”
He enjoys many of fame’s perks. He loves the idea that accomplished people seek him out “because I made them laugh when they were students.” But speaking more as the psychologist he wanted to be than the comedian he became, he counsels against the fame he now exploits. “We’ve been sold this idea, I think by the Americans, that visible success is all-important. It’s very trivial.”
Jesus, not known for his comic side, is one of Mr. Cleese’s great role models in this crusade for meaning. “There’s nothing about Jesus that was funny,“ he says. “You just wanted to shut up and listen to what he had to say.”