Not much fun in Stalingrad

“Death is certainly present in my life, and there’s humor to be mined from it,” the 77-year-old John Cleese tells Vulture‘s David Marchese in a new interview. “Somebody was saying to me last week that you can’t talk about death these days without people thinking you’ve done something absolutely antisocial. But death is part of the deal.”

And so, in a way, is being antisocial. It’s been a part of Cleese’s humor since his years with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but on his own he’s written and appeared in Fawlty Towers, perhaps the best television comedy ever produced, and A Fish Called Wanda. In his creation of Basil Fawlty, Cleese came up with one of the most enduring comic creations in history, sharing traits with Fawlty’s ancestor W.C. Fields and his descendant “Larry David”: paralyzingly fearful, irritable and impatient, prone to fits of explosive rage, devious (even if his deviousness inevitably leads to humiliating, embarrassing disaster), greedy, vain, elitist, puritanical, obsequious with the rich and titled, and prejudiced against race and nationality, Fawlty is a human coagulation of all of the most universal failings known to the race. And Cleese’s embodiment of the character, ill-dressed, eternally ill-at-ease, and clumsy, demonstrated a physical ineptitude that served as a bodily metaphor for all these traits. As he tells Marchese:

The thing about Fawlty Towers is that almost anyone can understand the comedy of it. It’s just about people getting frightened or scared or trying not to get blamed. A child of 8 can follow everything in it. … People get embarrassed when they watch Fawlty Towers. I was in a therapy group once with a judge; when he joined the group he had no idea who I was. Most of the other people in England at that time would have some idea but he didn’t. When I told him what I did for a living, he said he’d watch Fawlty Towers. When I saw him next he said he’d started to watch it and had become so embarrassed by everybody’s behavior that he had to leave the room. The vicarious embarrassment was too much for him.

Ah, funny because it’s true. So cruelly true.

Here are a few other tidbits from the interview:

You’ve lived in America part-time for decades. Did Donald Trump’s election change your thinking about Americans?
Mm-hmm. What I found surprising was that the least successful people supported Trump. You understand the wealthy wanting tax cuts, but why on Earth did the less successful people think Trump was going to do anything he said he was going to do to help them? I’ll give an analogy: I remember going to see professional wrestling when I was 18 — wonderful entertainment, obviously rigged. The thing that astounded me as I looked around Colston Hall in Bristol is that quite a lot of the audience thought what they were seeing was for real. That’s what’s incredible to me about such a large swath of the American people: They can’t see that Trump is fake. And if they can’t see that when it’s right in front of them, how can you convince them of anything critical about the man? It’s like holding up a red sign to a person and the person says it’s blue. You can’t logically argue them into seeing red. The inability of people unable to intuit what was going on with Trump — I was impressed by it, not repelled. It was extraordinary to me that people couldn’t see how clueless he is.

Tell me more about your impression of Trump.
What also appalls me is the language of him and his cronies — people talking about sucking on their own cocks and such. I don’t know if it’s universal or distinctly American, but the vulgarity of the language of powerful men: It all comes down to penises and pissing and cocks. They talk like out-of-control 6-year-olds. …

There’s absolutely nothing that gives you any hope about the future of human society?


So why get up in the morning?
Just because you can’t create a sensible world doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the world you’re in. I think Bertrand Russell once said that the secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible. Once you realize that things are pretty hopeless, then you just have a laugh and you don’t waste time on things that you can’t change — and I don’t think you can change society. I’ve spent a lot of time in group therapy watching highly intelligent, well-intentioned people try to change and they couldn’t. If even they can’t change …

The full interview can be found here. And if you’re puzzled by the title of this post, here’s the most amusing source: