John Cleese denounces wakefulness for ‘disastrous’ impact on comedy

Entertainment icon John Cleese criticized his wakefulness for having a “disastrous” impact on comedy during an interview with Fox News Digital.

Cleese was a keynote speaker at last week’s FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas, where he spoke about cultivating creativity, a skill he believes is essential and not just in showbiz, but he sounded the alarm that political correctness is a big deal. has become an obstacle, especially for young comedians.

When asked if comedians have the freedom to be funny in the year 2022, Cleese answered firmly, “No.”

“There have always been restrictions on what they can say,” Cleese said. “Why you go to Molière and Louis XIV. I mean, Molière had to be a little careful. And there will always be limitations. I mean in England, until a ridiculously late date like 1965, all the plays had to be subjected to what used to be a part of the palace called the Lord Chamberlain, and he read it and there were hilarious letters used to go back, said ‘You can only say f–k once,’ this kind of… ‘and you can’t say a bastard. But you can say…’ these kind of ridiculous negotiation letters.’

“But I find it especially worrisome at the moment because you can only create in an atmosphere of freedom, where you don’t critically check everything you say before moving on. What you must be able to build is without knowing where you are going, because you have never been there. That’s what creativity is: you have to be able to build. And there’s a lot of comedians sitting there now, and when they think about something, they’re like, ‘Can I get away with it? I do not think so. So and so got into trouble and he said that, oh, she said that.’ You see what I mean? And that’s the death of creativity,” Cleese continued. “So I’d say right now that this is a tough time, especially for young comedians, but you see, my audience is much older and they’re just not interested in most awake poses. I mean, they just think you should try to be nice to people and there’s no need to complicate it, you know?’

Cleese mentioned being awake: "disastrous."
John Cleese criticized wakefulness for his negative role in comedy.
John Cleese speaks on 'Comedy with the Cleeses'
Cleese is best known as the co-founder of Monty Python.
Getty Images for SXSW

The ‘Monty Python’ star explained that being awake allows the ‘critical mind’ to take over the creative, saying they are ‘absolutely opposite’.

“You can do the creation and then criticize it, but you can’t do them at the same time. So if you’re worried about offending people and constantly thinking about it, you won’t be very creative. So I think it’s going to have a disastrous effect,” Cleese told Fox News Digital.

Cleese complained that “everything is more politicized now,” including late-night comedy in America. He pointed to Stephen Colbert, host of ‘Late Show’, who he says he ‘adores’, but acknowledged that his audience is ‘more clearly politically aligned than they used to be’, adding: ‘It wasn’t like that.’

“It wasn’t like that when I first arrived in America,” Cleese said. “When I first arrived in America in the 1960s, two things happened. First, I greatly admired the friendships across the aisle and thought they didn’t exist in England. We have real battles between the Tories and the Labor, but in America there seem to be these – and this was destroyed very deliberately by Newt Gingrich, for power’s sake. I think that’s a tragedy.”

When asked if late-night comedians can ever reunite both sides of the aisle like they used to, Cleese replied, “No,” adding that comedians can “sometimes sum up in an instant what’s happening, really well,” but they never “change” anything.”

The 82-year-old British prankster firmly opposed the idea that any comedian should be “cancelled” over a joke and let the public decide what’s funny.

“If you go to a Republican convention and tell anti-democratic jokes, you get a really good response. If you’re telling anti-Republican jokes, you won’t. So you have to adapt your material to your audience to some extent. And that’s part of it… When you go to your grandma and have tea with her, you don’t start telling her sex jokes. That’s not because it’s illegal, it’s just bad manners,” Cleese said.

He continued: “So I think you would think what the audience is and then you could shock them a little bit, because that’s fun. And also, as I point out onstage, if you get into areas that are a bit taboo, you actually get the biggest laugh, which is why sexual humor is often greeted with huge laughs when it’s not particularly funny. It has to do with fear and the release of fear when people relax or laugh with added energy that comes from simply laughing at something they were afraid of before.”

Cleese made a grim prediction about the future of comedy, saying he feels “great sadness” at the fact that there are “very, very few really good comedy scripts.”

“Certainly in England, when I went to the theater between the 60s and 2000s, there were probably six or seven writers who wrote absolutely wonderful comedies, beautifully constructed, good characters. And I think it was the same in America, because Broadway was very important and the people who worked on Broadway were very literate. They wrote a lot and knew how to plot,” Cleese told Fox News Digital. “What I feel now is that very few people understand how to plot the comedy, so the comedies in America are really geared towards young men because they’re the ones who go to the movies on Friday nights, which means the box office looks good.” And in the end it’s all done with money because now we have studios that are more interested in money than making great movies and they used to want to make great movies too.”

“Can you remember the last great comedy you saw?” asked Fox News Digital.

“Roxanne,” Cleese chuckled, referring to Steve Martin’s 1987 film. “‘Dirty rotten thugs.'”

He added: “I don’t often go to comedies because if you’ve spent your whole life in comedy, by the time you’re 55 years in comedy you’ve heard most of the jokes. And you look at people that make you think, “Yeah, that’s funny,” but I’ve got better things to do tonight than watch comedy. I don’t need to be entertained. I’d rather read a book.”

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