Monday, September 17, 2007

The Ministry of Silly Walks

There was a fissure on the humor in poetry list between those of us who thought that the screws of comedy were equally well tightened on the scullery maid as on the queen and those who believed that insult humor was funnier when it redressed a power imbalance. My own views on this were happily complicated by the discussion, some of which is available here, and are certainly not set in stone or even in aspic.

Over the weekend we happened to tune into a 1986 interview with John Cleese (of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame) and some of his answers confused things further, so I scribbled down what he had to say to interviewer Melvyn Bragg and am reproducing it here:

Melvyn Bragg: Why do you think you're so drawn to authority figures? You seem very much at home playing people in authority.

Cleese: Firstly, because I could play them easily, you see. I'd had the training that the authority figures have. If you've been to Clifton and Cambridge it would be easy to become a barrister, you know, or a very upper echelon businessman or a conservative politician. It's very easy to do that.

So all I had to do was put a suit on. I had the right accent. I could play them. So that's one of the reasons.

Second thing is, I realized very early on that if somebody, a character that you're going to write, is going to do that [twitches convulsively] then it's funny if he's head of the Secret Service and not funny if he's a milkman.

So the more authority you give these characters, the more they have hanging on them, the more people's lives depend on how they're going to act, then the funnier it is when they do a bit of that [twitches spasmodically again].

Cleese was also interesting on the exercise of authority in the family and how it affects our ability (later on in life) to evaluate power in the larger world. Unfortunately he also seemed locked in to antiquated views about "mother domination," as though authority only came naturally to fathers, but some of what he had to say was so spot-on and so reminiscent of annoying people I've known that I thought I had to include it as well:

[When people see that] authority can be exercised intelligently they have a choice about what they're rebellious about. A lot of people who grow up in families where the father is absolutely awful -- and I could name some MPs on the left here [in Britain] -- have a feeling deep down that all authority is wrong all of the time. And they're the sort of compulsive rebels who have no choice about what they're going to complain about.

They'll just whinge about authority the whole time and if anybody says anything about anyone in authority they'll raise their eyes to heaven, knowing all authority is wrong. And I think I used to be in that camp.

It was also delightful to learn that that Cleese's father was born Reginald Cheese, his grandfather John Edwin Cheese, and that the name was only changed after the first world war. It's tempting to wonder whether some of the patented Cleese anger (so usefully deployed in comedy) springs from centuries of teasing, but that will have to remain one of life's unsolved mysteries.

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