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What has John Cleese ever done for us?

In celebration of John Cleese Presents on Radio 4, we look back on the life and work of this extraordinary man to whom we have given our comedic hearts and ask ourselves, à la the activists in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “what has he ever given us in return?”

“Our passion would lead us into very silly territory”

John Cleese on the origins of Monty Python.

A refusal to age

A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of dividing people.

“A lot of people get rigid as they get older because they think they should be ‘wise’. But the child in us, the source of playfulness and joy – that’s the source of all the loveliest things in life,” he says. “The most creative people have this childlike facility to play. I do. But one or two of my friends think of me a little bit as ‘not grown up’. And I realise how trapped they are in the need to be grown up – which I’ve never felt.”

A belief in humour to overcome ego

He has met and worked with many of the most famous entertainers in the world, and says “once you start to really shake with laughter with people, an awful lot of that ego, ‘he’s much bigger and more important than I am’ – begins to fade away. A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of dividing people.”

Self-deprecating humour

Cleese says directors used to say “get me John Cleese”. And now they say “Get me a John Cleese type. Someone who’s like him, but much easier to work with, and not grumpy. And not likely to go to sleep after 13 hours.”


He thinks CBEs are “silly” and turned one down in 1996. He also rejected a knighthood.

The ability to do silly walks

The Ministry of Silly Walks, which really, like the Dead Parrot sketch, didn’t engender the riot you’d expect when it was first broadcast, has meant any time you have a slight leg injury you’re allowed to ham it up like mad on the grounds that you’re impersonating John Cleese.

Advice about creativity

Cleese regularly gives advice on finding creative inspiration in business. He describes the process as being “like the sculptor who when asked how he had sculpted a very fine elephant, explained that he'd taken a big block of marble and then knocked away all the bits that didn't look like an elephant.”

An understanding of the importance of good handwriting

John Cleese was in charge of writing down all the sketch ideas he worked on with Graham Chapman, as Chapman’s handwriting was so appalling.

A hatred of selfies

His hatred of narcissism knows no bounds. In fact, with fellow Python Eric Idle he has penned a song called “F*** Selfies”.

The joy of externalising your anger

Don’t let your anger fester – vent it. Preferably on an inanimate object. For example, as a wound-up man permanently on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Cleese as Basil Fawlty vents his fury by prancing around walloping his broken-down car with a tree branch when it refuses to start.

A love of radio

“I’ve always loved radio, and for 400 years I’ve been saying it’s the best medium.” He says.

How right you are, John. Anyway… apart from all of the above, what has John Cleese ever done for us?

John Cleese on your radio