Monty Python’s John Cleese on the secret of success: Enjoy the process, and reinvent yourself

“Carl Jung said that if in the second half of your life you try to develop the things that were undeveloped in the first half, you get much more out of life than if you go on doing the same things,” John Cleese, the icon of British comedy group Monty Python and author of a new memoir, tells me as we sit down to coffee in his midtown hotel recently.

“I read the Jung remark before I was 35, and I thought, ‘That’s right!’ It’s the law of diminishing returns: The more that you do of the same thing—if you’re doing the same things at 70 that you did at 40—then you may have missed the point. I think that there are some people who love what they’re doing so much that they just go on doing it forever, and that’s fine. But I think for many of us it’s important to try new things. Of course, we’re loathe to do so, because when you try something new, you’re not very good at it, and you feel a bit embarrassed. But that’s okay! Looking at paintings and looking at jewelry now gives me enormous pleasure, for instance. I haven’t developed that visual side of me as much, that sensation, so that’s been enormously satisfying and exciting.”

Well known in business circles as an author and speaker, Cleese has just come off a run of reunion shows with his Monty Python colleagues at London’s O2 arena and just released on home video. The 10 shows packed in more than 160,000 of the faithful but they were borne out of sheer practicality.

“We’d gotten some appallingly bad financial news,” Cleese confesses. “And yet we were still all laughing. We were having such a good time together we figured, ‘Why not?’ We left it to Eric (Idle) to put it together, because he had lots of experience from his work on Spamalot and because he’s great with music, and with one less member (Graham Chapman died in 1989) and in a big place like the O2, we needed that. Plus, it wouldn’t have worked otherwise. If there’d been even one more Python involved there would have been disagreement and it never would have happened. But the shows were enormously fun and tremendously successful.”

They’re likely, however, to be the last we’ll see of the venerable comedy troupe.

“I really can’t imagine any circumstances in which we’d do it again,” Cleese says, flatly.

Cleese is touring the US, promoting his memoir, So Anyway…, which chronicles his early life right up to the moment of the Pythons’ first television broadcast.

“I always knew that there would be other books, but my publisher told me that to say ‘John Cleese Memoir Volume One’ would be the kiss of death,” Cleese admits. “They were absolutely adamant. I thought we should say ‘Volume One,’ so people would expect that I would only go up to the beginnings of Python, because I knew that I was going to finish up around that point. I thought, ‘How can I let people know that it’s not about Monty Python but about how my humor developed up until Monty Python.’ So I decided that we’d just have to correct it in the interviews. Otherwise, there would be people who’d buy it hoping it would be 90% Python, and I’d feel a bit guilty.”

In fact, the book is a fascinating look at the way Cleese developed his hugely successful working methods through outside inspiration (the anarchic comedy of The Goons, Beyond The Fringe, etc.), the support of a venerable patron (Sir David Frost), and lots of trial and error (at first disastrous, but increasingly better, writing and performance).

Not everyone agrees. The day before Cleese and I speak the Wall Street Journal panned “So Anyway…” When I point out that the reviewer seemed particularly upset by the ending of the book, which finds Cleese backstage at one of the final Python shows and not feeling the slightest bit excited, he’s quick to elaborate on what he feels the writer missed.

“I think there had to have been this extraordinary feeling that this can’t be my actual reaction,” he says. “People who haven’t had a great deal of success don’t realize that at a certain point, it’s not that exciting anymore, and they think that you’re putting on a sort of false blase attitude. But it’s not. If you have any kind of flexible psyche, you develop this. You change. People who haven’t had any success think that fame and money are things that will fix everything. The advantage of having it is that you know that it doesn’t! You get it in proportion. You know what it brings you, but there are pros and cons. In fact, I was very content! I was totally happy. For me, when I perform, I just want to say thank you to the audience, and they thank me. I used to walk straight off the stage, down the corridor, and into the car. Twenty seconds after I was in the car, I’d forgotten about it. It’s not a big payoff. Whereas to have two sheets of paper at the end of the day, I feel that’s an accomplishment. Acting to me is very rarely an accomplishment. I just want to get it right. But I truly enjoyed the O2 shows, and I said as much, but somehow that got missed.”

As we wrap up, I ask Cleese about his working methods and how they can be applied to everyday life, especially work that is perhaps less obviously creative.

“I’m actually very process-oriented,” Cleese tells me. “I think one reason I can do the things I’ve chosen to successfully is that I’m always interested in the process. I’m always trying to find out how it works. I think that’s key to any success. But that’s about the creative impulse, too. You see, you can’t control the payoff. You can control what you do, but you can’t control how people respond to it. But I’ve learned things over the years and have adapted, too. For instance, I used to worry about doing interviews, and I used to do them badly, because I used to be very concerned about what I was saying, that what I would say was accurate. Then one day I had an experience while promoting a movie. I was very tired, and I was doing a chat show, probably 20 years ago. They’d said to me, ‘You’ve got an afternoon off. You’re exhausted.’ And they took me to this Japanese massage place. I came out of that and got in the car, and I said, ‘Do you know who I’m on the show with?’ They said, ‘Yes, you’re on with Boy George and Yoko Ono.’ Normally I would have tightened up, but I went on the show so relaxed because of the massage. I don’t remember what I said, but I was so relaxed. Afterwards, people said that it was the best interview I’d ever done. So I learned that it’s all about feeling relaxed and enjoying yourself, and that carries through in most things we all do, I think.”

You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jeffslate. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search