The British comedy legend, who rounded up his successful tour of Australia with some shows in Dubai earlier this year, shares with Vision his experiences of standup, discovering Dubai and why at the age of 72 he seems far from ready to take things easy
Why did you include the UAE as a stop on your tour? I decided to do the Australia tour at the beginning of this year, which was a huge success. I did 54 shows and then I thought it would be fun to try Dubai and we sold out quite easily. Jenny [John’s wife] has been to the emirate a lot over the years, so I got interested in visiting. I found it has a unique charm.
Is there anything that surprised you about Dubai? I knew nothing of the Middle East beforehand. I found the people extremely pleasant, which is almost the most important thing. I also found there are lots of interesting places and plenty of things going on.
Have you noticed differences in the humour of your audiences depending on their country/culture? The best audiences I have played to are in Scandinavia and South Africa: they are a bit quicker and get all the smaller jokes, but a lot of my Arab hosts were English-educated and seemed to get the humour. Playing to reactive audiences is the best because it’s fun to have the laughs coming.
Do you ever get heckled? I encourage questions from the audience, but it was much more successful in South Africa and Scandinavia. When we were in Australia, we found the questions were so friendly that they were rather boring.
What was the most memorable question? Someone once asked me, if I were to choose to be a component part of an aircraft, which part would I be? I could hardly answer the question because I thought it was such a funny one.
How has the comedy scene changed since you started out? Standup has become a phenomenon. When I started, it was much more sketch comedy. There is a lot of talent, but I also think that there is a lot of bad language and flailing about, which you always get when comedians are not confident in their material.
Who do you admire as a comedian? The greatest of them all was Peter Cook. He was the master of the sketch and the monologue, which he performed in character. These days there’s a lot of observational comedy.
Are you working on any other projects? I do quite a lot of other things. I’m about to start work on my autobiography, and for 20 years I had a company called Video Arts. We used to make management and sales training films and as a result I get asked to make a lot of business speeches – which is another reason why I’m keen to return to Dubai. I generally give talks to companies examining the interface between management and psychology, and in particular about creativity and innovation. It really surprises people what they can learn; the truth is that these days, if businesses don’t innovate, they’re dead.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? I don’t think I have one. Although I’m very proud there is a species of lemur in Madagascar named after me. It’s called Cleese’s woolly lemur (also known as the Bemaraha woolly lemur).
Do you think your autobiographical account of the Monty Python years will differ from fellow Python Michael Palin’s? When you meet people from school 20 years later you find they have completely different rules from you. And sometimes you discover that they believed things at the time, and you had no idea they thought that. Michael and I were always very close, whereas there are a couple of other Pythons I would differ more from simply because our personalities were more dissimilar.