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NewsJan 12, 2017

Monty Python icon John Cleese

Dr. Diana Direiter examines British comedy legend's oeuvre.

John Cleese embraces a fan.

Any self-respecting pop culture nerd can carry on a conversation using nothing but Monty Python quotes.

British comedy legend John Cleese joshes with WGBH's Jared Bowen.
British comedy legend John Cleese joshes with WGBH's Jared Bowen.

This is especially the case when the conversations focus -- as they so often do -- on the subtle signs of death in parrots, the element of surprise inherent to the Spanish Inquisition or the self-diagnostic skills of a Black Knight.

John Cleese’s contributions to pop culture canon run deeper than his three seasons of the TV series, Monty Python (although he later continued with the troupe for multiple movies and live performances). A best-selling author, he has created romantic movie characters (Archie Leach in A Fish Called Wanda), seamlessly joined movie franchises (playing R before being promoted to Q in the Pierce Brosnan era James Bond movies) and created, guest-starred or hosted countless comedy and documentary television series (Fawlty Towers, The Human Face, Will and Grace). His famous voice has convinced adults to buy everything from Maxwell House coffee to Heineken beer while it has delighted children in animated classics such as Shrek and Winnie the Pooh. The only man who has had an asteroid, a species of Lemur and a New Zealand landfill named for him, also declined two British honors (Life Peerage and Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

In his most recent book, So, Anyway, Cleese describes a moment in his late adolescence in which his belief that those in authority over him were fair was shattered. He recounts the painful realization that someone in charge would make a decision based on their own petty, ego-driven vindictiveness, ignoring both the needs of the greater system as well as the merits or accomplishments of a particular individual. He describes being overwhelmed with contempt not only for the one abusing their position of authority, but also for the larger system that would empower them.

And now for something completely different, Cleese has been an outspoken critic of the Republican party in America and likens the incoming Presidential cabinet to a pirate crew of someone “clearly unqualified for the job.” Relatedly, in November 2016, a letter made the rounds on the Internet that announced the imminent revocation of the United States’ independence based on the “failure to elect a competent President.” The satirical piece has been widely attributed to Cleese, but was actually written by Alan Baxter after George W. Bush was declared the winner of the 2000 election after several weeks in which terms like “hanging chads” were part of the national conversation.

Cleese is also both literally and figuratively vocal in politics in the U.K., as he has publicly given his support to the Liberal Democrats, as well as narrated or recorded political broadcasts on their behalf.