Comedy review: An Evening With John Cleese - Live In Singapore

British comedian John Cleese. -- FILE PHOTO: LAMC PRODUCTIONS
British comedian John Cleese. -- FILE PHOTO: LAMC PRODUCTIONS

Last Sunday, 8pm

University Cultural Centre (UCC), National University Of Singapore

It was as much a gathering of the faithful as much as it was a show - here was a full house of Cleese-heads, people who had come together as much to share in their love of all things Monty Python, A Fish Called Wanda and Fawlty Towers.

Each time he first mentioned one of the three works of the holy Cleese canon, there were murmurs of appreciation, and at one point, at the drop of the words "Fawlty Towers", even a shriek.

The pace was brisker, the monologue sharper and funnier than one had any reason to expect from a show that was mostly autobiographical reminiscence. He kicked off with a canny bit of self-deprecation: "I know what you're thinking. 'My God, he's old!'"

The 74-year-old might be a bit greyer, rounder of belly and slower of movement than the loose-limbed beanpole that fans remember from the Fawlty Towers television series (1975 and 1979) and from his Ministry Of Silly Walks in Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch show (1969 to 1974).

But it didn't matter. The audience, mostly middle-aged or older but with about a third aged 40 or younger, was eating out of his hand the minute he walked on.

And even though he said in the first minute that the show was created to pay off his owed alimony (he owes ex-wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger a further US$2 million, he said), the evening was anything but a cynical cash grab.

It was not quite a standup routine, more like a lecture from a most agreeble teacher. It was a little bit of Everything You Wanted To Know About Cleese But Were Afraid To Ask, a look behind the scenes at Python, Wanda and Towers, sprinkled with a dash psychological insight (he did, after all, co-write a few therapeutic self-help books).

He used his own life to illustrate larger trends in culture, especially in comedy. He witnessed a turning point in British satire, he says, when he was a student at Cambridge University in the early 1960s. It was then that he saw a performance of the Beyond The Fringe Troupe featuring its founders, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. He, like the rest of conservative, deferential Britain, had presumed that senior politicians were off-limits.

To Cleese, Fringe's parodic impressions of then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan were both shocking and liberating, and that no-holds barred style would help usher in the Swinging Sixties as well as blaze a path for the men who would form the Flying Circus.

And the Python group, he noted, were composed of writers, not performers. This was shown how arguments would erupt over the quality of jokes, rather than over who would perform in which role.

Their disagreements were typically about which of several options was the silliest and therefore sketch-worthy. To illustrate, he told of how a debate started over that eternal question: Which stuffed animal would make a sillier ceiling light, a goat or a sheep? The right answer was worth prolonged and heated nitpicking by the members of Python, he notes, a fact for which fans will forever remain grateful.