John Cleese, whom you know (or should know) from Monty Python's Flying Circus, A Fish Called Wanda, and, if you're a slightly more committed anglophile, Fawlty Towers, has spent the past several years doing live performances all over the world.
His most recent tour was a joint venture in late 2016 with fellow Python alum Eric Idle. Now, he's out promoting a solo show called "Why There Is No Hope," which is scheduled to come to McCaw Hall on March 26.
Tickets for the Seattle show are still available. A lot of them, apparently. Massively available. More so than in any other city on the tour. To the extent that Mr. Cleese is both perplexed and concerned—enough to tweet about it, anyway:
A plea for advice from my Seattle Twits
I'm making an appearance there as part of the 'Unique Lives series' on March 26th. All my other shows are sold out, but the one in Seattle is only at 60%
Have any of seen publicity for it ? Did I offend the mayor ?
— John Cleese (@JohnCleese) February 5, 2018
This is strange. You might think Seattle's demographic and cultural leanings would make it a sweet spot for Cleese to command an easy SRO. This tweet prompts one to ask why we, of all America's blue dots, would want to treat John Cleese as though his hovercraft were full of eels. (Sorry, last one.)
A few hypotheses:
1. Cleese was here fairly recently, appearing along with Eric Idle at the Moore Theatre, in October of 2016.
2. A seat at "Why There Is No Hope" will run you $66-$77. People who can easily afford such a ticket price are likely to have lucrative full-time jobs. Many people in this category will be unlikely to know who Cleese is—despite having seen a GIF of the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch while pursuing their MSCS degrees, or pretending to laugh when an older colleague adopted a strange accent before saying "It's just a flesh wound" after getting laid off at work. Many others will be too busy working to make the 7:30pm curtain and may look forward instead to watching shaky phone video clips of the performance with terrible sound on YouTube later that night.
3. Rampant ageism, the form of discrimination about which otherwise conscientious Seattle progressive and liberal types G the fewest Fs, threatens the otherwise strong prospects of a sold-out house for John Cleese. The prospect of spending lots of money to listen to a 78-year-old man speak caustically about the dire state of the declining West may strike some people under the age of 40 as irresponsible when there are so many other old people they can dismiss or ignore for free.
4. McCaw Hall holds just about 3,000 people, 60 percent of which is 1,800, a perfectly respectable number of humans to draw on a Monday night. If they moved the show to the Paramount, they'd only have another thousand tickets to sell. Switch to the 5th Avenue Theatre, they'd be sitting pretty at 85 percent capacity with six weeks to go. Moore Theatre, they'd have a commanding sell-out on their hands, and might even have to turn people away.
In contrast to other famous British comedians: Ricky Gervais came to town two weeks ago and was content to fill the Moore, as was Noel Fielding when he played Seattle in 2016. When Russell Brand last played here, he did so at the 800-capacity Neptune, as will Dylan Moran when he arrives one day after Cleese, on March 27.
(This is not to suggest that any of these performers are as great or will be remembered as long as Cleese, only that they have made new primary source material more recently than he has. A Fish Called Wanda will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. Nor is it to suggest, in Moran's case, that being Irish is the same thing as being British.)
See also: Bryan Ferry, who, while not a British comedian, is a legitimate British pop star only six years Cleese's junior. Roxy Music emerged around the same time as Monty Python's Flying Circus. Ferry played his first Seattle date in years at McCaw Hall in 2014 and the place couldn't have been much more than 60% full.
5. I am constitutionally incapable of arguing that John Cleese is no longer funny. Obviously, he is very funny, both in the past tense, where he has always been funny, and in the present, where he will likely remain funny until he dies. However, after I saw him perform at the Moore in November, 2009, on what he called his "Alimony Tour" a.k.a. "Feeding the Beast," I was fairly sure it would be the last time.
I don't know a delicate way to say it, but I have always been a Cleese fan of the most insufferable stripe. Even after high school, I relished opportunities to quote the lines, mimic the movements, argue over the superiority of this or that sketch/line/character... Thee. Worst. And of course I gravitated toward people who were nearly as bad as I was, and we became friends and even more intimate connections, and exacerbated one another's proclivities in ways we enjoyed.
This was part of how I learned that shared taste in comedy and music isn't necessarily enough to sustain a relationship. And so it was that I came to attend John Cleese's Alimony Tour show with my (then only, now first) ex-wife, with whom I was on fairly warm terms at the time despite everything, and who may have been an even bigger Cleese enthusiast than I was.
But that show.
It wasn't that he didn't have good bits. Of course he did. His reminiscences of childhood in ultra-boring Weston-Super-Mare, and of his family, and his show business stories, and the videos he showed—all were excellent. But he opened with 10-15 minutes of deep rancor and bitterness toward his then-recent ex-wife, whose lawyers had contrived to gouge Cleese out of $20 million, and it was not just uncomfortable or unbecoming. It was unbearable.
The jokes about her greed, her human shortcomings, her dollar-for-dollar value as a spouse ($3,650/day for their 19-year marriage) versus other women he might have been able to procure for the same amount—well, they may have sounded like jokes, but they didn't feel like jokes.
They weren't funny, in any case.
The wounds they attempted to cover were obviously fresh, and he was obviously not just acting angry. Even worse, he was doing the thing many performers do when injured by a breakup: Inviting public sympathy by portraying his ex's worst characteristics without ever really parting the curtain on his own. "I got off lightly," one typical line began. "Think what I’d have had to pay if she had contributed anything to the relationship."
I don't mean to be sanctimonious on this score. We've all portrayed ourselves as victims at the end of a relationship, some in more public ways than others. And for all I know, Cleese's characterization of his ex-wife as a castrating, money-hungry shrew and himself as a hapless victim could've been entirely accurate. Unlikely, almost impossible, but conceivable. That doesn't mean it makes a good show. It's a human failing to seek sympathy from people you don't know. It's usually an artistic one, too.
The fact that the tour existed explicitly to raise the money to cover his divorce settlement did not lighten the tone, or mitigate the feeling that we were participating in something insalubrious. We were watching someone who had occupied a very rare status, truly one of the funniest humans who ever drew breath, be cheap and cruel. Maybe he had every reason to. But it didn't feel good or right to watch it.
I don't know if anyone else had a similar response to Cleese's incarnation. The reviews of the show were generally good (not counting this one, from The Telegraph), and I wound up defaulting to my cellular love of Python and Wanda, and more or less tuned contemporary Cleese out.
(PS This aversion wasn't the same as I felt to, say, George Carlin's late-in-life transformation into a prophet of doom. I didn't care much for that persona either, but it was clearly an aesthetic and moral choice made by an artist with a strong command of his skills. Carlin was responding to the times, not to a personal injury.)
But to be fair, the Alimony Tour was nearly 10 years ago, and Cleese has recently returned to the radar screen. (Also, perhaps unrelatedly, he got married again and neared the end of the terms of spousal support from his divorce.) He never stopped doing acting roles and voice work. He also kept touring, both solo and with Eric Idle. His tours had comic titles like "Last Time to See Me Before I Die!" and "A Final Wave at the World." There was even one final Python reunion in 2014. (Don't see it.)
Following the publication that same year of his memoir, So, Anyway... (which almost perfectly describes the reason Audible.com has become such a precious resource, despite its ominous provenance), Cleese entered yet another phase: that of éminence grise, being genially interviewed by younger acolytes and journalist types. It should go without saying that he excelled in this role, as shown here, with John Hodgman:
And, closer to home, here, with Steve Sher:
And then there is the primary source material, which has aged as brilliantly as you'd have expected and hoped. Holy Grail and Life of Brian are impossibly smart and absurd. A Fish Called Wanda is practically perfect. Plus the TV shows, the Python records, and the bits where he turns up unexpectedly—Time Bandits, Silverado, The Great Muppet Caper, that one episode of Cheers... I can even work up a defense of Fierce Creatures, if you're interested.
There's no telling what the "Why There Is No Hope" tour portends with regard to John Cleese's 2018 persona. There are plenty of cranky voices in the air these days, inveighing against the gradual degeneration of the world they didn't even like that much to begin with. Sometimes it's the old saw of "political correctness," but sometimes the complaint is more resonant and real. With so much omnidirectional sanctimony flying around these days, it'd be nice to think that a true laureate of inspired silliness might come back to reclaim his mantle.
That'd fill McCaw Hall, easy.
Oh, yeah, also: 6) Maybe the name of the show is a bummer?
He could even make a eulogy for a close friend and partner unbelievably funny: