Thirty-five years ago, I sat next to my wife-to-be in a Tel Aviv cinema, doubled up with laughter, as a certain Mr. Creosote, pushed beyond his corporeal limit by one more wafer-thin mint, exploded — literally exploded, fake gut bursting open — in the most memorable scene of “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.” And just below the screen as we watched, a stream of evidently less amused Israeli movie-goers, pushed beyond their comedic limits by the scenes of revolting light-brown vomit showering across Mr. Creosote’s fellow diners, headed to the exit.
On three recent sold-out nights in Tel Aviv, the waiter who proffered that offending mint, John Cleese, showed a few seconds of that vomit scene, and a total of some 7,200 Israelis lapped it up. Metaphorically.
These, self-evidently, were the die-hard Python fans, the fans, too, of Cleese’s post-Python, 12-episode hotel farce classic “Fawlty Towers” — the fans, that is, who didn’t walk out of Israel’s cinemas in 1983.
Their expectations may not have been sky-high. Cleese — whose tour is unflinchingly entitled “Last Time to See Me Before I Die” — turns 80 next month, and it was patently obvious that this most physical of the Python team of cerebral comics would not, in the course of the evening, be performing Silly Walks or diving, as he did when the volcanic Mr. Creosote rumbled toward eruption, into a row of plants.
But Cleese, whose introducer demanded a standing ovation for him when he walked carefully onto the stage, earned a spontaneous and heartfelt repeat standing ovation more than two hours later. This after a sedately paced show comprising a short history of Monty Python, a near-academic dissection of comedy, lengthy ruminations on death, and an extensive smattering of clips ranging from Python and Fawlty Towers to an appearance at Aspen by ex-Pythons together with the ashes of their colleague Graham Chapman, and, finally, Cleese’s address at the memorial service for Chapman.
Those two final clips, however improbably, were two of the evening’s funniest and best-received. And Cleese ended the show delightedly reminding us that he’d now reduced us to Pythonic depths of silliness by having us laugh at the sight of him saying “Fuck” in a church during a speech in honor of somebody who’d died.
Cleese held sway from a stool at center stage in the high-ceilinged Heichal Hatarbut (Charles Bronfman Auditorium), following, and frequently departing from, a script scrolling across large tele-prompter screens hanging down from above the stalls a few feet in front of him. Even for a native English-speaker, it was hard to catch everything he was saying, and I found myself turning back over my shoulder to read from his screens at times. But the crowd was with him throughout, and appreciative even of some somewhat below par, relatively recent video clips featuring Cleese as Stig Ohmquist, glum organizer of the doomed Swedish Fun Week.
His telling of how the first Monty Python series came to be commissioned in the late 1960s was fascinating and, as he said, “extraordinary,” in that the BBC’s head of comedy, one Michael Mills, approved 13 episodes of a debut series by a team who admitted to him they had “no clue” what it was going to include. Mills granted them total freedom to be very, very silly. Which they were — peaking, in Cleese’s opinion, with the Fish Slapping Dance.
But silly was never stupid, and the Pythons’ “Life of Brian,” their crowning achievement, was not only very, very funny, but also wise, and a necessary antidote to the pious hypocrites who control organized religion and claim to speak on behalf of the divine. A century ago, Cleese recalled, Pope Pius X pronounced that “kindness is for fools” — something of a departure, he noted acerbically, from Jesus’s blessings of the meek, the pure of heart, and the peacemakers.
Much of the second half of Cleese’s show was dedicated to telling jokes against various nationalities and religions, ostensibly showing himself an equal opportunity offender, though he and the jokes were actually gracious and good-natured and not remotely offensive. He made great play of announcing that “I think it’s time for a few Jewish jokes,” but nobody shrank in fear at what might coming, confident by now in Cleese’s judgment. And his selection was indeed endearing, and included one joke that he said had been given to him by an audience member at a previous show, about the elderly Jewish man who converts to Christianity on his death bed because “if someone’s got to go, I’d rather it was one of them.” John Cleese is accepting jokes, folks; there’s hope yet for all of us would-be comedy writers.
Cleese also noted that one of his daughters (Cynthia) was married to a Hollywood producer (Ed Solomon) who just so happens to be Jewish, and that he naturally adores his Jewish grandchildren. Which yielded a particularly warm round of applause.
As for his own parentage, Cleese spoke movingly and humorously about his late mother, who suffered from depression and often talked of suicide, and he recalled getting a big laugh out of her by telling her that, if she really wanted to go, he could get a little man in Fulham to come in and do the deed. When she asked him if he’d miss her when she was gone, he told her firmly that he would not… because he’d have her stuffed and put in a glass case by the front door, so he could say hello and goodbye to her as he came and went. She was, he said, delighted at the idea.
Cheering up your suicidal mother by assuring her of her looming taxidermy? And getting huge laughs by recalling the story years later on your own mortality-shadowed comedy tour? That John Cleese: Very silly. Very funny. And a privilege to see him before… Before someone says “Fuck” in a church during a speech in his memory.