Comedy by Numbers

I was looking forward to “An Evening with John Cleese” and seeing  the creator of some of the great Monty Python sketches, Fawlty Towers and A Fish called Wanda.

The evening started with a rant about how this tour was basically to make money to pay alimony. $14M down and $4M to go. This gave the impression of a bitter old man who was just going through the motions for the money and didn’t really want to be there.

I thought it would really be like having an audience with him. Maybe people could ask him questions and he could amuse us with a series of off-the-cuff reminiscences. Alas it was not to be.

Questions were certainly asked. The first half of the show was Cleese being interviewed by Richard Glover. When I say ‘interviewed’ I mean he asked questions in the same way that members of the government ask questions of their own ministers in question time. “Can the minister tell the house what the government is doing about improving literacy” “I thank the honourable member for his question and will now read out five pages of answers prepared by the same public servant who wrote the question.”

Glover was merely providing well placed segues to enable Cleese to jump from one topic to another. “Tell me about your mother”, “Funny you should mention her and how amazing that before you had even finished the question, a picture of her came up on the screen.” Having been in the country for months and having done countless shows the answers came out flawlessly but sounding so contrived. As an audience member I felt cheated and somewhat embarrassed for him and me. It felt as if I had walked along the street and seen a disheveled Cleese standing on a street corner with his hat on the footpath and a cardboard sign saying “Will silly walk for cash”.

The second half on this one man show finally became a one man show, or one man and a projector.

When I say second half, I actually mean 2/3 of a second half, as the first act was one hour, but the second a mere 40 minutes, the majority of which was a series of clips from the Holy Grail, A Fish called Wanda and Fawlty Towers.

We have all seen those episodes of a popular series where the writers just get a bit lazy and the opening scene is the entire cast in some contrived situation. One cast members says some like “Hey, does everyone remember when…….” and the rest of the episode is a series of flashbacks to other episodes. It is one of the signs that the series is starting to “Jump the shark” and is entering an idea free zone.

He tried to string it together by making it a mini lecture on black comedy, but it was a lazy and ultimately unsuccessful effort. “One of my favourite scenes from Fawlty Towers is when …… Let’s look at it now”. The video runs for two minutes, then Cleese comes back on stage and says “But what happens when Sybil finds out? Let’s have a look” and runs another two minutes of video. It was like watching Bert Newton doing that “Top 20” show. What was even worse, was that from our perch in the front row of the dress circle we could see the extent to which his laziness extended. On either side of the theatre was an autocue from which Cleese was reading word for word. I felt so tempted to start reading along with him, but half a sentence ahead.

Finally the autocue showed three refreshing words “End of Show” which Cleese ad-libbed into “That’s the end of the show” and walked off. Cue Monty Python theme, bring up the house lights and leave the audience feeling as valued as the ex-wife whose alimony they had just contributed to.

I give the show two dead parrots out of five.


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