In the course of 90 minutes, a self-proclaimed “pompous old bastard” shot a mock cat out of a cannon, while making fun of old people and trophy wives in between. A mock coffin was rolled out on wheels, and a mock mistress with DD cups intermittently interrupted the onstage antics. Eventually, the grand finale involved a mock guillotine and a mock suicide.
John Cleese didn’t have to travel far for this performance. As a Santa Barbara resident, Cleese is known for Central California prankery, delivering a hilarious and remarkably intelligent speech at UCSB’s New Student Convocation in 2004. And as one of the foremost progenitors of Monty Python, the sly comedian delivered an equally sly set at Campbell Hall on Saturday. Although show business razzmatazz seemed to dominate, Cleese proved to be a devil in the details, interspersing many personal insights throughout his stint.
“Six out of seven people in any professional occupation don’t really know what they’re doing,” Cleese said to an audience of mostly middle-aged professionals. Cleese builds his reputation upon small, yet clever bits of nonsense, and intellect-worthy anecdotes that mock the inner dunce inside us all. “When I was a young comedian, I thought the world was a sane place, with little pockets of insanity,” Cleese said. “[But] reality is the photographic negative. The world is an insane place with little pockets of sanity.”
Much of Cleese’s performance was based around his own biography, with large black-and-white stills depicting his mother and father hanging alongside him onstage. However, he wasn’t exactly nice to them. “Apart from our black sense of humor, the only thing my mother and I had in common is that we both weren’t raised by wolves,” Cleese joked. Other topics covered included his daughter, who he said “recently flunked out of college,” his colonoscopy, which he said “looked like a piece of sour pork,” and his Python years, which included a re-formulated, California rendition of the infamous “parrot sketch.”
“We were six writers who happened to perform our own material,” Cleese said of the Python troupe. “Because there was so little money at stake, it didn’t matter about the size of the audience.”
Saturday’s show provoked a much different response, as it was performed for the general public, as well as UCSB students. Compared to the student-only show on Friday, Cleese seemed a little more restrained and a little more concerned about his sense of showmanship. For a man like Cleese, however, showmanship is not an option. It is a way of life, a way to transcend a difficult and often harsh world.
“Maternal deprivation has produced some of the supreme artistic geniuses of our era,” Cleese said. And to that, we say, “Cheers!” to Cleese, one of the most talented – and maternally deprived – comedians of our time.