Funnyman John Cleese originally planned to take his one-man show “Why There Is No Hope” on tour this fall. Those plans were canceled because of the pandemic, so he turned to streaming it instead.
The show, available via johncleese-uniquelives.com, was taped in a London theater with “maybe 40 people there, carefully socially distanced, so that I can do the speech to them so that they might giggle now and then to encourage me,” he said.
The topic at hand is timely amid the uncertainty brought about by COVID-19. But Cleese insisted that it’s something he’s been musing about for a long time.
“Years ago I thought, there’s a speech to be made here about how there is no hope. Not that there is no hope for us individually but that there is no hope that we will ever live in an intelligent, fair, kind, well-organized society.”
Why has he waited so long to bring the idea to fruition? Partly because he learned long ago not to jump before he’s sure exactly what he’s jumping into. It was a lesson learned just before “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” debuted.
“This is set back in 1969,” he said of the story. “Graham Chapman and I had written a film script, and we were looking for a director. My agent rang me up and said, ‘Do you know a director called Jay Lewis?’ (He directed comedies in the 1950s and ’60s.)
“And my agent said, ‘He’s read the script and he would like to do it.’ In those days, the film was originally called ‘Piglust and Company’ and it was eventually called ‘Rentadick’ — you see why I wasn’t enamored with it anymore.
“So anyway, we had written this, and Jay was keen to do it. And my agent said, ‘Will you call him?’ And I said, ‘Well, look, I’m going to Spain literally this afternoon, but I will try to call him when I get to Spain.’ Now in 1969, making phone calls from Spain to the U.K. was a nightmare. So I wasn’t able to reach him, you know? So I thought, ‘Well, never mind, I’ll be back in England in 10 days.’
“Ten days later I’m back in England, and I called him, and his longtime girlfriend who was called Ruby answered the phone. And I said, ‘Oh, hello, Ruby, it’s John Cleese. I just called to say how delighted I was to hear about Jay.’
“And she said, ‘We buried him this afternoon.’ ”
What did Cleese say in response? A man rarely short for words admits that he fell silent.
“Mind you, with my dark sense of humor, within about 20 minutes I decided it was quite funny! (Laughs) Not his death! But the whole thing. Because it wasn’t a morally wrong thing I had done, it was just incredibly embarrassing. I was so horrified I wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened. ... I did have to tell Graham, and he laughed until he was sick, because he had as black a sense of humor as I do.”
The story does have a happy ending, of sorts. Cleese and Chapman found another director, who dropped out mid-project and was replaced by a TV director named Charlie Crichton. Two decades later, he directed Cleese’s script for “A Fish Called Wanda.”
The moral of this story: “Don’t call someone whose lover has just died and say how pleased you are to hear it,” Cleese advised. “That’s such a British thing. ... They don’t want to say, ‘Do you have children?’ in case they burned to death last week.”