We all know John Cleese can be funny, but watch his discussion of the human brain above and witness how adroitly he can rise to the occasion when it comes to a serious subject. The clip comes from a video podcast in which he starred from 2006 to 2009, and which dealt with the big topics: science, God, the monarchy, and airline service, to name but four. (He followed it up with the Headcast.) Here, Cleese dons a lab coat to solemnly explain, in an erudite and highly technical manner, the workings of our gray matter. I mean, I assume that’s what he’s explaining; being untrained in neuroscience, I suppose there’s a chance I can’t tell whether he might simply be engaging in that rich British satirical tradition of appearing to say a great deal of the utmost importance while actually saying nothing at all, in language barely even recognizable as made up of words.
You can see Cleese in a different mode in another vanishingly short-form video, the new DirecTV commercial. Speaking with blunt simplicity, he pitches the satellite television provider’s service package in the character of a wealthy Englishman engaged in a variety of increasingly absurd wealthy-Englishman activities: sitting fireside in a voluminous smoking jacket, receiving a massage on the hood of his Bentley, practicing indoor archery, dining upon a lobster the size of the table. As an examination of the aristocracy, Grand Illusion it ain’t; it does, however, shed some light on Cleese’s distinctive comedic skills. In both of these videos, Cleese uses a serious demeanor to his advantage, but his decades of experience allow him to use different nuances of seriousness appropriate to each performative occasion. He has his funniest moments when he assumes the characteristics of the perfectly humorless, having mastered and long resided in that liminal state between laughter and stultification, irony and straightforwardness, that the most respected British comedians have made their own.