John Cleese Explains the Brain

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Cleese Plays the Dev­il, Makes a Spe­cial Appeal for Hell, 1966

John Cleese on the Ori­gin of Cre­ativ­i­ty

John Cleese, Mon­ty Python Icon, on How to Be Cre­ative

Mon­ty Python’s Away From it All: A Twist­ed Trav­el­ogue with John Cleese

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.


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