John Cleese Revisits His 20 Years as an Ivy League Professor in His New Book, Professor at Large: The Cornell Years

Cre­ative Com­mons image by Paul Box­ley

It takes real intel­li­gence to suc­cess­ful­ly make dumb com­e­dy. John Cleese and his Mon­ty Python col­leagues are a pre­mi­um exam­ple. You can call sketch­es like the “Min­istry of Sil­ly Walks” and “Dead Par­rot” sur­re­al­ist, and they are com­pa­ra­ble to the absur­dist stunts favored by cer­tain ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry mod­ern artists. But you can also call them very smart kinds of stu­pid, a descrip­tion of some of the high­est forms of com­e­dy, I’d say, and one that applies to so much of Cleese’s best work, from the Pythons, to Fawl­ty Tow­ers, to A Fish Called Wan­da. We are moved by stu­pid­i­ty, Cleese believes, and silli­ness is the engine of good com­e­dy. “Some­times very, very sil­ly things,” he says in the inter­view with Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press direc­tor Dean Smith below, “have the pow­er to touch us deeply.” Then he tells the old joke about a grasshop­per named Nor­man.

Is Cleese still fun­ny? Depends. Many lis­ten­ers of a recent BBC Radio 4 show found his act a lit­tle stale. He has also come off late­ly as a “clas­sic old man yelling at a cloud,” writes Fiona Sturges at The Guardian. (He called, sure­ly in jest, for the hang­ing of EU pres­i­dent Jean Claude Junck­er, for exam­ple, dur­ing the Brex­it cam­paign).

In cur­mud­geon­ly inter­views, he com­plains about hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty with exam­ples of jokes con­tem­po­rary audi­ences sim­ply don’t find amus­ing, or at least not com­ing from him. Cleese has railed about the evils of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, espe­cial­ly on col­lege cam­pus­es, while spend­ing the past 20 years as a “pro­fes­sor-at-large” on the pres­ti­gious cam­pus of Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, where he has deliv­ered “incred­i­bly pop­u­lar events and classes—including talks, work­shops, and an analy­sis of A Fish Called Wan­da and The Life of Bri­an.”

These appear­ances draw hun­dreds of peo­ple, and their enor­mous pop­u­lar­i­ty should offer Cleese some reas­sur­ance that he may not need to fear cen­sor­ship, and that his wit—while it might not be as well appre­ci­at­ed in today’s mass entertainment—still has plen­ty of cur­ren­cy in places where smart peo­ple gath­er. From sem­i­nars on script writ­ing to lec­tures on psy­chol­o­gy and human devel­op­ment, Cleese’s appear­ances at Cor­nell lead to riv­et­ing, some­times hilar­i­ous, and often con­tro­ver­sial con­ver­sa­tions.

In the episodes here from the Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press pod­cast, you can hear Cleese’s full con­ver­sa­tion with Smith, part of the pro­mo­tion of his 2018 book Pro­fes­sor at Large: The Cor­nell Years, in which he includes an inter­view with Princess Bride screen­writer William Gold­man, a lec­ture about cre­ativ­i­ty called “Hare Brain, Tor­toise Mind,” a dis­cus­sion of facial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­o­gy, and a talk on group dynam­ics with busi­ness stu­dents and fac­ul­ty. Like Cleese’s mind, these lec­tures and dis­cus­sions range far and wide, demon­strat­ing, once again in his long career, that it takes real smarts to not only speak with ease on sev­er­al aca­d­e­m­ic sub­jects, but to under­stand the mechan­ics of stu­pid­i­ty. You can pick up a copy of Pro­fes­sor at Large: The Cor­nell Years here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Cleese on How “Stu­pid Peo­ple Have No Idea How Stu­pid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dun­ning-Kruger Effect)

John Cleese Explains the Brain — and the Plea­sures of DirecTV

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • John Cleese says:

    No,no !

    When I called for the hang­ing of Jean-Claude Junck­er, it was not in jest. He per­son­i­fies the puffed-up nonen­ti­ties who go to work in the EU when they have become irrel­e­vant in their own coun­tries

    And the young woman who called me ‘a clas­sic old man yelling at a cloud’
    also said I have a mouth like a chick­en’s arse

    She is, inci­den­tal­ly, a lec­tur­er in musi­cal jour­nal­ism at the Havant Poly­tech­nic.
    She gets to write for the Guardian because they are per­ma­nent­ly strapped for cash

  • Fred says:

    My broth­er does­n’t like Mon­ty Python and he kind of freaked out when he saw I had the com­plete series. I guess it’s the dry Eng­lish style and that they men­tion peo­ple most Amer­i­cans (includ­ing me) don’t know who they are.

  • Joan says:

    I com­plete­ly dis­agree!

    (That was just to be able to tell my grand­chil­dren, in 2050, that in 2019 I replied to a John Cleese’s com­ment.)

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