Comedy is a strange and confusing beast. While some elements of it are formulaic, other aspects are confusing and weird. Most people understand the underlying structure of a knock-knock joke, or a “chicken/road” scenario, but sometimes the joke is merely that something absurd and silly has occurred. Often, this sillier comedy is accentuated by a straight-man, also known as a foil. This foil acts in a proper manner and is most closely associated with very stiff and humorless occupations. The dichotomy between the straight-man and the comedian shows the difference between the two, thus inducing comedy. If there’s one style of comedy that excels in the absurd vs. the common, it is British comedy. John Cleese is one of the iconic faces of British comedy, mostly for his straight-man act. This week’s two films focus on the comedic work of John Cleese.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Length: 91 minutes / 1.52 hours
The television show that truly launched John Cleese into stardom was that of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And while most of his roles were of normally serious professions, he managed to make them incredibly silly with his deadpan comedic timing. Having only appeared in three of the four seasons of the show, it became obvious in the final season that his presence is what made the program uproariously funny. Fortunately, even though he stopped performing on the show, he did participate in all three of the Monty Python movies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). Almost as a spiritual successor to the TV show, Holy Grail had Cleese once again cast in many “uptight” roles opposite silly characters, or using his deadpan talents to be the silly ones himself.
In Holy Grail, John Cleese portrays Sir Lancelot the Brave, a knight of King Arthur’s (Graham Chapman) Round Table. Cleese then takes on the role of the “undefeatable” Black Knight, challenging Arthur to a battle which he “loses”. The group of knights then make their way to Camelot before deciding to go somewhere less silly. At this point, God (Graham Chapman) appears and tells them to find the Holy Grail. The first place they look is a French outpost where they are taunted by a French soldier (John Cleese) and are forced to retreat. When they split up to increase their chances, Lancelot arrives at Swamp Castle and rescues an effeminate prince from an impending marriage. Regrouping, they run across Tim the Enchanter (John Cleese), who guides them to a deadly rabbit, Beast of Aaargh, a quizzical death-trap, and (finally) the location of the Grail, where the Frenchman reappears to taunt them again.
A Fish Called Wanda
Length: 108 minutes / 1.8 hours
One of the sketches from Flying Circus involved the “world’s funniest joke”, which happened to be so funny that it could kill someone. Even though the sketch didn’t kill anyone, John Cleese can claim that he did kill someone with his comedy talents. A Danish man by the name of Ole Bentzen was watching A Fish Called Wanda (1988) when a scene with John Cleese came on that made the man laugh so hard that his heart began to beat almost 500 times a minute! As such, he died from a heart attack almost immediately. Of course, most of comedy comes from writing, which is probably why Cleese was co-nominated for Best Original Screenplay with director Charles Crichton. After all, a man can’t possibly kill someone with laughter unless the jokes he writes are actually good.
Archie Leach (John Cleese) is a lawyer defending George Thomason (Tom Georgeson), a gangster who pulled off a diamond heist and was turned in by the two Americans who were brought in to help: Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto West (Kevin Kline). In order to find out where George had hid the diamonds, Wanda seduces Archie to get him to convince his client to plead guilty while also revealing the location of the stolen gems. Things go slightly awry when Wanda’s other lover, Otto, ruins her attempts to successfully get Archie to consummate their affair. In the process, Archie’s marriage and career are now defunct, leading him to take the money and run to South America. As luck would have it, Wanda has the key to the safe deposit box where the diamonds are stashed, which leads to her and Archie heading to Brazil together, where they have 17 children and start a leper colony.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Cleese classics
Bacon #: 1 (The Big Picture / Kevin Bacon)