Professor at Large
The Cornell Years
by John Cleese
Cornell, 231 pp., $25

At first I winced. So it turns out that John Cleese, the 6-foot-5 silly-walking fulcrum of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers, was the Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University from 1999 to 2006! And now he is a Provost’s Visiting Professor! Upon learning this, painful memories of Milton Berle’s comedy “seminars,” replete with lame wisecracks and threadbare show-biz anecdotes, erupted in my hippocampus.

But my skepticism quickly melted. When, very early in his new collection of lectures and interviews from his Ithaca interludes, Cleese invoked Neil Postman and Descartes and quoted the Polish proverb “Sleep faster, we need the pillows,” I began smiling.

Cleese famously went to Cambridge. This doesn’t necessarily qualify one for smarts; witness Burgess, Maclean, Philby, et al. And strictly speaking, Cleese is no professor. Yet he’s not merely a comedian either. He is a lively, quirky enlightener, always zipping between—or bringing together—the ridiculous and the sublime.

Two main intellectual disciplines occupy him in these pages. The first is human thought. The coauthor of two self-help books with psychiatrist Robin Skynner, Cleese is particularly taken with the concept of “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind,” as popularized by Guy Claxton. At its base is the struggle between “practical workaday thinking” and our “more playful, leisurely, or dreamy” tendencies. “Let’s be clear,” Cleese says. “We need both.”

To demonstrate, he briefly exits his talk on a pretext. Offstage sounds of a struggle and a gunshot ensue. The next thing the audience knows, he has returned in the guise of John Cleese’s “brother” Colin. “Stop this nonsense!” he shouts. “Now! This instant! My brother is a deranged and dangerous subversive. You are to forget every word he’s told you. If you’ve taken notes, eat them. Now!”

Who knew that besides Python and Fawlty, myriad business-training films, A Fish Called Wanda, and a couple each of Harry Potter and James Bond flicks, Cleese not only hosted but wrote a four-part BBC documentary called The Human Face, all about presentation, perception, and identity. Cleese offers many fine takeaways on the complexity of physiognomy. Pointing to his mouth, he says, “If I want to disguise my appearance, if I wear dental prosthetics, teeth that push my lips out like this, people actually don’t recognize me.”

Cleese’s second major concern is religion. He confesses that his Church of England upbringing turned him off organized worship for a good 20 years. Then he began reading Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley. Soon he was forging his own particular relationship with the Almighty. It’s a work in progress.

“I am still puzzled why, in the West,” he says a few months before 9/11, “there’s been so little interest in experiencing the divine and so much emphasis on religion as crowd control. Is it because, once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it attracted as priests some who were unconsciously motivated by the desire for power?” Cleese has interviewed the Dalai Lama, admits that “Love your enemy” is a concept “simply beyond my emotional capacity,” and emphasizes that the Son of God was, ultimately, a mystic. For the record, Cleese believes in an afterlife. “The trouble comes when you try to say how it works.”

Regarding faith, he can be glib: “I bet that the gap in intelligence between God and me is rather bigger than the gap between me and [my cat] Wensley.” He can be snide: “If Dick Cheney were scourged for hours and then crucified, I would genuinely feel sorry for him . . . eventually.” But really, he is altogether disarming. He recalls when zealots excoriated Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “We were condemned by the Jewish Orthodox folk, the Jewish liberal folk, the Catholics, the Lutherans, and the Calvinists. And we were very proud about that because, as Eric Idle said, ‘We’ve given them the first thing they’ve agreed on for five hundred years.’ So I like to think of us Pythons as ‘uniters.’”

Inexplicably, Cleese thinks Life of Brian a better movie than Monty Python and the Holy Grail because it has “quite a good story.” No religious quarrels here; Grail, while a lot looser, is just plain funnier.

Cleese’s scope in Professor at Large is considerable—ever heard of the French quasi-astrologer Michel Gauquelin? Or his “Mars Effect”?—and his intellectual restlessness ever evident. Little wonder that he thought Monty Python had only two truly original sketches in its third season and he appeared not at all in its fourth.

The book is short: There are only seven chapters, and one is a lengthy interview with Cleese’s “favorite screenwriter,” William Goldman. The volume sometimes disappoints: From the man behind Fawlty Towers there is, incredibly, no lecture directed specifically to Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. (In recalling Donald Sinclair, the “gloriously rude” inspiration for Basil Fawlty, Cleese does note the man’s guiding principle: “I could run this place properly if it weren’t for the guests.”)

Along the way, though, we do learn quite a bit about our prof: He was “hopeless with young women” thanks to his mother’s “vast spectrum of anxiety.” Today, this advancing septuagenarian can do only a pale version of his silly walk because of a “totally artificial knee and two artificial hips.” Just before Python taped its first episode—portions of the show were recorded before live studio audiences—Cleese confessed to Michael Palin, “This could be the first time in history where people have recorded an entire comedy show to complete silence.” Palin was similarly nervous.

And there are splendid insights into the world across the pond. Except for Prince Charles, Cleese is not big on the royal family: “I just don’t think that people who are running countries should spend a lot of time watching horses run.” Why has his country traditionally been so uncomfortable with emotions? “We’ve got an empire to run; we don’t have time to be depressed.” Want to know how to be popular in England? “Have a big public failure. Nobody feels envious, and they can all feel really good about themselves because they come to your rescue and show that they are still your friend.”

Professor Cleese, may I audit your next course?