SALT LAKE CITY — John Cleese would like you to know that he is a Utah Jazz fan — a big Jazz fan. He got hooked on the team back in its Stockton and Malone years during the 1997 NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls.
“My daughter was living in America, so we started watching the finals and, of course, it was much more fun if I pretended that I was a fan of the Jazz, and by the end, I was," Cleese said in a phone interview. "I used to watch them during the 10 years I was in Santa Barbara. I used to watch them almost every night, but I’ve never been to Salt Lake."
The legendary comedian will right this great wrong Nov. 19 when he will appear onstage at the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater in “John Cleese Live On Stage."
Cleese, voted by "The Funniest British and Irish Comedian Of All Time" by ranker.com, started doing his one-man shows for the basic reason that he needed the money. He and his third wife spilt in 2008 (he remarried in 2012) and was “completely cleaned out by the divorce,” he said. Initially, the shows were a way to pay the bills, but as time went on, he realized that he enjoyed them — especially the question and answer period.
"When I come out and do the interview and talk to the audience I have no idea what they will ask. I just love it. I mean, one woman in Florida asked, ‘Mr. Cleese, may I ask you a serious question Did the queen kill Diana?’ Out of the blue! And, of course, I have such a black sense of humor that I couldn’t stop laughing. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘with her bare hands.’
Cleese's black humor has served him well as one-sixth of the comedy group Monty Python, which he helped create in the late 1960s, writing and acting in its seminal BBC show “Monty Python's Flying Circus,” as well its four feature films: “Holy Grail,” “And Now For Something Completely Different” “Meaning of Life” and “Life of Brian.”
So, why didn't the other five Pythons join Cleese on this tour?
“We haven’t seen Chapman in ages, so we think he must be dead,” Cleese said, black humor on display — Chapman passed away in 1989. “We’re always working and always traveling but we’re trying to arrange a reunion of the five living Pythons. (It's hard) to get us in one room at the same time.”
The other four living Pythons are Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and the only American in the group, Terry Gilliam.
Cleese's post-Python years have been no less important and no less funny, as he has written and acted in dozens of films and TV shows, earning an Oscar nomination for his "A Fish Called Wanda" screenplay in 1989.
From 1975 and 1979 he co-wrote and co-starred with then-wife Connie Booth in the hit BBC show “Fawlty Towers” about Basil Fawlty, the world’s most tightly wound hotel owner. Fawlty’s brand of spectacular outrage is one of Cleese’s comedic signatures, something he’s been aware of since his childhood.
“There’s something about ineffectual anger that is very funny. The sort of people who are a bit angry but can’t quite let go. I didn’t have very good communication with my mother — emotional communication, and I think the lack of communication has always made me laugh. Think of Basil Fawlty and (his Spanish employee) Manuel desperately trying to understand each.”
For his show at the Eccles, Cleese returns to his Python years with a showing of its cult classic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and will take questions from the audience. “Holy Grail” was the comedy group’s first film and although it had a hit TV show with “Flying Circus,” the filming conditions were less than ideal, Cleese remembered.
“We had no money at all and we were in Scotland during March and April (when) it’s cold and damp and it sort of rained, I think, every day, and we were wearing these apparently chain mail costumes made of pigeon string," Cleese shared. "There were never enough umbrellas to go around because we were so restricted with the budget. Then we’d race back to the hotel and if you were delayed for two minutes you didn’t get any hot water because it was all gone — it was horrible!"
In spite of the damp and skimpy costumes, Cleese said that the group got along well, but the real payoff came once they had a completed film.
"When we started showing it to audiences it was worth it because a lot of that stuff is really funny," Cleese said. "I think the first 15 minutes of the film is terrific."
With the anticipation of visiting the home state of his favorite basketball team and sharing "Holy Grail" with a theater full of Utahns, there is one local Cleese would love to see in the audience: former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
“I always thought he was a wonderful looking man," Cleese said. "I always wanted to look like Jerry Sloan."
If you go
What: "John Cleese Live On Stage," plus a screening of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
When: Sunday, Nov. 19, 7 p.m.
Where: The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, 131 Main St.