John Cleese brings humor to UB Distinguished Speaker Series


British comedian John Cleese is no stranger to silliness. Cleese presented his folly in the form of video clips to more than 1,000 people at the Center for the Arts on Friday.

Cleese spoke on two separate occasions as part of the UB Distinguished Speaker Series that evening. In both speeches, Cleese told tales of his illustrious career and broke down the comedy sketches that made him famous.

One video clip Cleese shared was from his popular sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In the clip, Cleese and fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin slap each other in the face with fish.

“Some poor student in media study will have to write an essay on what that means,” Cleese said.

The moment is just one of many that had those in attendance laughing out loud and often gasping for air.

Cleese is a comedic legend, most known for being a founding member of the British comedy group Monty Python. Together, the group created hits as the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.”

People see Cleese’s films as groundbreaking for their utilization of both slapstick and dark comedy.

“The key to any kind of creativity is playfulness,” Cleese said.

In an interview with The Spectrum, John Cleese talked about how he was able to be so creative in all of his high-acclaimed comedies.

“People who can play are creative, people who can’t play aren’t, no matter what the intelligence level is,” he said. “So I think for some reason, I have the ability to play. I play with ideas and I don’t hang onto things too much.”

Cleese broke down his playfulness on the screen during his speech and spoke about his life in an amusing manner.

He talked about his mother, who “lived through it all” until the age of 100. Cleese joked that his mother didn’t “realize any of it” and said his mother believed a man named “Hil-ter” led Germany once.

Cleese also told the “lovely audience” some of his career’s beginnings.

Cleese mentioned his meeting with BBC producer Michael Mills about a new television series he hoped to do with his comedy team Monty Python. In the meeting, Mills asked Cleese and others members of Monty Python what they wished to do with the series.

Cleese hadn’t discussed the series with members of Monty Python prior to the meeting. He joked that the meeting was similar to committing “professional suicide” in front an important figure in British television comedy.

Mills signed onto the team quickly, which Cleese believed says “something very interesting about creativity”.

After going into Monty Python’s rise to fame, Cleese mentioned how members of Monty Python often argued about the script. He told the crowd that when the crew was discussing one sketch, they disagreed on including a “dead, stuffed” goat or a “dead, stuffed” sheep as a prop in the scene.

Cleese had the audience in tears when he said the crew’s “20 minute” argument made it “obvious” that the sketch should include the goat.

He also divulged into scenes from the groundbreaking comedy film “Monty Python and The Holy Grail.” When speaking on the beloved sword fight scene in the film, Cleese reveals the art behind Monty Python’s black (or dark) humor.

The scene depicts a knight becoming dismembered but continuing to fight through his pain. Cleese said if the knight had been in pain during the scene, people would have a different reaction than they would laughter.

Many of those in-attendance on Friday found the comedian’s speech to be an interesting one.

Jonny Connors, a junior political science major, believes Cleese’s speech is inspiring for those that want to get into comedy. Connors, an exchange student from the University of Kent in Great Britain, thinks coming from England made the speech fun to hear.

“I share the same kind of dry and black humor as he does, which is brilliant,” Connors said.

Others who experienced the speech were happy to finally see their idol live in person.

Brian Horne, a Buffalo resident, finds Cleese to be someone he has always looked up and especially enjoys his performance in the sitcom Fawlty Towers.

“He does slapstick comedy and it’s my favorite kind of comedy,” Horne said. “It’s just non-stop laughter - slamming doors, slapping people upside the head, stuff like that. It’s cliché and there’s too much stuff that goes wrong, but that’s what makes it funny.”

Matthew Cosmai, a junior communication major, is also a huge fan of Cleese’s work. Cosmai was glad to see the comedian speak on Friday, especially due to his own interest in comedy.

“The way he talked about comedy and how he wrote stuff was important to me,” Cosmai said. “As a comedian myself, it was very nice to hear somebody to talk about comedy in an interesting and insightful perspective. His humor encourages me to embrace the absurd and to never be afraid to try new things.”

Cleese hopes students interested in comedy search for inspiration from the acts they admire.

“Watch people that you think are good,” Cleese said. “Watch them until the point where you aren’t emotionally effected, humorously or in any way, and then you can see how it is done.”

John Cleese’s speech was the third event in this season’s UB Distinguished Speaker Series. The series will continue next semester when former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder comes to Alumni Arena on Feb. 16.

Benjamin Blanchet is an arts staff writer and can be reached at


 Benjamin Blanchet is a graduate student and student journalist based in Buffalo, New York. Aside from The Spectrum, Blanchet has appeared in Brooklyn’s ARTSY Magazine and New York’s RESPECT. Magazine.