These Old-School John Cleese Corporate Training Videos Shouldn't Be Canceled
Unfortunately, Monty Python funnyman John Cleese is anything but funny these days. Instead of gracefully aging into an elder statesman of comedy, he’s officially reached the Old Man Grumpus stage of his career. Despite his myriad comic accomplishments, Cleese is now best known to the masses as:
- One of our foremost panic spreaders about woke rules and cancel culture;
- A defender of J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments under the guise of free speech;
- A crank who claims they don’t make funny movies like in his day
Which is more tragic than you might realize. After all, his ensemble work in films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian is definitive. His solo ventures like A Fish Called Wanda are hilarious. And pre-grumpus John Cleese was so freaking funny that he could even make corporate training films entertaining.
Why would a comic as esteemed as Cleese stoop to helping bank tellers defuse difficult depositors? I’m not sure either, although if I had to guess, I suspect it had something to do with “money.” Starting in 1972, when his contemporaries were turning on, tuning in and dropping out, Cleese was cashing in with the late Sir Anthony (Yes, Minister) Jay. They founded Video Arts based on “their observation that people learn very little when they are bored and nothing when they are asleep.” Hard to argue with that. Cleese and Jay assembled a bunch of funny people and set out to make “the most entertaining, memorable and effective learning in the business.”
You know what? Mission accomplished. Especially compared with their contemporaries, Video Arts did create funny learning tools. Not that it was difficult to be more entertaining than soul-sucking dreck like this.
I guarantee you that Cleese and company did it better. Take a look.
Meetings, Bloody Meetings
One reason Cleese’s old training films work so well? He had no problem casting himself as Prime Idiot over and over again. Here, he’s an unctuous middle manager notorious for his endless, pointless meetings. Wasting so much time in meetings means he has to work in bed every night to the apparent frustration of his sexually deprived wife.
Meetings, Bloody Meetings does an eerily accurate job of spoofing mind-numbing departmental discussions, decrying their lack of structure, clear objectives and consideration for one another’s time. Most of the film takes place in a Cleese nightmare where he’s on trial for the crime of holding terrible meetings. The bit of unintentional comedy? The film’s main conceit is that meetings should run more like court proceedings because they are so efficient and productive. Tell that to anyone who’s ever had jury duty.
And just to prove that a corporate drone’s life will always suck? Meetings, Bloody Meetings ends with the newly efficient Cleese still working in bed — but now it’s at five in the morning so he will be properly prepared. His despondent wife isn’t doing any better in the love department either way.
The comedy in 2001’s Collaborative Synergies comes from Cleese gleefully slapping around the soulless corporation that hired him to narrate their dubious sales pitch.
While the goal of the narrative is to convince prospective customers that “collaborative synergies” will lead to better business, Cleese rightfully points out what is really motivating his audience: “Big money!” Sure, he acknowledges, big corporate muckety-mucks will always be suspicious of this notion of “working with others.” But he appeals to that profit motive once again: “You’ll get over it” once you learn about the “quadruple profits, guaranteed.” (Wink!)
Collaborative synergies mean working together with customers and suppliers, and Cleese understands that’s not usually how the executive suite works: “I’m not suggesting that savage, competitive brutes like you start behaving kindly and worrying about people or becoming in any way morally improved. Not at all!” So why work with others? “I know it’s not as much fun as screwing everyone in sight, but it makes money.”
All prospective customers watching the sales tape have to do is hire Elevon (the company that hired Cleese) and use its software to create win-win workflows. Cleese even introduces us to the White Guys who will answer when you call the number on your screen. You can tell Cleese hates these corporate douchenozzles with the fire of a thousand suns. Especially the douchenozzle on the right.
Surprise: Elevon no longer exists. To further stick it to the people that hired him? Cleese ends the video by telling viewers how they can stick a piece of tape to the spine of their videocassette so they can record over Elevon’s cynical pitch.
So You Want to Be A Success at Selling
This video represents a “best of” rather than an entire sales training course. But it’s worth a watch to see Cleese lash out at a customer who wants a good product at a good price, choking him while shouting, “You stupid git!”
In one of Cleese’s older films, he once again plays Prime Idiot, a sales floor worker who handles difficult customers all wrong. But with some help from the Narrator, Cleese and his cohorts learn how to handle total a-holes such as:
Mr. Tiger, who likes to call you stupid.
Mrs. Rabbit, who won’t stop jabbering.
And Mr. Warthog, who is a lot like Mr. Tiger, except he’s supposed to be worse since he’s like this all the time — and to everyone. What a dickweed.
The methods for handling these scoundrels are pretty simplistic. For Mrs. Rabbit, it’s mostly a matter of redirecting the conversation to get her to buy whatever crap you’re selling. For Tiger and Warthog? There’s a lot of apologizing and trying to make things right, even when you’ve done nothing wrong.
It’s too bad this film couldn’t have added a fourth nasty customer: Old Man Grumpus. We’d like to see what the younger Cleese could have taught us about dealing with his prickly current iteration.