‘An Evening With John Cleese’ Is Part Woke Attack, Part Jukebox Musical

‘An Evening With John Cleese’ Is Part Woke Attack, Part Jukebox Musical

An Evening With the Late John Cleese was as advertised — Cleese wasn’t dead but the show did begin 10 to 15 minutes after its announced start time. Camilla Cleese, John’s daughter and Fawlty Towers reboot co-star, made jokes about failing at the nepo part of nepo-baby before introducing the man of the hour to a room full of aging Python superfans. If you’ve ever been to one of those summertime Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers double bills, it’s essentially the same crowd. Let’s go!

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Given Cleese’s current reputation as a professional cancel-culture crank, the 84-year-old was surprisingly genial during his night of sit-down comedy. (Of course he was sitting down — he’s eighty-four!) But fear not — if you bought a ticket in hopes of hearing Cleese poke the woke, you still got a solid 15-minute chunk devoted to the exercise.

It’s hard to argue with Cleese’s main argument — we laugh extra hard at taboo subjects not only because such jokes can be funny but because we’re releasing our anxiety around the unmentionable. Sex, violence, bodily functions, religion — there’s something naughty, to use Cleese’s words, about discussing the forbidden in public. So far, so good!

To demonstrate, Cleese decides to trot out an assortment of racial jokes. This is okay, he insists, because he trades in the good kind of teasing. There are two kinds, according to Cleese: Affectionate teasing is the kind you do with friends and family while nasty teasing is the mean sort and it’s terrible. Cleese reasons that when he makes racial jokes, it’s the affectionate kind so… all good? (Unspoken is the notion that the actual targets of his racial jokes might not feel the love.)

It all sounds like the evening is going to go over the cliff, but as Cleese does a long run of racial gags, it’s pretty clear that he’s not quite as brave as he boasts. In order, the comic takes on the French (they don’t fare well in world wars), the Irish (slow), the Greeks (hairy), the Scottish (they play bagpipes), and the Australians (they don’t like the English). He’s audacious enough to tell jokes about Jews, but saying they have money and overprotective mothers doesn’t sting too badly. Cleese’s toothless barrage mainly picks on people who look (more or less) like him, undermining his point about challenging taboos.

If that was 15 minutes, what was the rest of the evening? Outside of a long pee break (he guessed it would take a man of his years 20 minutes, which was dead on), Cleese literally played the hits. The evening was peppered with clips from the old Monty Python TV show, Monty Python and the Holy GrailA Fish Called WandaMeaning of Life and Graham Chapman’s funeral. Like those musicals on Broadway pulled from the best of Britney Spears or ABBAAn Evening With John Cleese gave the audience what they came for — cherished old ditties from back in the day. Two ladies seated near me were shouting out the punchlines over the clips like fans might sing along at a Billy Joel concert. If the entire evening was Cleese introducing reruns of Flying Circus, they would have been delighted. 

Measuring An Evening with John Cleese by those standards, the man (buoyed mightily by his classic comedies) killed. He ended the night with Q and A, feeding the audience’s nostalgia with sweet tales about Chapman and George Harrison. He even earned some applause decrying conservative newspapers, Lauren Boebert and Donald Trump. If you closed your eyes, you might believe Cleese was a little woke himself.

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