Reviews

John Cleese Comedy Collection

Much like Fawlty Towers, this three-DVD collection finds John Cleese stepping outside the Monty Python troupe and all its unique historical / political obsessions, for a little straight comedy.


John Cleese Comedy Collection

Distributor: Whitestar
Cast: John Cleese
Subtitle: How to Irritate People / Romance with a Double Bass / Strange Case of the End of Civilization
Studio: BBC
US Release Date: 2007-04-14

If you’ve had even minimal exposure to Monty Python, you’re well aware that John Cleese is a borderline comedic genius. He’s the tallest one and the king of the "silly walk". This three-DVD collection takes Cleese away from his Python mates, at least some of the time, and places him into more standard comedic situations. Whereas Monty Python can be surreal, much of what he finds himself doing here could be real.

The best of this DVD trio is “John Cleese on How to Irritate People”. Some of the finest Monty Python sketches are the ones where characters are annoyed beyond the breaking point. And this disc offers a series of human volcanic eruptions. Cleese alternately acts as both the annoyer and the annoy-ee, and plays each distinct role equally well.

The funniest segment of the irritated motif is one where Cleese plays a human resource representative who is interviewing someone for a job. But instead of asking typical job interview questions to determine a candidate’s ability or lack thereof, he behaves bizarrely and then writes down this woebegone interviewee’s reactions. These acts take the form of ringing a bell, making faces, and counting down from five. The candidate is obviously befuddled and surely angry, especially after Cleese’s character reveals at interview’s end that the position has already been filled. In other words, he was just having fun at this poor job seeker’s expense.

Cleese is on the other end of this annoyance equation during a skit where he portrays a young man at home, visiting his mum. Nothing he says or does pleases her. For instance, she doesn’t like that he flies so much, which is a big problem as he is a professional pilot. Each time something he says makes his mum cry, which happens a lot, he numbers it. By the skit's end, she's broken down five times.

Television is a medium Cleese knows all too well, and three of these situations find him biting the cathode ray hand that feeds him. In one instant, he inhabits the persona of a smarmy variety show host. He is completely insincere and over the top, and only succumbs the stage after one overly long introduction. Then there’s the skit where he plays a game show host. This time, his lone contestant is a ditzy old woman who quickly learns that every time she announces her age, she gets applause. Her age increases exponentially throughout the skit, as applause builds with each mounting number.

Lastly, Cleese and fellow Monty Python alumnus Graham Chapman perform together on a send-up of overly serious talk shows. Cleese first introduces Chapman, an expert on free speech. But after asking for Chapman’s opinion on the topic of free speech, he never lets the man get a word in edgewise. Chapman loudly protests in hopes that Cleese will shut up and let him talk. He even walks off stage and returns pounding a bass drum, but to no avail. Cleese’s character is just too full of himself to have another person upstage him.

Michael Palin is the other Monty Python star featured throughout this program. He plays a young man who cannot watch television in peace because his father (played by Cleese) constantly makes noise and interrupts him. He also has the role of an Indian restaurant waiter who never believes he is doing well enough to please his customers.

There are two other DVDs in this collection, but if you’re expecting Monty Python-like laugh out loud moments from these, you’ll likely be disappointed. “Romance with a Double Bass” is a distant second best in this trio. It’s based upon Anton Chekhov's short story about a double-bass player who happens upon a princess (played by Connie Booth) who is bathing in the nude. After they both have their clothes stolen, Cleese’s character, Smychkov, decides to hide the princess in his double-bass case and carry her back to the castle. All the while, he must shield himself with his double-bass case. These are silly circumstances, but this 40-minute disc is hardly hilarious.

Lastly, “The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It” is a good idea that simply doesn’t work. It puts Sherlock Holmes in the modern world of ‘70s geopolitics where he is asked to investigate the death of a high level political figure. Too much emphasis is placed upon the political intrigue, and not nearly enough is focused on Cleese’s portrayal of Holmes.

Although this package is sold as a three-DVD set, my advice is to buy the “John Cleese on How to Irritate People” disc by itself. Only purchase the other two if you’re a hopeless John Cleese fanatic.

6
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