«I’m all for diversity, but not at the expense of talent»
John Cleese. Photo: Brad Trent/Redux/Laif.

«I’m all for diversity, but not at the expense of talent»

Letting the hypersensitive impose their standards on everyone else is ridiculous, says John Cleese. The comedian explains why the British won World War II and why the BBC has lost its way.

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These days, comedians seem to have become politicians while politicians behave like comedians. Do you fear for your job?

I’ve feared for my job for a long time. I remember having a conversation with Billy Connolly 30 years ago, in which we agreed that comedy was becoming more difficult because the world was becoming sillier. When the world is sillier than anything that a comedian can come up with, it’s very disorienting. I mean, the fact that Donald Trump is a narcissist of the highest order and an entirely disgusting human being is one thing – there are people around like that. The extraordinary thing is he has the dying devotion of 35 percent of the American people. How can you make fun of that?


You have once been offered the seat in the House of Lords. Is a political career an option for you?

[Laughs] No, I can’t imagine anything much worse for my personality type. I don’t like being constrained. I like being able to be honest. And having to trot out the party line would be almost painful for me. I like other people a lot, but I never wanted to join organisations where I have to subscribe to a fixed set of principles. I had a long connection with the Liberal Democrats because I liked many of their policies, especially their demand to introduce proportional representation. But when I was in America, I lost touch with British politics. I think it has become very trivial and appallingly corrupt, in a way that I would never have believed was possible. That’s one of the reasons I don’t spend much time in the UK anymore.


The Fawlty Towers episode «The Germans» has been removed from the streaming platform UKTV in 2020 because it «contains racial slurs». Do you feel people have less sense of humour today?

Yes. The people who have always caused a lot of trouble are the literal-minded. The evangelicals in America are famously literal-minded and think that everything in the Bible should be interpreted literally, despite the fact that Jesus Christ taught in parables. Parables are not supposed to be taken literally, that’s the point of a parable! Once you allow the literal-minded people to take over, an awful lot of the best things about human life disappear. For example, literal-minded people think that a word has a fixed meaning. Wiser people know that the meaning depends on the context of the word. If you use irony or sarcasm, the words you’re saying are actually the opposite of your meaning. It’s very hard for the «woke» people to understand that because they are literal-minded. Literal-mindedness is a disaster for society.


In the 1970s, you experienced opposition, for example towards «Life of Brian». What is the difference between then and cancel culture today?

In those days, people reacted in a rather old-fashioned right-wing way; now, they react in a rather new fashioned «woke», more left-wing way. But there always seem to be things that you can’t say. I cannot now say the «nigger» word at all, because it will immediately be considered offensive to mention it regardless of the context. It was exactly the same 30 years ago with «fuck», which we can now say without anybody twitching. It’s something deep inside human beings that they like to have things that shock them terribly, but those things seem to change from time to time. The woke people started out with a good idea, which is: Let’s be nice to people. The problem…