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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 is that they seem to think that they’ve invented kindness in the last three or four years. Kindness has been around for some time. Jesus Christ said: Treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, which is a pretty good basis. But it’s now got enormously complicated. There have always been men who were more effeminate and women who were more masculine. The important thing was that they were not discriminated against, that they were liked and tolerated and thought as part of society. Now, we have an endless series of discussions about what kind of sexuality somebody has, and I’m not sure it’s making anyone any happier. The main achievement of the last 40 years is that women now play a much, much larger part in our society – not large enough yet, but still much larger than they used to. We can celebrate that. But I wonder whether a lot of the other stuff is really making a gain.
«Life of Brian» sparked outrage among conservative Christians. How do you think Muslims would react if someone did a movie today called, for example, «Life of Ali»?
I think they would kill me if I did it. It might not be a particularly admirable moral or ethical principle, but the fact that I would probably get killed would tend to stop me from making such a film.
Why is it that in the 21st century, even humour has turned into something scandalous?
Because there’s a great deal of anxiety. The main thing that makes human beings anxious is change. Change is happening at an extraordinary rate. And as people become more anxious, they get more frightened of freedom and seek a more authoritarian method of rule because they think that if you put one person in charge, he will sort things out better. The experiences with Hitler and Stalin don’t exactly bear that out, but I think people are not very bright. They get very scared. And then they think there are very simple solutions, and they throw themselves into those solutions without ever having really thought them through. I like people who have doubts and who think that they might be wrong.
Have you ever gone too far with stretching out artistic freedom?
No, I don’t think so. You see, people have very different levels of sensitivity. In the old days, when a maiden aunt – or indeed a maiden uncle, I don’t want to seem sexist – joined a party, everyone would restrict their behaviour a little bit and become a little less boisterous and less noisy while she was there. When she left, people would go back to having the party they were having before. The question is, as with the wokes: Can you have people who are hypersensitive dictating their standard as the standard for everyone else? That seems ridiculous.
One of my favourite Monty Python sketches is «The Funniest Joke in the World». Would you say the British won World War II because they have more humour than the Germans?
Absolutely. It was always an enormous relief for British soldiers when they were being shot at by the Germans to remember that the Germans had very little sense of humour. That changed everything.
That should make us feel optimistic regarding the Russians now.
[Laughs] Yes. The Russians have really had a thug-ocracy since the 15th century. The size of the empire then was about one thirtieth of the size of the empire that Vladimir Putin is trying to recreate. So, the idea of recreating the Russian Empire isn’t particularly attractive. Well, I’m sure it’s attractive to all the people who cannot wait to get their hands on these extraordinarily sophisticated Russian cars and watches and all the lovely things that we in the West are quite jealous of.
In many sketches, you played a somewhat distanced, uptight, emotion-fearing Englishman. How much of that is you?
Probably quite a lot 60 years ago, but my life’s been a slow process of becoming less British. I like a lot of English qualities, although they’re disappearing, like those of the English gentleman: someone who is very polite, self-effacing, intelligent, helpful and above all courteous. In other words, an English gentleman is the complete opposite of every quality of Donald Trump. I do see a considerable loss of courtesy and intelligence. I grew up in a society which had all sorts of failings, like every society does, but it was a reasonably educated middle-class society. And that was reflected in the newspapers, in television and theatre. That’s gone. We don’t have great theatre in the London West End anymore. The BBC has completely lost its way because it’s dominated by bureaucrats whose only purpose in life is not to get sacked.
«I’m all for diversity, but not at the expense of talent.»
Would today’s BBC air a series like Monty Python’s Flying Circus?
I don’t think so. They would say that these are six white guys who are educated in good universities, so, obviously, we must not have anything from there. Apparently, Netflix is now demanding greater diversity in the script writers’ room. I’m all for diversity, but not at the expense of talent.
You recently had two shows in Switzerland. How hard is it to perform in front of a Swiss audience?
Not hard at all. My shows seem to go down best in Scandinavia, in Flemish speaking Belgium, in Holland, and in the German speaking countries. The British programs have always been more popular in Protestant North Western Europe than in the Catholic Southwest. I don’t know why that is. I suspect it’s something very deep in the personalities. Anyway, I see Switzerland as one of the few places on earth that are reasonably sane.