JOHN CLEESE was actually famous before Python, as a cast member for the very well-regarded series of comedy/satire programs starring David Frost in the mid-’60s. (5/6ths of the future Pythons wrote for Frost, but Cleese was the only on-camera personality among them.) His popularity was what caused the BBC to offer him his own show, which ultimately became Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Cleese desiring to simply be part of the ensemble, refusing star billing, to the BBC’s confusion and disappointment.)
Then he was the first person to grow tired of Python, at least in its television incarnation, and did not participate in the final season of the show in 1974. Some members of the group were a little resentful, feeling that due to his fame and recognizability, he had the best chance of a solo career. They weren’t wrong.
Even the average non-Python fan in 2013 has a pretty good idea who John Cleese is.
Perhaps it’s his height. In Python sketches, the six-foot-four Cleese often played upper-class authority figures. Unlike Graham Chapman’s authority figures, though, Cleese’s were infused with a kind of cruel, maniacal glee that made them riveting and unsettling. Sometimes he played a very odd creation the Pythons referred to as “Mr. Praline,” always wearing a green plastic raincoat and complaining to a shopkeeper or civil servant (usually played by Michael Palin) in a clipped, nasal voice about his dead parrot or inability to purchase a fish license, always with an undercurrent of menace and suppressed rage. In both actual fact and in the audience’s mind, Cleese towered over the rest of the cast.
More likely, he’s known far and wide simply for his ubiquitousness. He’s everywhere. He has appeared in more films than the rest of the team combined (and deserves a special award for most supporting roles in terrible movies), has done hundreds of commercials for every conceivable product for the past four decades, has guest-starred in dozens of shows on British and American television (and had long-running recurring roles in several more), performed tons of voice work, and in general has been one of major faces of British comedy, streets ahead of his slightly less-recognizable Python teammates.
So let’s break down the fabulously successful solo career, shall we? Continue reading