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John Cleese on fame, education -- and hotels

Provost's Visiting Professor John Cleese of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and Basil Fawlty of "Fawlty Towers" fame reflected on customer service, group dynamics and celebrity during his latest Cornell visit, April 19-22.

In an on-stage interview by Beta Mannix, vice provost for diversity and faculty development, April 19 in Statler Auditorium, Cleese discussed his work on a series of customer service, business and management training videos, and the lessons he has learned in life; he emphasized his later experiences over his formal education.

"Trigonometry did absolutely nothing for me in my later life, and it was the same with religion. ... [when separated from mysticism] it becomes intellectual study," he said. "I learned nothing about the human body, nothing about psychology. The important thing was I was taught how to think analytically. I left Cambridge University at the age of 20, and I went through that entire period without any teacher ever telling me that I was creative."

Cleese also discussed group dynamics in Monty Python with Mannix, and said that creative people, such as those in rock bands, rarely endure as a group. The Pythons' BBC show ran from 1969 to 1974, and the troupe collaborated on stage shows and films until 1983.

"This connects with your [social sciences] research," he told her. "It is very difficult, staying together and working creatively. In Python, it was democracy gone mad -- no one was in charge. ... Two people in the group were slightly dominant: me and Terry Jones, who was small and dark and Welsh and hairy. Being Welsh, he felt strongly about everything! The other four would balance the scales."

He noted that most of the group's squabbles were about material they'd written. "We all have fragile egos, and you can shut it down if one takes things the wrong way," he said.

When Mannix asked him about fame, Cleese noted that Americans treat celebrities differently than the British do -- that is, "with a reverence that's almost sickening," he said. "In England, no one does that because they're all envious. If you really want to get famous in England, have a big failure."

Cleese also mentioned his reading of studies on creativity, inspiration and modes of thinking, from which he took away a simple lesson: "Make a space where you can play, with no interruptions."

Cleese also visited with students at Keeton House and in classes in film studies, psychology, human development and a first-year writing seminar.

He talked customer service April 20 with a group of Hotel School students, who watched a "Fawlty Towers" episode and then questioned him.

"I'm lucky enough to stay in the best hotels, and they all make the same mistakes -- they never put themselves in the shoes of the guests, the customers," Cleese said. "What you want in a hotel is predictability -- you don't want to have to figure out how every single bit of technology works."

He said his character Basil Fawlty "embodies the motto of the British hotelier, which is that we could run this place properly if it wasn't for the guests."

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Simeon Moss