John Cleese, famous for the comedy of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “A Fish Called Wanda” and “Fawlty Towers,” shows another side – boundless intellectual curiosity – in a new Cornell University Press book compiling some of his lectures and presentations on campus from the past 20 years.
“Professor at Large: The Cornell Years,” publishing Oct. 15, displays the British comedian and actor’s wide range of interests, from creativity and group dynamics to religion.
Cleese visited Cornell seven times as an A.D. White Professor-at-Large from 1999 to 2007, and his affiliation with the university has continued as the Provost’s Visiting Professor at Cornell.
The book includes previously unpublished work such as “Sermon at Sage Chapel” (2001) and “What is Religion? Musings on ‘Life of Brian’” (2004). The final chapter, from Cleese’s most recent visit to campus, is a transcript of his September 2017 conversation onstage in Bailey Hall with Cornell University Press Director Dean Smith and an audience Q&A.
“I took two months to research the talk, to figure out how the book should end. That was the challenge of it,” Smith said. “It was like cramming for a final exam, and in every possible discipline. I read everything he’d written, watched every episode of ‘Fawlty Towers,’ every episode of ‘Monty Python,’ and made up question cards to steer the conversation.”
Smith found the actor to be an easygoing and amenable collaborator when they met at the Statler Hotel to go over the script for the talk. They mutually decided to open their discourse with a line from a Python sketch, which Cleese called “the elephant in the room.”
“Being with him one-on-one, he’s like your father or grandfather, someone who’s 100 percent invested in you in the moment,” Smith said. “He wanted to create the best possible show. Before we went on stage, he said, ‘There’s nothing to worry about here. You’ll find it hard to shut me up.’”
“Professor at Large” complements Cleese’s 2015 memoir “So, Anyway …” which chronicles his early years up to the beginning of Monty Python.
“You know about the comedy, and you find out that he wanted to teach and be a scholar. This book provides a record of that in a dynamic and entertaining way,” Smith said. “It’s an enjoyable reading experience – along the way he provides 60 to 80 references to works that inspired him, but you don’t notice that because it’s so engaging.”
The Cornell book has sold 4,000 copies through advance orders, is featured in Vanity Fair among “11 Nonfiction Books to Read This Fall” and is being reviewed in The Times (of London) Literary Supplement.
“He recently sent me an email, saying ‘Who knew our little book would get so much attention?’” Smith said.
“At this point he’s more excited about the issues he tackles in this book – religion, the brain, current events – than he is in talking about ‘Monty Python’,” Smith said. “The comedy is fantastic, but it’s a veneer. He committed all those years to psychotherapy; he’s very courageous. There’s a part of his personality that’s Basil Fawlty.”
The book’s introduction, detailing the early stages of Cleese’s ongoing relationship with Cornell, is by Stephen Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology, who participated in a 2001 talk with Cleese on facial recognition that’s also included.
Smith said he’d love to have Cleese visit Sage House, where the idea for the book began. The late Gerri Jones, former administrator of the Professors-at-Large program, first brought up Cleese as a subject and helped compile much of the material in the book, including transcribing a seminar on screenwriting with Cleese and William Goldman.
“These are the kind of books I want to do, that reflect the uniqueness of the university,” Smith said. “I’m sure that this will take on a life of its own.”