A few days ago, the Nerdist released its interview with John Cleese of Monty Python. The host, Chris Hardwick, admits to worshiping Cleese—who can’t relate to that?—and they spend a really easygoing hour or so together. Cleese is promoting his new memoir So Anyway, which Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post called “smart, thoughtful, provocative and above all funny,” even if Lewis Jones at the Spectator in the UK called it “a dreary compendium of pompous self-congratulation and tetchy sarcasm.” Ouch.
Anyway, about 58 minutes in, Hardwick asks Cleese about the “favorite thing that you’ve ever done.” What would he pick, do you think? Monty Python and the Holy Grail! Or maybe the Dead Parrot sketch? Oh, how, stupid of me, of course he would pick Fawlty Towers, that’s a no-brainer. Although you never know, it could be his psychology books with Robin Skynner or A Fish Called Wanda (which briefly established Cleese as the thinking woman’s sex symbol) or the business training videos he did for the company he founded, Video Arts. Or The Human Face?
Nope, nope, and nope. Turns out all of those guesses are way off.
Here’s his answer to the question: “I made a little documentary about lemurs in Madagascar once, and there was something about that I thought was very warm and mellow, and I liked that, I liked that a lot. And it enabled me to make a few sort of jokes that I hadn’t made before, and it was something really fresh.” After that, Cleese confides that the making of Fawlty Towers was a happy experience, but the filming of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life was very much the opposite, not a happy experience at all.
The “little documentary” cited by Cleese is called “Operation Lemur: Mission to Madagascar” (although the in-show title, as you can see, is “Lemurs with John Cleese”). It was filmed as part of a series of nature programs that ran for several years called Into the Wild in which they would sent Hollywood celebrities to distant wildlife destinations, such as sending Julia Roberts to Borneo to learn about orangutans or Goldie Hawn to India to witness elephant life.
Cleese has developed a serious affection for lemurs. On Cleese’s Facebook page, his “About” area contains the following text: “John Cleese is a tall person who likes lemurs, coffee and wine. He’s also been known to write and act a bit.” He has also had a lemur named after him—the Bemaraha woolly lemur is also referred to as “Cleese’s woolly lemur.”
The documentary isn’t bad—you’ll definitely learn a thing or two about lemurs, and they are pretty fascinating animals. My favorite bit covers the long tails of the animals as well as the remarkable “stink fights” that lemurs will engage in—nonlethal conflicts in which the band of lemurs that produces the more offensive smell wins.
All in all, though, I wouldn’t trade it for the original 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.....