Entertainment icon John Cleese slammed wokeness for having a “disastrous” impact on comedy during an interview with Fox News Digital.
Cleese was a keynote speaker at last week’s FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas where he spoke about how to cultivate creativity, a skill he believes is essential and not just in showbiz, but sounded the alarm that political correctness has become a major obstacle, particularly for young comedians.
When asked if comedians have the freedom to be funny in the year 2022, Cleese firmly responded, “No.”
“There’s always been limitations on what they’re allowed to say,” Cleese said. “Why you go to Molière and Louis XIV. I mean Molière had to be a bit careful. And there will always be limitations. I mean in England, until some ridiculous late date like 1965, all plays had to be submitted to what used to be a part of the palace called the Lord Chamberlain, and he would read it and there were hilarious letters used to go back was saying ‘you may only say f–k once,’ this sort of- ‘and you cannot say bugger. But you can say-‘ this sort of ridiculous negotiating letters.”
“But I think it’s particularly worrying at the moment because you can only create in an atmosphere of freedom, where you’re not checking everything you say critically before you move on. What you have to be able to do is to build without knowing where you’re going because you’ve never been there before. That’s what creativity is—you have to be allowed to build. And a lot of comedians now are sitting there and when they think of something, they say something like, ‘Can I get away with it? I don’t think so. So and so got into trouble, and he said that, oh, she said that.’ You see what I mean? And that’s the death of creativity,” Cleese continued. “So I would say at the moment, this is a difficult time, particularly for young comedians, but you see, my audience is much older, and they’re simply not interested in most of the woke attitudes. I mean, they just think that you should try and be kind to people and that’s no need to complicate it, you know?”
The “Monty Python” star explained that wokeness allows the “critical mind” to take over the creative, saying they’re “definitely in opposition to each other.”
“You can do the creation and then criticize it, but you can’t do them at the same time. So if you’re worried about offending people and constantly thinking of that, you are not going to be very creative. So I think it has a disastrous effect,” Cleese told Fox News Digital.
Cleese lamented that “everything is more politicized now,” including late-night comedy in America. He pointed to “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert, who he says he “adores,” but acknowledged that his audience is “more obviously politically aligned than it used to be,” adding “it wasn’t like that.”
“It wasn’t like this when I first got to America,” Cleese said. “When I first got to America in the 60s… two things happened. First of all, I very much admired the cross-the-aisle friendships and thought we don’t have that in England. We have real battles between the Tories and the Labour, but in America there seems to be these- and this was destroyed by Newt Gingrich, quite deliberately, for purposes of power. I think that’s a tragedy.”
When asked if late-night comedians can ever reunite both sides of the aisle like they used to, Cleese replied, “No,” adding that comedians can “sometimes summarize in a moment what’s happening very well” but they don’t “ever change anything.”
The 82-year-old British funnyman stood firmly against the notion that any comedian should be “canceled” over a joke and allow audiences to decide what’s funny.
“If you go to a Republican convention and tell anti-Democrat jokes, you’ll get a very good response. If you tell anti-Republican jokes, you won’t. So you’ve got to fit your material to some extent to your audience. And that’s part of it… If you go to see your granny and to have tea with her, you don’t start telling her sex jokes. Now that’s not because it’s illegal, it’s just bad manners,” Cleese said.
He continued, “So I think you would think what the audiences is and then you might shock them a little bit because that’s fun. And also, as I point out on stage, if you get into areas that are a little bit taboo, you actually get the biggest laughs, which is why sexual humor is often greeted with huge laughs when it’s not particularly funny. It’s to do with anxiety and the release of anxiety when people relax or laugh with spare energy that comes from the fact that they just laughed at something they’ve been anxious about before.”
Cleese offered a grim forecast on the future of comedy, saying he feels a “great sadness” about how there are “very, very few really good comedy scripts.”
“Certainly in England, when I went to the theater between the 60s and 2000, there were probably six or seven writers writing absolutely wonderful comedies, beautifully constructed, good characters. And I think this was true in America too because Broadway was all important and the people working on Broadway were very literate. They wrote a great deal, and they knew how to plot,” Cleese told Fox News Digital. “What I feel now is that very few people understand how to plot the comedy, so the comedies in America are really aimed at young men because they’re the ones who go to the cinema on Friday night, which means that the box office looks good. And it’s all done ultimately to money because we now have studios that are more interested in money than in making great movies and in the old days, they wanted to make great movies too.”
“Can you recall the last great comedy you’ve seen?” Fox News Digital asked.
“‘Roxanne,’” Cleese chuckled, referring to the 1987 Steve Martin film. “‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.’”
He added, “I don’t go to comedies much because when you spent your life in comedy, by the time you get to 55 years in comedy, you’ve heard most of the jokes. And you watch people you think, ‘Yeah, that’s funny,’ but I have better things to do this evening than to watch comedy. I don’t need to be entertained. I’d rather read a book.”