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John Cleese Talks iPhones, Beer, Groupies, Texting And The World's Worst Airlines

Why would anyone pass up the opportunity to talk to the man who has Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, Clockwise, A Fish Called Wanda, Will & Grace, two Bond flicks and countless other classics on his resume? Lifehacker chats to John Cleese about why 95% of the world’s airlines are rubbish (and the three he will use), what technology he favours, tactics for picking up women, Australia’s worst cities and when beer is the wrong choice.

Confession: I was extremely nervous about this interview. Cleese’s comedy has been a presence in my life for as long as I can remember. Back when I was a child in the pre-VCR era, we had audio tapes of every Fawlty Towers episode, recorded directly from the TV. I still think Clockwise is one of the funniest films ever made (and an abject reminder to the Lifehacker universe that becoming obsessed with organisation can be just as dangerous as being disorganised.)

The first movie I ever watched on a long-haul flight was A Fish Called Wanda, which might help explain why I’m such an enthusiastic and frequent flyer. As a comedian, he’s inventive, vicious and verbally dextrous in equal measure. When he’s not being humorous, Cleese is also very insightful on the subject of creativity. (I could go on, but I don’t want this to turn into Cleese’s iMDB entry.)

So I was stupidly self-conscious about not sounding like a gushing loon when I talked to Cleese. I also didn’t want to go over old ground — I suspect there’s nothing much new left to learn about Python, while Cleese himself dissects his most recent marriage and acrimonious divorce in his own stand-up tour, which he took around Australia earlier this year. This is Lifehacker, so I wanted advice. And what better source than someone who has succeeded in his profession for close on 50 years?

The immediate context for the interview was the voiceover Cleese has done for a Canadian Club advertisement featuring (of all things) ‘beer fairies’:

So for that reason (and because we like a drink or two around here), the discussion kicks off with beer:

Lifehacker: We’ll start with the beer. It strikes me that you’ve travelled the world for a long time, and you’ve been coming to the Antipodes for close on five decades now. Do you think Australians deserve our reputation as beer-swilling slobs and have we become worse over that time?

John Cleese: Do you know, I haven’t a clue is the truthful answer, and the reason is that I never — even when I was young — I never went into pubs much. I liked occasional bars when I was in New York but what I love is restaurants. I love going to restaurants and trying the wine list and trying beer and trying whatever they’ve got.

If I go into a cocktail bar — I was staying in a hotel in Monaco recently and they had a great bar — I was trying the different cocktails, I love to try new things and the campaign is really just saying that, saying ‘don’t go into a pub and just ask for the same beer you’ve been asking for for the last 10 years, try something different’.

It’s more interesting and there’s a lot of statistics that says to the men if you’re trying to interest a girl or even impress her, have a look at this. There was a Newspoll study of 1,000 Australian women. 57 per cent of these Aussie women said that beer is the most boring and predictable alcoholic beverage. So if you walk in and order that automatically you might not be creating the smartest impression.

Then 77% of them said they dislike beer bellies. Well look, beer bellies, we know what we mean by that. That’s not just caused by beer, but it can, a lot of beer.

Why drink large quantities of something? Do you just want to get drunk? Well if so, you’ve got a sad life there friend. What are you hiding from? Just drink something for the joy of the taste and the little bit of buzz that a little bit of alcohol gives you, don’t go out there to get plastered, what is the point, you know?

53% of females thought it would be a refreshing change from the norm for a man to order an alternative to beer. So if you want to impress the girls the girls are telling you what’s going to impress them.

Obviously you’ve spent a lot of time in restaurants around the world including Australia sampling these different drinks. Do you find women do come and try and throw themselves at you?

[Laughs loudly] Not yet, and at 72 I’m beginning to give up hope. The only girl who ever sort of threw herself at me was when I was performing in Cardiff I think it was on the stage tour in 1973 and she came up to me at the stage door and was obviously very, very interested. And I tell you she could have played in the second row for the Welsh rugby without anyone noticing there was anything up. So no, the whole idea of girls throwing themselves at you because of fame, it’s not part of my experience.

Oh dear. Sticking to the travel theme: you travel a lot, and you’re also an exceptionally tall man. What are your tricks for actually making sure that you can fly in comfort?

The answer is avoid 95 per cent of the airlines. There are three airlines that I can be comfortable on — and I’m being absolutely serious now — and that I can have a chance of getting a night’s sleep on. There’s Singapore, there’s Cathay Pacific and there’s Emirates. The others you can basically forget. For example, even British Airways which is basically a pretty good airline, I don’t know anyone over six foot one who can travel comfortably on their planes and get a night’s sleep.

So what happens now is it’s all about money; as you get older you realise almost everything’s all about money. They make the seats smaller all the time so that they can fit more seats in and make a bit more money you know, and they’re not very comfortable any more.

And then Emirates — well I was flying back from Sydney recently. At Sydney they said ‘great’ they accepted the luggage because I’d been travelling for three months. I stopped off at Dubai. I went in the next morning to recheck in, and I was a transit passenger because I’d only spent the night, and then they started trying to charge me for the extra luggage and I said ‘well, why didn’t they charge me in Sydney?’ You get this kind of bullshit everywhere and I was slightly amused because the guy I was dealing with, his name was Fakar which suggests a comment.

Indeed. Now I write for a very geeky web site I have to say, so I do need to ask: have you joined the smartphone revolution? Are you travelling around the world with a modern mobile phone or are you leaving that to someone else?

I’ve gradually got dragged into the technology. I obviously use email a great deal and I have an iPhone. What I like about being able to send people texts is that I can send short texts to people. Perhaps my daughter in Santa Monica, just send her a quick message without having to see where she is or whether she’s using her phone or if she’s on her mobile.

It’s a very efficient way of communicating some of the time provided that you don’t rely on it for anything that’s to do with deeper and more important things, because deeper and more important things get very scrambled when you’re using shorthand, you know.

So I’m getting a little more interested in some of the technology. Jenny my girlfriend is with me now in Monaco. She loves talking to her parents on Skype. To be able to see them and to be able to chat to them for 20 minutes on Skype is just fabulous. That really helps people’s relationships.

But most of the gadgetry is of no interest to me at all. I just want a few simple things and I can never quite understand how people get fascinated in gadgets any more than I can understand why geologists get fascinated by rocks. I think it was Samuel Johnson who said something to the effect that whatever’s about human beings is what’s really important, and I believe that.

OK. One really fast final question. You’ve just been on tour all around Australia, Which city in Australia would you happily never visit again?

Oh that’s interesting because I actually, truthfully like them all. I think possibly Canberra is the most boring. I don’t think Canberra’s an exciting town. I was walking around it on a Saturday and I thought ‘surely this can’t be Saturday, this must be Sunday’ but everyone said ‘No no, Canberra’s Saturday’s are like everyone else’s Sundays’. So I would say that was a civilised town but a little bit boring. I did find a very good restaurant there. But all the others . . .

I love for example Adelaide. Everyone says it’s a huge country town. Well maybe, but it’s got a wonderful atmosphere to it and it’s got one of the greatest markets I’ve ever been in. I adore Melbourne because there’s so much going on there.

I didn’t get to see much of Perth because the average temperature while I was there was 44 degrees. I mean, it was just horrendous and we just stayed in air conditioning most of the time so I never felt that we got to see Perth.

I adore Sydney because it’s huge, it feels like a great city. That view as you get out of the Four Seasons Hotel of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge — you can’t beat that, that’s the best view in the world.


You can check out a couple of audio highlights from the interview in the clip below:

Pictures by Mark Metcalfe, Matt Cardy, Tim Whitby, John Downing and Ian Waldie at Getty Images


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