John Cleese: Comedy doesn't work if you're a literalist

"There were a few scenes where the major used words you can't use today, racist slurs, so we took that out," Cleese told reporters.

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Photo: PA Media
Photo: PA Media
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

John Cleese says pandering to "literalists" in the audience has "always been a problem" for comedy.

The writer and actor was speaking at the presentation of the theatrical adaptation of the Phallic Boarding House, which recently premiered in London.

Cleese admitted that some lines were thrown out due to changed expectations in society.

However, he said that writing comedy has become more difficult in general because of audiences "who don't understand metaphor, irony or comedic exaggeration".

Klis combined the three most popular episodes The phallic boarding house into one narrative for a two-hour play.

These are "Problems in Communication", "Hotel Inspectors" and the most controversial episode, "The Germans".

"There were a few scenes where the major used words you can't use today, racist slurs, so we took that out," Cleese told reporters the week before last.

He added that screenwriters now "have to fight" people who interpret jokes literally, sometimes not allowing for tone or setting.

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'Not playing with the whole deck'

"You know, you always have a problem with comedy because you're dealing with literalists," Cleese says.

“I will remind you of Till death do us part" says Cleese, referring to Alf Garnett, the main character of the Sixties sitcom who would regularly make extremely offensive comments.

"People were rolling with laughter at him, not with him. However, there were also people who said: 'Thank God someone finally said those things'.

"And that's why whenever you're doing comedy, you have to fight the literalists. Literalists don't understand irony, which means if you take them seriously, you're left without much comedy, because literalists don't understand metaphor, irony, comedic exaggeration.

"The result is, if you listen to them, then you've listened to people who, at least when it comes to what human beings say or do, don't play with the whole deck."

"Literalists have only one interpretation of what is said. Non-literalists can see that there are different interpretations depending on different contexts."

His comments came four years after an episode of "The Germans" was temporarily removed from some streaming services and returned with a warning about "offensive content and language".

The cast of the theatrical adaptation The phallic boarding house performed two scenes for journalists at the media presentation.

Both inserts were almost entirely faithful to the original television scripts, with a few minor changes and added new jokes.

Asked by BBC News if he worried that some of the jokes had become so famous that they might lose their comedic power, Cleese pointed out that the stage show would evolve and change as the cast began to understand the theater audience and improvise new parts.

"We kept the best things, the best scenes, and the more the actors play them, the more they will invent new things," says Cleese.

"And when people see the play at the premiere, if they come eight weeks later, they'll be very surprised to see how different it is, because people react and start playing with it."

He added: "I think it's going to be a huge hit, but I think it's going to be a huge hit in June as well, when the cast is figuring out what the funniest parts are and how to best use them."


Although some of the problematic vocabulary has been removed, the main characters and the physical violence Cleese sometimes involves them in remain intact.

In the stage play, Basil (played by Adam Jackson-Ford) can be seen trying to tie up a guest who complains about the service in front of someone who Basil believes is a hotel inspector.

He can also be seen slapping Manuel and hitting him over the head with a hard spoon, but it's clear that a lot of thought went into how to pull off such moves safely.

In contrast, the late Andrew Sachs, who played the original Manuel, previously recalled being physically injured by some of Basil's manipulations.

Writing in the Telegraph last week, Cleese defended the character of Manuel against suggestions that the clumsy Spanish waiter (played by an English actor) was an offensive Seventies stereotype.

Cleese said: "Manuel was just a character you could constantly have a misunderstanding with, and I always found the misunderstandings very funny."

The two-hour play has previously been staged in Australia, but this is the first time it has come to the West End.

Set in a fictitious hotel in the coastal town of Torquay, Phallic boarding house follows a nervous hotel owner who is often unpleasant to demanding guests.

In the play, Basil can be seen trying to be unusually nice to guests after being tipped off that inspectors might visit hotels in the area.

His plans are thwarted by a group of German guests and a particularly demanding customer, Mrs. Richards.

Asked how he went about putting the three episodes together to cover all three endings, Cleese said, "That's what I call carpentry."

"We chose Mrs. Richards because everyone loves her, she's a wonderful character. And we chose hotel inspectors, and then of course we had to take Germans as well, and then we had to figure out how to connect them to each other.

"Because they start at different times and people move from one story to another. Which means it's all pretty action-packed."

Cleese claims that A phallic boarding house the theater environment is more suitable than the television one, because the audience can see everything that happens on the stage.

"Farce is better performed in the theater than anywhere else. Because once you're on television, there's a guy called an editor who chooses where you're going to watch.

"But in the theater you want to sit in the middle of the room, not too close, because then you can see all these different things happening at the same time."

In keeping with farce tradition, Phallic boarding house regularly included characters doing something in the background without being seen by foreground characters.

The premiere of the play was held at London's Apollo Theater on May 4.

Cleese co-wrote the script for the original TV series with then-wife Connie Booth, who also played Polly in the series.

Despite being considered one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, only 12 half-hour episodes were filmed in total The phallic boarding house.

The first season was broadcast in 1975, and the second in 1979.

Cleese explained to reporters: "We felt after 12 episodes that we had done the best we could, and if we did another season, people would probably say, 'Well, it was very funny, but it wasn't as good as the first two seasons.' . In that case, why do it if you don't desperately need the money?"

The sitcom was famously based on real-life hotel owner Donald Sinclair.

Cleese got the idea for the series when he was staying at Sinclair's Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay and became fascinated by his extremely unpleasant behavior.

Last year, news broke that Cleese plans to write new episodes and star in them alongside her daughter Camila.

Last month, Cleese said he hoped to return to the project later this year.

"It's a modern version where Basil goes to the Caribbean, where his long-lost daughter is a hotelier and needs help. But he will still be full of suppressed rage and imprisoned in his own skin. That's his condition."

The play The Phallic Boarding House is playing in the West End

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