John Cleese: ‘Does it make you laugh?’
Laughing is so contagious that we often forget how subjective humor is.
John Marwood Cleese is an English actor, comedian, writer and film producer. He achieved success at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and as a scriptwriter and performer on The Frost Report. In the late 1960s, he co-founded Monty Python, the comedy troupe responsible for the sketch show Monty Python's Flying Circus and the four Monty Python films: And Now for Something Completely Different, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.
In the mid-1970s, Cleese and his first wife, Connie Booth, co-wrote and starred in the British sitcom Fawlty Towers. Later, he co-starred with Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and former Python colleague Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures, both of which he also wrote. He also starred in Clockwise, and has appeared in many other films, including two James Bond films as Q, two Harry Potter films, and the last three Shrek films.
With Yes Minister writer Antony Jay he co-founded Video Arts, a production company making entertaining training films. In 1976, Cleese co-founded The Secret Policeman's Ball benefit shows to raise funds for the human rights organisation Amnesty International.
JOHN CLEESE: The trouble is that people have very subjective senses of humor. And when I'm onstage doing my one man show I show clips from stuff I've done in the past. And because I don't have to speak or do anything while the clips are being played I sit and watch the audience because I can see the first three or four rows in the light that's coming from the screen. And the extraordinary thing is how varied their reactions are. He'll be roaring with laughter. She'll be roaring with laughter. He'll be looking pleasantly amused. Nothing there at all. Maybe they don't get it. Maybe they don't think it's funny. And someone they're laughing a little bit here and there. Then there's a big laugh. But he doesn't laugh. And then a minute later he roars with laughter at something that nobody else is laughing at. So it's much more subjective than you think. But when you're in a large group of people you don't notice it so much because laughter has an infectious effect on people.
So the first thing is you can't say it's funny or it's not funny because it could be funny for one person and not funny for another. What you can say is I think it's funny and then you extrapolate from that. I think enough people will find it funny for it to be worth us putting this show on.
In my case it was also true when we got together at the beginning of Monty Python where we had no idea what we are going to do, what was funny was what made us laugh. People brought material in that they'd written over the previous six or seven days. We sat around a big table at Terry Jones's place and if people laughed it was in the show and if they didn't laugh it wasn't. And if they laughed at bits of it we say well can we use the funny bit and get rid of the rest, which is why we started cutting the ends of sketches and all that kind of thing. So that was the best criteria is, does it make you laugh?
- People have very subjective senses of humor, which means some jokes may be funny to certain people but not at all for others.
- It can be hard to notice just how subject humor is because laughter has an infectious effect on people. This phenomenon is especially true in large groups of people.
- When it comes to reviewing what jokes to put into a show, test it on friends and family to see which parts evoke laughs from them and which parts don't.
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