In 1986, John Cleese saw an ad in a Los Angeles magazine that claimed the following: “Buddhism gives you the competitive edge!” The oblivious machismo proved inspiring when he created the character of Otto, the dimwit thug in A Fish Called Wanda, whom Kevin Kline won an Academy Award for playing.
That ad captured Cleese’s attention because he has done a lot of thinking about religion and the sometimes curious gap between the lessons taught by religious leaders and the lessons learned by some followers. Cleese has done a lot of thinking about a lot of things, and he revisits his various fields of study with an engaging curiosity and able wit. Everything from the science of facial recognition to the art of screenwriting turns up in his slender but brilliant new book Professor at Large: The Cornell Years.
Cleese studied science when he entered the University of Cambridge, switched to law while he was there, graduated, did some other things, and in 1999 became a professor-at-large at Cornell University, where he lectured intermittently on a variety of subjects for nearly 20 years. The book collects transcripts of seven of those appearances, four of which are actually conversations between Cleese and someone else.
Fans of Monty Python will naturally be drawn to the two chapters relating to themes developed in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), the comedy troupe’s greatest film according to British audiences. (Americans, Cleese says, prefer 1974’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Both films are currently streaming on Netflix.) Hollywood studios wouldn’t touch Life of Brian, which was financed instead by George Harrison (because, as he told his friend Eric Idle, “I wanted to see the movie”) and caused some consternation upon its release to Jews, Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, inspiring Idle’s remark, “We’ve given them the first thing they’ve agreed on for 500 years.” Though Idle’s original suggestion was that the gang make a film called Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory, the film isn’t disrespectful to Christ, who appears briefly twice in the film and is not the butt of jokes in either scene.
Life of Brian is absolutely merciless to Christians, though, suggesting that misunderstandings of Christ’s teachings date back to the Sermon on the Mount, when villagers straining to hear think Jesus is saying, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” A typically pompous Cleese character interjects: “Obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to all manufacturers of dairy products.” Cleese explains in “Sermon at Sage Chapel,” from 2001, and “What Is Religion: Musings on Life of Brian,” from 2004, that he thinks of organized Christianity as “crowd control,” taking far too much interest in what other people are doing. He prefers to approach Christ in a mystical, personal way, seeking the divine as an individual experience and taking no interest in institutional obligations. Practicing Christians will find much of Cleese’s writing on religion to be disobliging if not downright offensive, as when he suggests that intensity of religious devotion is proportional to lack of mental health.
Cleese’s points on religion also have a well-rehearsed quality — you probably heard some version of them as far back as college — but the freshest, most engaging chapters have the least to do with the Monty Python brand or with comedy. He and Stephen Ceci, a professor of developmental psychology, held a discussion entitled “The Human Face” that’s like a first-rate TED talk: informal yet informative, backed by scientific research but framed in terms anyone can understand, and loaded with fascinating details. Why should we care about what Cleese has learned in the field of psychology? Because he’s really good at explaining it: He has a screenwriter’s gift for getting straight to the point and a comedian’s gift for the witty summary. The book doesn’t have an obvious parallel on the bestseller lists (which is probably why it’s being published by Cornell’s own press rather than a major commercial publisher) because it’s neither a showbiz memoir nor a guide to following in Cleese’s (famously silly) footsteps. Those topics do get aired, in Cleese’s conversation with The Princess Bride screenwriter William Goldman, from 2000, which is full of inside-Hollywood tidbits and guidance for young scribes, and in an interview at the end of the book in which Cleese chats about his life and work. But Professor at Large is essentially an anthology: Other topics include group dynamics and how to make good decisions.
As with a really fine magazine that makes you want to keep reading even as one piece ends and a completely unrelated one begins, Cleese provides an appealing sensibility amounting to a connecting thread that makes you eager to see where he’ll go next. A man who at various points in life studied law, taught Latin, founded a firm that made instructional films, and co-wrote two books with the late psychiatrist Robin Skynner has much more on his mind than entertainment. It’s a delight to learn along with him.