My solitary issue with Reginald Cleese, father of John Cleese (you know, that lanky British writer/actor fellow who is terribly funny on the television device and in the movie parlor and inside those paper word-holder thingys) is this: by changing the family name from "Cheese" to "Cleese," he prevented thousands of hack writers like myself the opportunity to entitle essays about his son with lame surname jokes.




But I suppose I must forgive the dearly departed Reg for this, as he did provide us somewhat indirectly with one of the biggest laughs of the night during "An Evening With John Cleese": a show-stopping and spectacularly hilarious recreation of his morning smoker's cough, delivered by his son in choking, expertly-timed, red-faced comic perfection, so horrifyingly realistic I feared that the Reg's son, a strapping lad of 75 years, might blow a lurking aneurysm and drop dead on the church floor. I feel, although this would have been truly awful to witness and possibly even worse to have happen personally, there would have been no regrets on John Cleese's part. He committed to the bit, gave it everything he had, and one has to admit that it would have been very darkly humorous indeed to cough yourself to extinction inside a church moments after you asked "Is is alright to say 'fuck' in here?"

Presented by the University of Washington Bookstore, "An Evening With John Cleese" delighted the capacity crowd at the lovely University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle, who gave Cleese standing ovations at his entry and exit, smiles on the faces of all. The event was arranged in support of Cleese's newly-published autobiography, "So, Anyway..." (Crown Archetype,  Random House, 2014), in a simple and relaxed two-guys-in-chairs-talking format with host Steve Scher. Scher, former anchor of KUOW's Weekday program for many years, was an excellent choice as host: relaxed, well-prepared, expert at letting Cleese do his thing while keeping questions flowing from topic to topic seamlessly, keeping the focus on the guest of honor. 

After a few technical readjustments with the microphones, Scher and Cleese began the dialogue that would take the audience through some key parts of "So, Anyway..." expanded by Cleese in further sharp and amusing detail. The topic of Cleese's mother, apparently the most anxiety-ridden, self-absorbed human who had ever lived, was often invoked. Mother Cleese lived to the age of 101 years despite crushing self-imposed busy-work such as oiling owls and polishing trees and organizing decorative gourds (I may have remembered this somewhat improperly), and, in comorbidity, after a habit of composing lists of her very many worries for the express purpose of ensnaring her child into the exhausting task of addressing them one-by-one at length. Cleese noted that in psychological studies of brilliant comedians and high-achieving folk, most are found to have fractious relationships with their mothers. He noted, "If only my mother could have been just a little bit worse...I really could have been something great!"

When I last saw Mr. Cleese in person at Seattle's Moore Theater in 2009, he was beginning what he termed "The Alimony Tour" -- a highly-entertaining one-man show designed to refurbish his personal coffers after a staggering 20 million dollar divorce settlement awarded to his third wife. His anger towards what he felt was a grossly-unfair excision of cash was quite palpable then, but turning that anger into comedy not only made for profit, but seems to have been a bit beneficially cathartic as well. In 2014 we find Cleese in a happier place, recently married to a woman he called "the love of my life," and willing to let go of some fruitless frustrations as well. In later life, we find two types of people. The first, like Cleese's mother, view aging and death in the same way they have experienced their lives overall -- so wrapped up in fear that they cannot experience much other than worry and an endless need to try to control the uncontrollable, so that the smallest change is cause for deep depression and alarm. The second type, like John Cleese, may have plenty of concerns and issues but have made some peace with the absurdity of it all. Here are a few of the life lessons Mr. Cleese offered us last night, with a twinkle in his eye that I am sure was visible to even those in the back of the room.

1. The entire world is run by a handful of greedy, power- and control-mad assholes. This is the way it's always been, the way it will always be, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it, other than rake them over the coals comedically on a regular basis.

2. Too many people focus on small details, and miss out on the big picture.

3. The most important thing in life is to be kind.

4. If you meet him, never ask him to do the Silly Walk ever, ever, ever. No. Stop. Don't do it. No. No no. That means you. Have some pity on him -- he's three-quarters of a century old and now made up of bits of plastic and metal held together with tape and spit.

I was unable to bring my proper pro camera last night, which was fine since the event was filmed (properly) by the University of Washington Bookstore and will appear on their YouTube channel shortly. I took only a couple photos with my phone because this was not the event to be obnoxious with a phone. This idea was not shared by the man in front of me, who spent at least half the show with his point-and-shoot camera raised above his sight line trying to get a photograph of Mr. Cleese. Beep beep beep!, went his camera, as he failed over and over and over again to get one single in-focus shot. I hope the entire audience appreciates the restraint I showed in not grabbing the thing from his hands, shouting, "HERE! LET ME HELP YOU! I'LL TAKE THE FUCKING PHOTO FOR YOU AND THEN WE ALL CAN LISTEN TO JOHN CLEESE RATHER THAN YOUR AUTOFOCUS DISABILITY SOUND!" See what I've learned from John Cleese? Turn your anger into comedy, and avoid ulcers.

I've now come to terms with Reginald Cleese's rejection of Cheese, and can appreciate that Muriel Cleese was plenty crazy enough to have produced a brilliant and creative child in John Cleese. "An Evening With John Cleese" went exactly as I anticipated -- joyful, hilarious, thoughtful, and definitely inspirational. Do go buy "So, Anything..." and get your leaden posteriors in gear to see him this week in California and Florida. Thank you, University Book Store and University Temple United Methodist Church, Steve Scher, and to John Cleese, who has brightened things up here on Planet Asshole...errr, Earth, quite a bit for so many for so long. What a tremendous gift to give.

"An Evening With John Cleese" 2014 dates:

11/17/14 The California Theater, San Jose, CA., 7PM
11/18/14 Alex Theater, Glendale, CA., 8PM
11/19/14 The Granada Theater, Santa Barbara, CA., 7PM
11/20/14 University of San Diego Shiley Theater, San Diego, CA. 7PM
11/21/14 Barnes & Noble - The Grove at Farmer's Mark, Los Angeles, CA. 7PM
11/23/14 Miami Book Fair, Miami Miami Dade College, Chapman Conference Center, Miami, FL. 7PM