By Dean Smith
In the fall of 2015, Cornell University Press hosted a folk concert in our offices at Sage House with author and Cornell history professor Richard Polenberg to celebrate Hear My Sad Story, his new book about the true stories of folk songs like “Casey Jones,” “Stagger Lee,” and “John Henry.” Sixty people showed up for the free event. Folk music enthusiasts jammed the foyer and sat knee-to-knee on the staircase all the way to the second floor. Polenberg played four songs on his acoustic guitar and the crowd sang along with him—a magical Ithaca moment—as the sunlight shafted in from all sides after a cold rain.
After the concert, I noticed three women at the top of the second-floor steps. We’d roped off access to the offices on the second and third floors. I asked if they wanted a tour of what had been Cornell benefactor Henry Sage’s mansion and the university infirmary for most of the twentieth century. I showed them our carved oak bats and owls, stained glass windows, and fireplace tile sequences featuring fairy tales such as Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin. Our managing editor’s fireplace is adorned with Arthurian characters such as Lady Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.
At the end of the tour, one of the women, Gerri Jones, told me that Professor John Cleese would like a place like this. At first, I didn’t think I heard her right.
“Yes, he is the Provost’s Visiting Professor at Cornell.”
“The John Cleese?”
Professor Cleese had been coming to Cornell since 1999, when he was appointed the Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large. Gerri works at the university as his administrator. Cleese had given countless lectures on topics covering psychology, religion, history, the brain, screenwriting, and politics. He met with students and faculty and visited research labs. In the first eight years of his professorship, he visited seven times.
Gerri and I began a correspondence. Our publicity manager, Jonathan Hall, suggested that we do a book on Cleese’s lectures at Cornell. Gerri liked the idea and started digging up cassettes and CDs of the talks Cleese had given. She found a never-before-published piece entitled “The Sermon at Sage Chapel” about his position on religion, featuring the religious sect The Psychopaths for Christ. She transcribed an expansive interview with screenwriter William Goldman and a lecture on creativity and group dynamics with professor Beta Mannix.
For the better part of two months, I studied the life of John Cleese—his early influences, the comedy sketches, the movies, the books, the fearless forays into self-exploration, and his evolving positions on psychology, religious beliefs, science, and the media.
She also uncovered a lecture with psychology professor Steve Ceci entitled “The Human Face,” after a program Cleese had made with the BBC dealing with facial recognition. His business lecture on decision-making, “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind,” was also included. Gerri suggested that the we interview Professor Cleese as the final piece in the manuscript.
Last spring, we began assembling a manuscript and a draft contract. We suggested titles such as Lofty Towers: Lectures and Interviews with Cornell Professor-at-large John Cleese.
Months passed, and over the summer I received a message from Gerri that the book project was on and that Cleese was returning to Cornell in the fall. She mentioned that his public talk on September 11th would be with me.
I was humbled and deeply appreciated this gesture of kindness from Gerri. I fully expected to be bumped from the dance card in favor of Cornell faculty and scholars that might want the task of interviewing the professor.
We would be crowd-sourcing the final chapter at the majestic Bailey Hall, with questions coming from the audience as well as myself. Immediately the challenge presented itself. We needed to entertain the crowd while also rounding out what was already a robust manuscript of talks, lectures, and interviews. There were missing pieces in the manuscript and I needed to fill them in. I wanted more about the work he had done with psychologist Robin Skynner and Cornell Professor David Dunning.
For the better part of two months leading up to the public lecture, I studied the life of John Cleese—his early influences, the comedy sketches, the movies, the books, the interests, the memoir, the fearless forays into self-exploration, and his evolving positions on psychology, religious beliefs, science, and the media. I practiced the Cleese concept of “panicking early”: it’s okay to panic as long as you do so early on in the project and not near the deadline.
I also employed Cleese’s technique of carving out an open space to be creative. I had this idea to map the directions of his Escher-like brain. I commissioned a set of pencil-drawn staircases from my daughter Julia. The schematic remains a work-in-progress.
Just as comedy was the launching pad for a young Cambridge student with a law degree, I quickly discovered that the wide-ranging curriculum of John Cleese will send you on a limitless quest for knowledge. Humor serves as his launching point for endless and ongoing intellectual discovery.
On a rare cloudless and clear pre-autumnal Sunday morning, I was standing nervously outside of his hotel room at the Statler Hotel. I knocked three times. The maid had parked her cart there and she was smiling. Suddenly, a burst of raucous laughter emanated from his quarters. I knocked again. There was footfall and he appeared, welcoming and gigantic.
The wide-ranging curriculum of John Cleese will send you on a limitless quest for knowledge. Humor serves as his launching point for endless and ongoing intellectual discovery.
He offered me an espresso but I was already wired. The professor liked the questions we had developed for him. It was immediately apparent that he could expound at length on any one of the more than thirty questions Gerri and I had worked on.
He told a story about being in Sarajevo a few weeks prior at the very café that assassin Gavrilo Princip sat before Archduke Ferdinand’s procession made an unexpected turn down the street. He used that moment to talk about the Dunning-Kruger effect and his new one-man show that he is developing entitled “Why there is no Hope?” I gave him a German pencil as a gift.
“Did you know I wrote my memoir in pencil?”
“I had no idea.” It just seemed the right thing to do.
Then he spoke the name of the pencil in German—der bleistift. It was hilarious.
We talked publishing. He asked me why I thought people didn’t read anymore. I was surprised by his answer—anxiety. We worry about so many things and there is no time to create the space needed for reading. He’s fascinated by life and is an indefatigable student of it. I took notes but it was obvious he could clear an intellectual path with little to no prompting. I was relieved because I had three introductory topics to craft the questions around based on what he had been up to since the last time he was at Cornell. There was his divorce, the Python reunion in 2014, and his memoir.
Before I left, I gave the Professor my book of poems, American Boy. I wanted him to have context about my life and who I was. Much of his work is about the importance of childhood and how those events shaped a person. I’d learned so much about him, and I thought that the book might be a way for him to grasp some details about my life.
I drove with my daughter Julia to the Elmira Barnes & Noble, which had a copy of Cleese’s all-time favorite book about the brain, The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. The Professor wanted a copy to reference during the show. It was great to have my daughter at my side for a couple of hours careening through the countryside. It relaxed me a great deal. We somehow got onto the subject of the coconuts that Monty Python used to mimic the sounds of horses’ hooves in The Holy Grail. She knew about it from a book she’d read.
The next morning, I was a few minutes late to the meeting. I had finished my outline for the public talk and I’d brought a draft contract for him to review. I’d also written an introduction. I was so happy to be there, but it was difficult to concentrate after rushing to assemble everything. When he answered the door, he seemed dejected.
“I read your poetry last night,” he said. “It’s very sad.”
“It gets better at the end,” I told him, but I was in shock. I hadn’t expected him to have read it so soon.
“I have some questions for you,” he said. “Some lines I want to go over…later.”
“I haven’t written many poems lately.”
He knew about my plight as a Press director.
“You’ve got a lot of things on your mind. You’re responsible for the Press. You need to make it work and it occupies your thoughts a lot of the time.”
He was right on target. I suddenly wasn’t nervous about the talk. I had done the work. There were several moments like this during our time together when I found John Cleese to be gentle, courteous, and kind.
We started in on the outline and he tossed it aside. “Looks good.” He wanted to do Python at the beginning of the talk. “It’s the elephant in the room.”
We talked for a bit longer and he disappeared to check on something.
Then it came to me how to open the show.
As a young fan of Monty Python around the age of thirteen, I would sneak downstairs and watch it on public television after everyone had gone to sleep. My friends and I had the albums, and we found one sketch especially humorous because we attended Loyola, a Jesuit high school in Baltimore. We each performed our favorite lines from it.
When he returned, I offered my theory about why Python had withstood the test of time and still played well. “It’s the writing,” I said.
“Lines like this one. ‘There’s a dead bishop on the landing.’”
Professor Cleese nearly fell off his chair.
I kept going. “What diocese?”
“What diocese!” He chortled. “It’s tattooed on the back of his neck,” he said.
I put an “X” through my introduction.
We had the opening for the public talk. That would be the first thing I would say. We would launch right into Python.
We now have a signed contract for a selection of lectures and interviews to be published sometime in 2018. The book resulted from giving three women a tour of an old house. Acquisitions is a nonlinear exercise.
The talk went well—we achieved the dual goal of refining the manuscript content in an entertaining way—or should I say, Cleese did with some minor prompts from me. We now have a signed contract for a selection of lectures and interviews to be published sometime in 2018. The book resulted from giving three women a tour of an old house. Acquisitions is a nonlinear exercise.
The working manuscript contains references to at least forty sources, including twentieth-century Armenian and Greek mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher, and composer George Gurdjieff. Cleese draws effortlessly from the canon of his life. His mind is a fine-tuned engine of intellectual machinery endlessly running. I remain struck by a quote that his daughter, the comedian Camilla Cleese, made about her father several years ago. She said that her father didn’t need much to stay happy. As long as he had his books, he was fine.
I can’t wait until he returns to Ithaca. There are many more questions I want to ask him. One of those questions deals with this idea that he refers to himself a writer-performer. When you read his memoir, he speaks a great deal about delivery and timing. He also talks about finding the right word. My sense is that he is also a fastidious editor. His editing skills and his knack for language greatly enhance his scripts, sketches, and prose. I anxiously await his marks on the manuscript. Using the Blackwing pencil I had given him, Cleese redacted one word from our draft contract: “particularly.”
Dean Smith is the director of Cornell University Press.