Cleese was honored the night before with the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award for “his extraordinary contribution to the art of film” ahead of an open-air screening of his 1988 comedy “A Fish Called Wanda.”
Discussing the current state of comedy, Cleese said changing demographics had led U.S. studios to produce mostly juvenile, lowbrow fare.
“The sad thing that happened a few years ago was that older Americans stopped going to the cinema. So then they decided that the way to get people actually into the cinema was to make films that appeal to American males of about 19 years of age,” Cleese said. “The trouble with American males of 19 years of age is they have no general knowledge, at all. They have no idea where Bosnia is. If you went out to the street in New York and asked them, ‘Where’s Bosnia?’ they wouldn’t have a clue.
“So this means that you can only make jokes about a very limited number of subjects, and that’s pretty much listed in ‘Hangover’….What is it about? Gambling, sex, drugs, booze, celebrities – I’m already running out, do you see what I mean?”
Popular on Variety
Cleese said he had always wanted to make a film about 1776 and the American Revolution “because I thought it was so funny when I discovered that almost all the British soldiers in America were Germans. That’s hilarious.
“They said, ‘You can’t do this John, because they don’t know enough about 1776. You can’t make jokes about it. So I think that film comedy has broadly deteriorated, except for a few eccentric films, mainly European.”
Cleese stressed, however, that “a certain number of stand-up comics have emerged, which was not the case 30 years ago, and the very best of those are saying some wonderful things.”
But President Trump, said Cleese, is proving difficult for comedians to top.
“Trump has done comedians a disservice, because how can you match that? You can’t be funnier than Trump. And it’s real. Odd behavior, strange behavior, is much funnier if it takes place in a conventional atmosphere than if takes place in a distorted atmosphere,” he said.
As proof, the “Monty Python” veteran pointed out that media magnate Murdoch was reportedly advising Trump. “So we have to thank Rupert because things are a lot better than they might be if Rupert wasn’t advising him,” Cleese said. “You see what I mean? You couldn’t write it, you couldn’t invent it. It’s so insane.”
Cleese recounted a conversation he’d had with a BBC executive about Murdoch’s planned takeover of pay-TV service Sky, telling him that he was “certainly not going to perform” on Sky if regulators approved the deal. “The BBC executive said, ‘You might be surprised how many comedians have said that.’ But then he added, ‘But not actors.’
“What I like about comedians is that they’ve got a slightly bloody-minded attitude, which I think can be very refreshing sometimes in a world where there is so much conventional thinking.”