Some artists have one or two projects that follow them for life, but John Cleese’s body of work is vast. From Monty Python’s Fawlty Towers to A Fish Called Wanda and everything in between, he’s the man behind some of comedy’s most iconic characters. The sketches on Monty Python’s Flying Circus allowed the whole troupe to flex their acting muscles and experiment with different characters, lessons that served them well in later movies.
1. A Fish Called Wanda
One of the most intelligent and well-constructed comedies ever made. It is for comedy what Citizen Kane is for drama or the Godfather Parts 1 and 2 are for gangster epics. The story is simple – four thieves pull off a diamond heist but then begin to turn on each other. Jamie Lee Curtis’s devious, amoral Wanda keeps the boys on their heels while mastermind George and calcified barrister Archie Leach try to keep them in line.
Cleese co-wrote the film and also plays a surprisingly likable middle class barrister. He also manages to be hysterically funny without the usual Pythonesque one-liners and slapstick. Michael Palin and Kevin Kline round out the cast and make this a must-see for fans of Monty Python.
2. Fierce Creatures
After the success of A Fish Called Wanda John Cleese decided to reunite many of his old cast members and while Fierce Creatures isn’t in the same league as the earlier movie it still has plenty of laughs. Rollo Lee (Cleese) finds himself running an English Zoo for a Rupert Murdoch-like corporation that demands a 20% profit margin or face closure. The zoo’s adorable lemurs and aardvarks are the only thing standing in their way.
To keep their jobs Rollo and the zoo’s sexpot corporate climber Willa (Curtis) must convince the new boss that their cuddly animals are dangerous before he closes them down for good. This is a madcap comedy full of witheringly literate putdowns and rejoinders, embarrassing situations and the best-laid plans of all kinds unraveling hilariously. A must-see for fans of Monty Python.
3. Rat Race
Before he directed the sob-fest Ghost and the teeth-gnashing awful King Arthur saga, First Knight, Jerry Zucker was a master of daft, old-fashioned broad comedy. His sure hand with sight gags ensured that Rat Race would be an undeniably stupid, but thoroughly enjoyable, adventure-comedy. The gnula film follows a group of disparate Las Vegas tourists who are randomly selected to compete in a race for $2 million stashed in a train station locker 700 miles away. The first one to reach it keeps the money.
The cast includes Rowan Atkinson as a narcoleptic Italian, Cuba Gooding Jr as a disgraced football referee and Whoopi Goldberg as a woman who’s just reunited with the daughter she hadn’t seen since she was a child. Plus, there’s a crazy squirrel lady and a bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators. It’s a lot to take in, but there are laughs to be had.
4. Life of Brian
After appearing in the Footlights revue A Clump of Plinths in 1963, Cleese became a regular writer and performer on David Frost’s television shows. This experience would help him hone his acting and writing skills that were put to good use in Monty Python’s Flying Circus and later on the movie screen. When Life of Brian was released in 1979 it caused a storm of controversy with religious organizations decrying it as blasphemous. However, if you watch the film carefully, it’s clear that the Pythons aren’t attacking Jesus but exploring what it might be like living in a culture that was always expecting the Messiah.
Aside from a few surreal moments, this is an extremely funny movie. In fact, it’s one of my favorite comedies of all time. The clumsy, paranoid full-of-himself hotel owner Basil Fawlty is the perfect foil for a host of brilliantly written characters.
5. The Meaning of Life
Cleese takes on multiple roles in this Monty Python film, the first to feature all of the original troupe members since the death of Graham Chapman. The movie combines sketches and songs to explore the big questions of life in seven parts: birth, war, middle age, sexual education, door-to-door organ transplants, and, finally, death.
The ribald humor of this 1983 movie is more bold-faced than the group’s earlier works, with scenes like a riot by accountant pirates and an explosion from the obese restaurant host Mr. Creosote proving that the group was no stranger to cultural criticism.
The Meaning of Life is funny, but it’s also a satire of humanity’s self-defeating behavior. It understands people as fish in a tank marching pointlessly within the parameters imposed on them by society, religion and their own conformist mindset.