“There’s always been limitations on what they’re allowed to say,” Cleese said. “I think it’s particularly worrying at the moment because you can only create in an atmosphere of freedom, where you’re not checking everything you say critically before you move on. What you have to be able to do is to build without knowing where you’re going because you’ve never been there before. That’s what creativity is — you have to be allowed to build. And a lot of comedians now are sitting there and when they think of something, they say something like, ‘Can I get away with it? I don’t think so. So and so got into trouble, and he said that, oh, she said that.’ You see what I mean? And that’s the death of creativity.”
He summed up, “You can do the creation and then criticize it, but you can’t do them at the same time. So if you’re worried about offending people and constantly thinking of that, you are not going to be very creative. So I think it has a disastrous effect.”
Calling it a “difficult time” for comedy, especially with young comedians, Cleese added, “My audience is much older, and they’re simply not interested in most of the woke attitudes. I mean, they just think that you should try and be kind to people and that’s no need to complicate it, you know?”
It’s all about audience, anyway, to Cleese: “If you go to a Republican convention and tell anti-Democrat jokes, you’ll get a very good response. If you tell anti-Republican jokes, you won’t. So you’ve got to fit your material to some extent to your audience. And that’s part of it… If you go to see your granny and to have tea with her, you don’t start telling her sex jokes. Now that’s not because it’s illegal, it’s just bad manners.”
He continued, “So I think you would think what the audiences is and then you might shock them a little bit because that’s fun. And also, as I point out on stage, if you get into areas that are a little bit taboo, you actually get the biggest laughs, which is why sexual humor is often greeted with huge laughs when it’s not particularly funny. It’s to do with anxiety and the release of anxiety when people relax or laugh with spare energy that comes from the fact that they just laughed at something they’ve been anxious about before.”
Aside from stand-up routines and stage comedy, Cleese added that he experiences a “great sadness” looking at the state of comedy films, saying there are “very, very few really good comedy scripts” nowadays.
“What I feel now is that very few people understand how to plot the comedy, so the comedies in America are really aimed at young men because they’re the ones who go to the cinema on Friday night, which means that the box office looks good,” Cleese explained. “And it’s all done ultimately to money because we now have studios that are more interested in money than in making great movies and in the old days, they wanted to make great movies too.”
The last great comedies in his book?
Steve Martin’s 1987 film “Roxanne,” a reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Cyrano,” and 1988’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which was remade with a gender-swapped twist starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson in 2019’s “The Hustle.”
“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” Phillips said in 2019. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore — I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.'”
The “Hangover” director shared, “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies — I think that what comedies, in general, all have in common — is they’re irreverent. So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’ And so that’s really where that came from.”
Cleese’s fellow British comedian Rowan Atkinson also agreed that it’s “comedy’s job to offend.”