By John Cleese

Cornell University Press


248pp/$25.00/October 2018

Professor at Large

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

John Cleese is best known for his work with the seminal British comedy troupe Monty Python and only slightly less well known for his television series Fawlty Towers. In addition to those works and A Fish Called Wanda and At Last the 1948 Show, Cleese has carved out a career using humor on more series topics, such as a series of business training films. Lesser well known is that fact that ever since 1999, he has served as a guest lecturer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, first as part of their "professor at large" program and later in a position the university created specifically for him. Cleese has visited the university annually and seven of his presentations have been collected in Professor at Large.

Readers who are expecting Pythonesque humor within these pages will be disappointed, although that doesn't mean humor is lacking, merely that Cleese took these lectures seriously and wanted to make the students who attended them think about the world they were poised to enter. The first lecture in the book, "Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind" is designed to stimulate those students to consider what they known about thought processes and decision making. Cleese questions what it means to be decisive and offers and alternative decision making process which is based more on creativity than hard number crunching. Cleese's lesson, however, isn't entirely straightforward and, while he doesn't entirely reverse course to end the talk, he does ensure the students know the practice isn't simply black-and-white.

"Screenwriting Seminar" is an interview between Cleese and two-time Oscar winner William Goldman. Goldman may be best known for his work on All the President's Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Princess Bride, but his career goes well beyond those works and in the course of the interview, he and Cleese discuss his failures as well as his successes. The discussion ranges from the creative process to the business of Hollywood and beyond. Cleese and Goldman have both written for films and can compare their experiences, but of course they also have very divergent experiences which inform their understanding of Hollywood.

"Sermon at Sage Chapel" and "What Is Religion? Musings on Life of Brian" both tackle religion and highlight one of the issues with Professor at Large. Although the talks and interviews included in the book spanned several years in their original presentation, when collected into a single volume, there is a repetitiveness to Cleese's talks. The same names and studies and books keep coming up. His thought on religion are repeated in multiple essays and the dichotomy between hare and tortoise minds are referred to whenever the creative process is discussed. If the essays are read within a short period of time, this becomes evident and the reader finds themselves wondering how much Cleese's philosophy changed over the years.

Cleese's own career, apart from the essay on Life of Brian is constantly in the background but rarely discussed directly. He hasn't put Python behind him, but it is not his primary focus during the times when these talks were given. When he does discuss them, he talks about their creative process and talks about his fellow Pythons, revealing that he often found himself at odds with Terry Jones, whose temperament was quite different from Cleese's own and reinforcing that the impressions viewers have of the various Pythons based on the roles they took for the show are erroneous.

Professor at Large reveals a very different version of John Cleese than the one popular culture usually sees. He demonstrates the breadth of his knowledge and curiosity, reminding the reader that Cleese was a student at Cambridge who read law and has worked as a teacher in addition to falling into writing and performing comedy over the years. Satirist Tom Lehrer once commented that students signed up for his mathematical classes expecting to hear funny theorems and eventually got bored and went away when they realized it was just a math course. Cleese must feel the same way, although his lectures do have the veneer of his celebrated sense of humor and could cover the range of topics Cleese found interesting.

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind What Is Religion? Musings on Life of Brian
Screenwriting Seminar Creativity, Group Dynamics, and Celebrity
Sermon at Sage Chapel A Conversation with John Cleese
The Human Face
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