John Cleese Discusses Something ‘Completely Different’ in ‘Professor at Large’

Sam Chapin


I remember the first time I watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I was far too young to understand any of the biblical or Arthurian references, but I still walked away thinking it was the funniest bloody thing I’d ever seen.


If you had asked me why it was funny, I probably would have yelled, “Ni!” and ran away. And I’d wager that a lot of Python faithfuls have a hard time enunciating their affections for the material--it feels so effortlessly humorous. It’s easy to forget that someone actually wrote it. In John Cleese’s new book, Professor at Large: The Cornell Years, he gives an intimate and exhaustive exploration of his creative and analytical mind, allowing us to see firsthand the inner workings of a comedic genius.


In 1999, John Cleese was asked to serve as Professor at Large at Cornell University, a position dedicated to those who have made a considerable impact in their specific field. Since then the school has extended his tenure several times in an effort to prolong his involvement with the university. The book features a number of lectures and interviews he has performed at Cornell, and each one covers dramatically different subject matter. Reading the book, it wouldn’t have felt inappropriate to find the credo, “And now for something completely different,” included between each chapter.



The first item in the book is a lecture given by Cleese in 1999 entitled, “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind”. It is a psychological exploration of two different mental processes: hare brain, which is when we try to make decisions as quickly as possible; and tortoise mind, when we take our time through exploration and experimentation. As you read his incredibly astute technical and analytical examples and reasonings, it’s striking how strongly Cleese’s dry, caustic wit bleeds through the page. In his first lecture, he compares tortoise mind thinking to fishing:


New ideas are tentative, shy creatures. To coax them out you need patience,

time to get a sense of what’s happening. Drop a word or an image or a problem

Into your tortoise mind, let it float there, and see what associations begin to surface.

And that’s where ideas come from. Goodbye. [Cleese behaves as though he’s finished his speech. Then he checks, changes his mind.]


The book is full of such transitions, from being philosophical and exacting to silly and irreverent. He balances the line between absurdity and rationality so deftly that you start to question whether there is a discernable difference at all--and therein lies the genius of John Cleese. He can take something familiar and mundane, turn it over, and make you see it as though for the very first time.


Equally as interesting and illuminating in Professor at Large are Cleese’s seminars. He sits down with various professionals including the legendary Bill Goldman, where they discuss screenwriting; psychology professor, Stephen Ceci, with whom he talks about facial recognition; and professor of management Beta Mannix, who joins him for a talk on creativity and group dynamics.



If someone were to list those three topics in a context not involving Cleese, I can’t say for certain that I would jump at the opportunity to read them all, but in each one Cleese not only demonstrates his immense intellect and passion for learning, but also offers humorous and deeply profound anecdotes and commentary. In his interview on creativity, he is able to seamlessly cover the creative processes of Monty Python, American politics, the royal family, quantum mechanics, and the Dalai Lama, whom he once interviewed:


...I said to him, “Why is it that Tibetan Buddhists are always in good spirits?” And he actually answered a slightly different question. He said, “What I like about laughter is that, when people laugh, they can have new thoughts.” In other words, it’s a kind of touchstone; when people are laughing, they are comfortable; where there’s humor, a little bit of play, a little bit of gentle friendly teasing--all of this is going on--it loosens up the mind.


This idea that humor can improve mental faculties is proven time and again throughout Cleese’s book. His ability to delve into a diverse set of topics and expertly explore the psychological underpinnings of humanity is fueled by his keen wit and ability to laugh at himself and everything around him.


Indeed, the book serves as a sort of blueprint of how to be happy, offering insight on religion, fame, how to deal with criticism, and how to suss out negativity. Above all, in Professor at Large, Cleese seeks to remind us to “always look on the bright side of life.”


Author Bio:


Sam Chapin is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


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