John Cleese is not known for his commitment to orthodoxy. Credit: Danny E. Martindale/Getty Images

December 2, 2020   4 mins

You have to wonder whether the people who are mad at John Cleese are actually aware of who John Cleese is. It started, as these things apparently must, with J. K. Rowling. In September, Cleese signed an open letter protesting the death threats she was getting. In November, he replied to some tweets written in the typically measured and cool tone of trans activism. They accused him of “standing in solidarity with transphobia and discrimination,” or demanded: “Why the fuck can’t you just let people be who they want to be?”

“Deep down, I want to be a Cambodian police woman,” responded Cleese, apparently facetiously (although how anyone could be sure he was facetious when we’re all supposed to be the expert on our own identity is beyond me), at which point numerous people started saying he was transphobic and lots of news sites started writing stories about how people were saying he was transphobic.

None of this is interesting, exactly. What’s interesting is the tone of wounded possessiveness that animated the reaction to Cleese. Not John Cleese, of all people! seemed to be the widespread implication, as though he had previously given everyone to believe that he was team “trans women are women and burn anyone who says otherwise”.

Presumably anyone experiencing this as a particular injury would be a fan of Cleese, but not enough of a fan that they’d seen his most famous work. Anyone who’s watched half an episode of Monty Python knows that it’s full of the kind of cross-dressing lols that would raise a stern eyebrow in a doctrinaire student union today. Python drag is funny, which is precisely why it cannot stand: it relies on the audience recognising a man in a dress as a man in a dress, rather than taking the dress as ultimate evidence the person wearing it is a woman.

And anyone who’s watched more than half an episode of Monty Python has probably seen Life of Brian, which means they’ve seen the “Loretta” scene, in which Eric Idle’s character Stan announces: “From now on, I want you all to call me Loretta. It’s my right as a man.” Cleese’s role here is to be the voice of incredulity: “I’m not oppressing you Stan, you haven’t got a womb!” Perhaps the Pythons were simply engaging in absurdity with no knowledge of the existence of trans people when they were making Brian in 1978; but given that the highly publicised Corbett v Corbett case involving April Ashley (a trans woman) took place in 1969, and Jan Morris published her transition memoir Conundrum in 1974, perhaps not.

This doesn’t make Cleese guilty of historical transphobia any more than supporting Rowling makes him guilty of it now, but it does put him at odds with the kind of respectful solemnity around gender identity that his disappointed admirers were expecting him to show. And this is really because they weren’t thinking of Cleese in terms of his actual work, but instead constructing the kind of figure they want him to be based on his place in the culture. Comedians are supposed to be liberals, whatever liberal means.

If there’s an “us” and a “them”, Cleese’s anarchic, authority-tweaking kind of comedy is supposed to belong to the “us” rather than the censorious, rule-enforcing “them”. If his opinions are experienced as betrayals, it’s because there’s an assumption that humour takes a position regarding power (and then, subsidiary to that, an assumption that the trans cause is the cause of the powerless against the powerful, even when it involves telling a victim of domestic violence to choke on a girldick, but we will gloss over that for now).

Cleese came up, pre-Python, as part of the 1960s satire boom that included Private Eye and David Frost. It’s a movement that has irrevocable associations with the rise of the counterculture and the demise of deference (the 1966 “I know my place” sketch from The Frost Report, which featured Cleese along with Ronnies Barker and Corbett, couldn’t have been a more explicit jab at the complacencies of the British class system). But a refusal to take the establishment seriously doesn’t necessarily imply anything at all about your own politics.

Maybe we think of comedy — and satire particularly — as inherently liberal because it’s bound up with the liberal cause of free speech. Life of Brian was picketed and preached against on release because of its blasphemy: in some places, it was banned (a screening in Torquay needed a special dispensation in 2008), and the Pythons were set at odds with authority figures of Christian conservatism such as Mary Whitehouse.

Or maybe it’s a product of the “punching up” theory of comedy, which holds that jokes should always take aim at the powerful. In a 2013 essay, the stand-up Stewart Lee argued that Right-wing comedy was practically impossible: “You can’t be a Right-wing clown without some character caveat, some vulnerability, some obvious flaw. You’re on the right. You’ve already won.”

There’s a truth in this, in that what’s funny often draws on the kind of exaggerated rhetoric that outrage can licence. Think of Cleese, this time as Basil Fawlty, finally losing his temper in a limb-flailing fury at some presumptuous customer: it’s funny because, as awful as Fawlty is, there’s an acknowledged justice to his rages.

But there’s a long way from there to the idea that comedy must therefore be an agent of change, and even further to the idea that the changes it advocates must be liberal ones. Private Eye was the home of campaigning Left-wing journalist Paul Foot, and also of Christopher Booker, who saw out his later career denying climate change and defending big tobacco at the Telegraph.

Comedy’s natural state, often, is conservatism — at least in sitcom, which resets each episode to a default condition (peak-era Simpsons is the perfect sitcom, because cartoon characters don’t change in any of the inconvenient ways that human actors do). And just because satire laughs at authority doesn’t mean it’s out for revolt: the riotous days of carnival, thought the literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, allowed a populace to turn the world upside down for a limited time, so they could go back to the established order afterwards. Satire can do the same.

It’s nice to think that what’s funny aligns with your political beliefs, but it’s also naïve, and anyone who imagines that they get to tell John Cleese what to think forgets that he’s been through this once before with Mary Whitehouse, and won. She didn’t end up as an enemy of comedy because she was a Right-winger fronting up to Left-wingers, but because she was someone who took her faith so seriously that it was anguish for her to see others take it lightly. The people riled by Cleese’s tweeting might think they’re her opposite, but in their horror that someone might be cleaving to an apostate position, they’re really her inheritors.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.