Among the most revered figures in British comedy history, John Cleese has been delighting audiences since co-founding the iconic comedy troupe Monty Python in the 1960s. Over a storied career in show business, Cleese has honed his stiff-upper-lipped shtick, specializing in sketch, black comedy, surreal humor, and political and religious satire.

Born in England in 1939, Cleese was a law student at Cambridge when he first started performing as part of the university’s famed Footlights Dramatic Club. He went on to find success at the Edinburgh Fringe, and took a scriptwriting job at The Frost Report. In 1969 Cleese, along with writing partner Graham Chapman, American animator Terry Gilliam, writer-performer Eric Idle, and former Frost writers Terry Jones and Michael Palin, created the sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

A surreal mix of slapstick comedy and dry humor linked by bizarre animated interludes, the four-season series became an enduring icon of 1970s pop culture – growing to include stage shows, films, albums, books, musicals, and more. After leaving the show, Cleese collaborated with then-wife Connie Booth on the legendary sitcom Fawlty Towers, where he starred as Basil, the miserly, misanthropic proprietor of an English seaside hotel.

In 1976, Cleese co-founded The Secret Policeman’s Ball, a series of benefit shows organized to raise funds for Amnesty International. Along with countless Python reunions, he’s had a prolific acting career, including iconic roles in the hit comedy A Fish Called Wanda, the Harry Potter franchise, and the James Bond series. As a writer, he’s co-authored two self-help books – Families and How to Survive Them and Life and How to Survive It – and the memoir, So, Anyway…. In 2020, Cleese released Creativity, a short and cheerful guide to the creative process.

Sharing some of his all-time favorite books with The Week, Cleese included tomes on neuroscience and philosophy alongside classics by Tolstoy and Tom Wolfe. Explore his recommendations below, and complement with the reading lists of Hugh Laurie and Gene Wilder.

John Cleese’s Reading List

The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist

“This is probably the most interesting, most important book I’ve ever read. McGilchrist is a quite extraordinary man. He taught English at Oxford but decided he didn’t like the way people talked about poetry. So he became a psychiatrist, and worked on the neuro-imaging of the brain. His book is about the brain’s distinct hemispheres. He believes that they have different ways of living, of being in life, and that, in our present civilization, they’ve fallen out of balance.” -JC

Popper by Bryan Magee

“To me, Karl Popper is the best philosopher of science of the last century. This little book taught me more about the philosophy of science than any other.” -JC

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (also rec’d by André Leon TalleyBob DylanBrian Eno, Carson McCullers, Ernest HemingwayMartin Luther King Jr. & Nelson Mandela)

“It’s been many years since I read this one, but I can still remember certain sequences: men riding horseback into battle, and the way they try to distract themselves from the fact that they could be dead or wounded terribly in an hour’s time.” -JC

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

“Wolfe’s big novel about 1980s New York City is an absolutely superb book. It delighted me, and told me so much about a certain part of American society.” -JC

Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky by Maurice Nicoll

“Nicoll, a British psychiatrist, was a pupil of Armenian philosopher and mystic George Gurdjieff. His multi-volume book contains, I think, the best advice on understanding one’s own psychology as looked at through the Esoteric Christian tradition.” -JC

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

“I met Amis once and liked him very much. He was rather sour, but he wrote beautifully, and he did really manage to describe certain personalities. His first novel is about a fellow called Dixon, a history lecturer at a minor university. Dixon has wonderfully funny fantasies, and Margaret, his sometime girlfriend, is one of the most awful human beings in fiction. I remember reading this by the side of a swimming pool in Spain, and I was really quite bothering the people around me because I kept bursting into hysterical laughter.” -JC

(via The Week)

Categories: Actors Comedians

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