Monty Python's John Cleese Pursues a Not-So-Silly Walk of Life—Making Business-Training Films

updated 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The scene is a typical office. A secretary enters, expecting to find the office manager, but she discovers only a cluttered desk and an open window. Peering out, she sees her boss perched on the parapet, a chap who looks frightfully like that twit Basil, the bumbling innkeeper of PBS' Fawlty Towers.

"I can't stand it anymore!" he screams. "I can't take any more decisions!"

"You're not going to jump?" asks the secretary.

"I might," replies the indecisive fellow. "On the other hand..."

The sketch is called Decisions, Decisions (get it?). And, by George, it is that chap Basil Fawlty—or, rather, the British comedian John Cleese, 43. That's the same Cleese who played the celebrated Minister of Silly Walks in Monty Python's Flying Circus. This is not a Python sketch but, of all things, a business-training film. Later on, in fact, after Cleese appears in 16th-century drag as Queen Elizabeth, a managerial homily is woven into the text: "Consult the people who will be affected by your decisions." Amen.

As unlikely as it may seem, Cleese has been perpetrating business-training flicks for a dozen years. His London-based company, Video Arts Ltd., which is just beginning to infiltrate the U.S. market, has been a major success. Beginning in 1971 with an initial capital investment of $10,200 (Cleese put up $3,800), Video Arts has rented or sold its 60-odd, half-hour long, Pythonesque business epics to 20,000 British corporations, and revenues have grown geometrically to $4.2 million for the last fiscal year.

"The idea," says Cleese, "was totally the brainchild of Tony Jay. He's an intellectual who's come into show business via the BBC with a first in classics at Cambridge. We met in 1966 when we were both scriptwriters for David Frost. He admired me because I could make people laugh, and I admired him because he was bright. Anyway, in 1970 he said, 'What about producing training films? I'm sure we can do them better than anyone else.' "

Indeed, the key to a successful training film, says Cleese, who is invariably depicted blundering through one wacky managerial situation after another, is that the gags "have to grow out of the teaching points. It's absolutely no good just writing a straight script and then sticking half a dozen jokes in, because people would just remember the jokes and forget the teaching points." The best films turn the audience into a version of Pavlov's dog. "If the audience is laughing at somebody doing it wrong," Cleese theorizes, "then the next time they start doing it wrong themselves, that starts a little bell ringing in the back of their minds."

Some of the routines, however, clearly have a logic and a life of their own, such as the bit from Meetings, Bloody Meetings in which Cleese, an overburdened executive, explains to his wife why he has to bring work home at night: "There's no time to work at work, darling. I have to go to meetings. If it wasn't for the sleep I get at meetings, I wouldn't be able to stay up and work." In any case, there's little doubt that the films are hitting a nerve in the funny bone of the Anglo-American business community. The films have been distributed in the U.S. by Xicom Inc., Tuxedo, N.Y. (since 1977) and by Visucom Productions, Redwood City, Calif. (since 1981) to such corporations as IBM, Gulf Oil and Hilton Hotels.

All of this has won Cleese a reputation for business acumen that he staunchly denies. "I can't even read a balance sheet," he says. He's also been accused by the young and earnest of "selling out," which he cheerfully admits: "The joke is that all the great names in the history of the arts, Shakespeare included, have been obsessed with money."

The Python, Cleese believes, has struck for the last time. He speaks of internal jealousy, of the misery of moviemaking by committee. During the next few years, he expects he will continue to lend his presence to product endorsements the world round ("I've done Norwegian mayonnaise, the Dutch post office, Danish shoes and fish fingers in Australia...") and maybe take a shot at working up "a really entertaining history of England." And, of course, he'll continue to do three or four training films a year.

He will also continue to join in the promotions of Video Arts, which sometimes provide grist for his drollery. Take the promotion eight years ago in Bristol, England. Recalls Cleese, "We'd shown this film, which was all about the kind of guy in a company who sits on information because it gives him power. After the showing, one of the guys in the audience came up to me and said, 'Very good film. Could you send me all the details? But whatever you do, don't send it to my office. Send it to my home address!' "

From Our Partners