Cleese Keeps Distance from 'Python'

updated 09/10/2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/2003 5:12PM

With the 20th anniversary of "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" being celebrated with a new DVD two-disc special edition, Python participant John Cleese tells PEOPLE that his 1970s and '80s run with the British humor troupe "feels like a former life."

"What surprises me most is that every few years there seems to be a new generation of fans," he says. "Kids in their early teens suddenly discover it and love it, and I have to tell you, I have absolutely no idea why."

Possibly it's the timelessness of the routines, though Cleese, 63, isn't speculating. "You see," he says, "we knew it was funny to the six of us. We'd sit around and read the material out, which used to happen every seven or eight days. When we read it out, the great delight was to make the others laugh."

Apparently that wasn't the easiest thing to do. Admits Cleese, who went on to star in TV's "Fawlty Towers," the side-splitting 1988 movie farce "A Fish Called Wanda" and is now haunting Hogwarts in the "Harry Potter" movies: "We were quite confident in our arrogant younger ways."

So what remains the fans' favorite "Python" sketches? "I guess in the old days it was always the Silly Walks," says Cleese. "I was in a delicatessen recently buying cheese, and two different people came up to me and made a reference to the Cheese Shop sketch. I was rather tickled, because when you go up to a cheese counter at a deli, you don't mean to be thinking, 'Oh, this is like a sketch I once did.'"

Despite his distance from the old Python says, "I was rather tickled by the comments people made," Cleese concedes.

"Some of the conversations you have with fans are very enjoyable, but the ones that are less enjoyable are when they get very excited and a little bit anxious, and all they do is talk and they start telling you about their son's education and all this kind of thing."

His response: "You just stand there smiling and thinking, 'Why is this person telling me this?'"

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