Like many a kid who was tarred with the epithet “socially awkward,” Monty Python helped me get through high school. Many of my happiest memories from this period revolved around pantomime galloping through the halls a la Holy Grail and belting “The Lumberjack Song” in the stands at football games.
My friends and I even performed The Yorkshiremen sketch during our school talent show. And no, we never bothered to explain why Yorkshire had suddenly been annexed by the Chicagoland area.
The Pythons were one of my formative influences in comedy and I still adore their work to this day. So it was no small disappointment a few weeks ago when John Cleese publicly defended J.K. Rowling’s transphobia in an open letter and took a depressingly familiar swipe at trans athletes on Twitter:
Yes, my understanding is superficial— John Cleese (@JohnCleese) November 22, 2020
One thing: When a woman who was once a man is competing against women who have always been women, I think she has an advantage, because she inherited a man's body, which is usually bigger and stronger than a woman's
Does that prove phobia? https://t.co/8x2H9zvstd
Sadly, this was far from the only tired thought Cleese had on the subject of trans rights, as he had previously posed the rhetorical question: “Deep down, I want to be a Cambodian police woman. Is that allowed, or am I being unrealistic?”
As the Bay Area Reporter’s Gwendolyn Ann Smith notes, “the above is called, in some trans circles, ‘the one joke.’” Naturally, the intolerance inherent in Cleese’s ignorant musings is his biggest transgression. But as with Dave Chappelle’s transphobia, it’s also deflating to hear one of the most original and inventive comedic minds of all time spewing such hackneyed nonsense.
Look at that Cambodian police woman joke again. If it sounds familiar, that probably means you’ve been to an open mic night at some point in your life and heard six or seven variations on it in the span of two hours. I’m so, so sorry. Now consider that it was written by the man who gave us The Dead Parrot sketch, “Life of Brian,” and “A Fish Called Wanda.”
As you’ve probably surmised, I’m a huge fan of all types of classic comedy. And in learning about Cleese’s antiquated and distressing views regarding the trans community, I was reminded of my experience watching the mostly brilliant Marx Brothers film “A Day at the Races” for the first time.
For three quarters of its running time, it’s comedy heaven. Chico swindles Groucho at the racetrack, Harpo covers a femme fatale in wallpaper, and the Brothers’ examination room scene with Margaret Dumont might be one of the funniest bits they ever did.
Then all of a sudden, the film cuts to a musical number with Harpo leading a crew of Black stablehands in a parade of the most repellant racist stereotypes the year 1937 could possibly serve up. The effect is jarring. It’s like watching the new Borat movie and discovering the climax portrayed Rudy Giuliani as the hero. And it really blights what should have been a flawless masterwork of comedy.
Obviously, racism is a very different phenomenon from transphobia and I’m not suggesting the two should be conflated. But the reason why I flashed back was this: even the most celebrated transgressive comedy minds in history still unconsciously absorb the prejudices of their era.
And as Cleese’s example shows, they can also cling to them just as stubbornly as a reactionary TV pundit. So while it’s important to develop a passion for the work of great artists, that enthusiasm should never be confused with giving everything they produce a free pass.
That’s also why it’s vital to call them out when they display open prejudice like this. Once a performer attains comedy legend status, they usually don’t hear a lot of voices contradicting them or their ideas. So while some might dismiss the Twitter backlash against Cleese as “the woke mob,” the fact of the matter is that he needed to repeatedly hear that his views were not OK in order for that message to sink in.
From Smith’s report, Cleese apparently absorbed the backlash and “sort of backtracked, saying on Twitter that he is ‘not that interested’ in transgender people, and that he hopes we’re happy and that we are treated kindly.” It’s not exactly the genuine apology that’s needed, but it does seem that, unlike Rowling, he understands that he did some harm to a community that has already endured more than enough.
Let’s hope that he doesn’t follow her example and double down at any point. If he does, it would seem to prove that Mr. Creosote had the right response all along.