John Cleese gets on the phone with the reporter from Utah and starts with an urgent question: “I want you to tell me: What happened to Gordon Hayward?”
The reporter would have sooner expected the comedian and Monty Python co-founder to talk about the Spanish Inquisition — and nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Cleese wanted the details of the former Utah Jazz forward’s horrific ankle injury in his first game playing for his new team, the Boston Celtics, a month ago.
Cleese — who will be appearing Sunday at Salt Lake City’s Eccles Theater, answering fans’ questions after a screening of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — follows the NBA and says the Jazz are his favorite team.
Twenty years ago, his daughter lived in Chicago. “We used to watch together that great series, when the [Bulls] beat the Jazz [in the NBA Finals],” he said. “She was supporting the Bulls, and I thought I’d support the Jazz to make it more interesting.”
It helps, Cleese said, that the Utah Jazz have “the stupidest name that anyone has ever come up with — and I know what the history is. But it’s a very, very funny name. Mind you, Memphis Grizzlies is pretty funny, too.”
Cleese, 78, knows funny better than most. He played the Minister of Silly Walks and a slew of other offbeat characters over three seasons of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” from 1969 to 1973, alongside castmates Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam (who was also the show’s animator), Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Cleese bowed out of the show’s shortened fourth season, but rejoined his mates for their first movie, 1975’s “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
“I don’t think we had the slightest idea what we were doing,” he said of making “Holy Grail.” “We threw out 90 percent of the first script, and then we realized that the key thing we needed to keep was Michael’s wonderful sketch about the coconuts, and the stuff about the unladen swallow. We loved that so much, we thought maybe we’ll set the whole movie in that period.”
Cleese’s main role in “Holy Grail” is as Sir Lancelot the Brave, the stalwart knight for King Arthur (played by Chapman). But it’s not the only role he played; he also was an insult-lobbing French knight, the quickly dismembered Black Knight, and a peasant who was a former newt.
The scene with the peasants is Cleese’s favorite. “I love the guy who’s trying [to have] my ex-wife, Connie Booth, as the witch, burned. When I say, ‘She turned me into a newt!’ and when they look at him, he says, ‘I got better.’ I think it’s a very funny moment. I also like it because if you watch Eric and Michael Palin very carefully, you can see they’re both breaking up.”
His favorite character to play in “Holy Grail” was Tim the Enchanter, the mysterious sorcerer Arthur’s party encounters before they do battle with a killer rabbit.
“I can do quite a good Scottish accent — the Scots had taught me this — and it was such a tremendously over-the-top performance,” Cleese said. “I used to say that if you see any subtlety creeping in, please tell me.”
If there’s one part of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” Cleese would change, it’s the ending.
“There’s so much stuff in there that isn’t the slightest bit funny,” he said. “It’s Terry Gilliam showing off that he can make adult movies. … I don’t know what it’s about. It’s as though someone has shot 8 minutes that have nothing to do with the original film and cut them in.”
At the Eccles on Sunday, Cleese will remedy that. “I’ve re-edited the ending, and I show that to the audience after the film, and they think it’s better than the original ending,” he said.
The Q&A can cover anything from Monty Python’s early days to what Cleese is doing now. (Spoiler: He’s got a six-episode sitcom, “Hold the Sunset,” in the can and is waiting for the BBC to put it on the schedule.)
“What I love about it is it’s never the same,” he said of the Q&A. “Some woman in Florida got up and said, ‘Mr. Cleese, can I ask you a serious question: Did the queen kill Diana?’ There was a stunned silence, and I was the only one laughing. I thought it was very funny. I had enough time to think, and by the time I stopped laughing, I said, ‘Certainly not with her bare hands.’ That got a big laugh, because everyone was so anxious.”
Cleese does encourage people to, in the spirit of the Pythons, ask as silly a question as possible. “It’s important to remember that we live on a very silly planet,” he said.
John Cleese in Salt Lake City
The Monty Python and “A Fish Called Wanda” star screens “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and takes audience questions.
Where • Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main, Salt Lake City
When • Sunday, Nov. 19, 7 p.m.
Tickets • $35 to $275, at live-at-the-eccles.com