John Cleese and the Affectionate Tease

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Many, many years ago, most likely 1985 but possibly 1986, I decided to do something different. I was living on Oliver Street in downtown Rochester. I hadn’t taken a vacation in a while and I needed to spend those precious vacation days or risk losing them. What to do… what to do…

Even now, I’m not the kind of person who dreams of the traditional vacation. In fact, I don’t dream of any vacation. Perhaps it derives from my Spartan philosophy. Maybe it’s just that I’m not excited by the usual thoughts of “vacation.” Quite possibly, it’s because I enjoy what I do so much I treat every day as a vacation.

In either case, in 1985 (but possibly 1986), when forced to come up with a vacation idea, I decided to do something completely different. I went to a Catholic retreat. It was mostly because the retreat house was an old mansion on East Avenue and I always wanted to see the inside of an old mansion on East Avenue. It was also because I could walk there.

The rules of the retreat were simple: You had to participate in the exercises and promise not to leave the building during the entire stay. One of the first group activities had us sitting in a circle. We would then take turns and “testify” to the others why we were there. By luck, I was the last person to speak. I heard each and every participant stand up and proclaim some personal frailty or religious epiphany that brought them there.

The time came for me, and an odd thought suddenly consumed me. Call it my Cuckoo’s Nest moment and I was there in the role of McMurphy. I felt a need to disdain this aura of confession. The attendees needed this. The challenges, however, was to find a way to pull this off without the nuns detecting my dishonoring the process.

I stood up and said, “In the words of those popular 20th century philosophers, ‘And now for something completely different.’” I spent the rest of the time in my room reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

Little did I know, some 30+ years later, I’d find myself in the presence of one of those “popular 20th century philosophers.” Last Friday, I and approximately 1,600 of my closest friends, attended the showing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the Eastman Theater. Following the film, one of the stars (and founders of Monty Python) John Cleese spent another ninety minutes sharing his tales of drunkenness and cruelty.

Amidst the many laughs, Cleese suddenly took a philosophical turn. For many comedians, taking such a turn in today’s politically correct environment could spell the end of one’s career. For the nearly 80-year-old purveyor of edgy comedy, he had nothing to lose. He confronted political correctness head-on.

He explained how comedians get bigger laughs by spiking the joke with something provocative before coming to the punch-line. The provocation takes the audience to an emotional edge which will unleash more explosive laughter (assuming the punch-line makes it worth it).

Here’s the example he gave: “What’s the difference between gonorrhea and owning an apartment in Cleveland?  You can get rid of gonorrhea.” After an explosion of laughter, Cleese explained, how this provocative edge works. He offered the same joke with a slight difference. “What’s the difference between a common cold and owning an apartment in Cleveland?  You can get rid of a common cold.” There wasn’t much laughter.

“Gonorrhea,” said Cleese, “is ever so scandalous. It pumps the prime. With your emotions now amped up, when the joke is finally delivered, the audience is now predisposed to laugh louder.” Apparently, comedians get their jollies when the audience laughs louder.

Then he really dispatched political correctness. He demonstrated the two kinds of teasing. The first is “mean teasing.” This is the realm of bullies and is meant to hurt the recipient. On the hand, we have what he calls “affectionate teasing.”

Cleese maintains affectionate teasing helps forge the bonds of friendship, creates a family narrative that ensures succeeding generations understand their ancestors, and, last but not least, allows us to laugh about ourselves.

It’s this last part I want to focus on. Cleese said the Pythons practiced affectionate teasing on a regular basis. It helped hone their own wit, but it also kept them grounded. When somebody teases you, you can react in one of two ways. You can feel insulted and get mad. Or you can laugh at yourself and try to one-up your opponent. Cleese and Michael Palin continue to tease each other this way and thoroughly enjoy the challenge, (the audience enjoyed those stories, too).

For Cleese, it’s most important to laugh at yourself. If you tease someone in a friendly way, and that person gets mad instead of laughing at himself, that reaction suggests that’s not a person worth your while. Life is too short to have to deal with people who can’t laugh at themselves.

By the way, Cleese didn’t say this, but treating a mean tease as an affectionate tease can often thwart the bully. Indeed, it can also be used in jujutsu fashion to boomerang back to the frustrated bully’s unexpected surprise. The is the sort of strategy Suzette Haden Elgin suggests in her book The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.

The next time someone tries to maliciously insult you with a mean tease, respond as if they meant it with affection then throw the ball back in their court with an affectionate tease.


Trust me, you’ll love the expression on their face when you show them the true meaning of “and now for something completely different.”

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