John Cleese has always been a sensational character. After studying law at Cambridge University, Cleese decided that he was more interested in farcical lawlessness—so he pursued a career on stage.
For all of us watching at home, it was the best decision he ever made. As screenwriter and producer, Cleese wore many hats, but everyone will remember him for his sketch comedy performances.
Cleese was capable of maintaining a deadpan expression in the most ridiculous of performances. No matter how silly the idea, Cleese was an expert at bringing a seriousness to all of the nonsense, allowing the comedy to transcend to a greater level of humor.
His immensely funny facial expressions and mannerisms are both subtle and over-the-top in equal measure, and that's why his comedy will always remain classic and timeless.
Here are my personal picks for the greatest John Cleese skits, scenes, and moments on stage, film, and television.
7. Airplane Pilots
This is literally everyone's number one nightmare when they get on a plane. However, for the Monty Python crew, it's simply hilarious.
When a couple of airline pilots are bored in their cockpit—they have exhausted all of the options in "I Spy..."—they decide that terrorizing the passengers would be a fun way to pass the time.
The dark sense of humor coupled with a keen sense of absurdism makes this particular sketch representative of John Cleese's style of humor.
This scene from A Fish Called Wanda (1988) is perfect if only for how it encapsulates so much of British etiquette.
When asked to apologize, Archie Leach fiercely refuses. However, in the very next scene we witness an expertly delivered and practiced apology—emblematic of traditional British sensibilities—as Leach is held upside-down out of a window.
Written by Cleese, A Fish Called Wanda is celebrated for this great sense of physical comedy, but especially for Cleese's performance in it.
5. Dead Parrot
This sketch is just chock-full of infinitely quotable one-liners, almost all of them delivered by Cleese.
When Cleese is corrected for calling the shop vendor "Miss," his response is: "Oh, I'm sorry, I have a cold." What a way to set the scene.
When the vendor tries to shoo him away, he replies: "Never mind that, my dear lad. I wish to complain about this parrot that I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique."
Who even speaks like that? Only John Cleese does.
He then goes on to insist how dead his parrot is, providing us with the incredible line: "This is an ex-parrot." There are so many more great quips in what is one of the greatest Monty Python skits of all time.
4. The Argument Clinic
John Cleese always had a knack for intelligent comedy. In this particular scene, we see him at his intelligent, argumentative best.
This is another sketch that perfectly captures the absurdity of Monty Python's comedy style, but it's Cleese's performance that elevates it so highly. The utmost sincerity with which he argues makes the conversation so engaging.
This is one of the many somewhat-prophetic sketches by the Monty Python comedy troupe. If you ever want an idea as to how most of the internet functions, take a look at this sketch.
3. The Psychiatrists
Double entendres have always been a gold mine for sketch comedy. In John Cleese's marvelous Fawlty Towers, hotel proprietor Basil Fawlty is aghast when he hears that there are psychiatrists staying in the hotel.
"You know what they say it's all about, don't you? Sex. Everything's connected with sex... Pffft! What a load of cobblers!"
Clearly with something on his mind, Fawlty walks out into the restaurant and starts clearing plates, when one psychiatrist asks Basil: "How often do you manage it? You and your wife?"
Stunned, Basil begins making snide remarks, as is his coping mechanism. However, he's unaware that his guest is actually asking him about how frequently he and his wife go on holiday.
What follows is one of the funniest awkward conversations ever scripted.
2. The Romans
"What have the Romans ever done for us?!" This fiery conversation lampoons much of political debate today. As we've already established, Cleese was always one for intelligent humor.
However, what we get in The Life of Brian (1979) is some of the wittiest political comedy and social commentary you'll ever see.
As his subordinates name all the things for which we should be grateful to the Romans, it's clear that his position isn't as strong as he initially thought it was.
John Cleese's expression throughout the sketch is funny enough to get you laughing, but when someone suggests they should be grateful for the lack of war, we get the best out of Cleese: "Oh, peace?! Shut up!"
1. Eulogy for Graham Chapman
This bit tops our list for best John Cleese moment. After Monty Python alumnus Graham Chapman tragically died of cancer at only 48 years old, the remaining five Pythons were there to see him off.
The mood in the church was palpably somber, and it's obvious that all are confused, upset, and a little shocked. They're grieving.
Cleese steps up to the plate and begins to read his eulogy. While his words are initially sympathetic and commiserating, his tone quickly shifts: "Well, I feel that I should say, nonsense! Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries."
At that moment, the great malaise on the audience lifts and there's a noticeable change in tone. People begin to laugh and smile, even while they have tears in their eyes.
It's a wonderful scene that shows us the power of comedy at work, the magic of which John Cleese had always been a great proponent.
This moment best demonstrated Cleese's ability to make people laugh. At a time when comedy couldn't be further from people's minds, John cracks everyone up with deadpan delivery and expert timing.
For that reason, it's my number one John Cleese moment of all time.