John Cleese on Cancel Culture: An ‘Organized … Totalitarian’ Movement

April 20th, 2024 1:30 PM

John Cleese is the master of both silly walks and sublime comedy takes.

The Monty Python veteran is as feisty as ever at 84, slashing those attempting to crush comedy that breaks any kind of so-called rule.

Cleese opened up to FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff about free speech, “The Life of Brian” and much more in a revealing chat. FIRE stands for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a group that often does what the ACLU once did – stands up for free speech.

The comic legend recalled the reaction his 1979 film “The Life of Brian” and today’s Cancel Culture movement. 



The former expressed itself in walkouts and furious letters tied to the rebellious comedy.


“It’s not just protest. It’s trying to get people fired,” Cleese said, calling the Cancel Culture movement both “organized” and “totalitarian” in nature.

It also stifles debate.

To prove it, he brought up how he tried, in vain, to invite 14 “extreme woke” experts to expound on Lukianoff’s book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” on Cleese’s “The Dinosaur Show” program.

All 14 refused.

“One said, ‘the very fact that you’re going to discuss it is the problem,'” Cleese recalled. “In other words, ‘we have a set of ideas and if you don’t agree with us on everything you hate us and we’re gonna try to get you fired. Crazy.”



Cancel Culture doesn’t just get innocent people fired. It makes them less funny. The same applies to any artistic endeavor.

“The enemy of creativity is interruption,” Cleese told Lukianoff. “And interruptions can come from inside as well as outside. And if the moment you think of something you think, ‘ooh will that offend someone,’ you’ve interrupted yourself and it will stop the creative flow.”

Cleese shared a personal perspective on free speech and how it opened up his world over the decades.

“All moments in my life that have been important in forming my personality came when I suddenly had a realization that something I believed wasn’t the case,” he said. “You can’t do that if the people around you are saying you can’t think like that.”

Cleese holds out hope that Cancel Culture and the efforts to squelch speech won’t win in the end. He’s still not sure we’ve turned any corner on the woke movement, though.

“A lot of people are very frightened of getting fired, and that’s awful, getting fired,” he said. “There’s good and bad in all of us, and the moment you think you’re more perfect than you are, then that’s trouble … That’s why all this virtue signaling is so foolish now … they also need to know they have a nasty streak too.”