When John Cleese tells people that he has a new show called Why There Is No Hope, they assume the title is a joke.
“A lot of people think that I mean it humorously,” he tells me on an upcoming episode of The Last Laugh podcast, “but of course I don’t.”
The Monty Python co-founder is talking via Zoom just a few days before he’s set to present the comedy performance-slash-philosophical lecture in his first-ever international live stream event on Sunday, Aug. 2 from an empty Cadogan Hall in London.
While the darkly comic title feels especially fitting for this historical moment, Cleese has actually been developing the show for years. He first came up with the idea during one of his many trips to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. “It’s one of the most staggering parts of the world,” he says. “Only trouble is the roads keep disappearing.” Cleese first suggested the title to a group of friends there more than 15 years ago.
“I thought to myself, are audiences going to like this?” he remembers thinking. A couple of years ago, he performed an early version of the show in Ottawa and Toronto, cities “where you get rather bright audiences,” as he puts it. “And they liked it much better than I expected. So I thought, well, I must be onto something.”
“I don’t mean there's no hope for us as individuals,” he clarifies when I ask him to elaborate on the ominous title. What he means is, “There is no hope for us that we could ever live in an intelligent, kind, well-run society. Mainly because most people have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Whenever he meets someone who is at the top of their respective field, Cleese asks them how many people in their profession “really know what they’re doing.” He says most people answer in the 10-15 percent range, which may say more about individual arrogance than widespread ineptitude, but he takes them at their word.
“So that means that six out of seven people really don’t know what they’re doing,” he says. “They can just follow routines. But if the routines don’t work, then they don’t understand it at that deeper level.” As is often the case with Cleese, the serious point is followed by a joke: “They’re like I am when my computer crashes.”
From there, Cleese says he moves on the question of why people seek power, which of course brings him to Donald Trump. The comedian has been prolifically anti-Trump on his Twitter account for the past several years and does not need much prompting to start ranting against the American president.
“If you look around at the moment, most of the people who seek great power are complete assholes, who are really only out for themselves,” he says. “Well, if someone’s out for themselves primarily, like our dear President Donald Trump, with no interest in other people at all, it’s not very likely that they’re going to be very good at building a society. And you see that the characteristics of people who are powerful is that they have a deep, deep fear of losing their power.”
“So with all these things going on there’s very little chance we will ever have a sensible society and this is a particularly bad moment,” Cleese adds.
Referring to the rise of strongman leaders around the world like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and others, Cleese says, “We have madness and power-seeking and complete unscrupulousness and pathological lying. And it’s very interesting why. Is it because people are very stupid? That’s a possible explanation.”
Subscribe to The Last Laugh podcast to hear our full conversation with Monty Python co-founder John Cleese next week.