My 30 triumphant seconds with John Cleese


The stage and signing chair await the arrival of Mr. Cleese.
The stage and signing chair await the arrival of Mr. Cleese.

I’m not being dismissive when I say that there are very few celebrities I would cross the street to say “hi” to. It’s just that there aren’t a great many notable actors, performers or public figures to whom I feel I would have anything worthwhile to say, regardless of my high opinion of their work or accomplishments.

But when I heard that John Cleese was in town to sign his new book… it seemed that this was something I had to do.

The event had a strict list of rules and requirements. No photography with Mr. Cleese, no other items will be signed, no personalization of signatures. Yikes! It seemed it would be a curt few seconds with Mr. Cleese and then out the door. Still, I had to do it.

I arrived by around 6pm, an hour before the nominal 7pm start time, and was given a ticket for “Group 4”, part of their clever system for eliminating the need to stand in one huge line for hours. While I used the time to go have a coffee, I was antsy and couldn’t stay away. I returned to see Cleese arrive., and promptly settle down to the business of autographing, with no preliminary remarks. But was clear that, despite the stern guidelines, he was taking some time with most everyone to have an amiable little chat.

What do you say to someone you’ve admired and enjoyed the work of for almost 40 years, and who is a living legend of comedy (and evidently, a very nice man to boot)? I hadn’t a clue. While I waited, watched Cleese chat and sign books, and spoke with a friend or two who were also at the event, I pondered it.

I really didn’t want to just go for the true-but-trite “I love your work”, accurate though it was. Aim for something profound? That way lay disaster, I was sure. Ask him what it’s like to have be so beloved for doing what he loves? Not in thirty seconds. Try empathizing with his arduous task of signing endless books? Rather negative. Hmm. What could I say? What could I accomplish in 30 seconds? Suddenly I knew the answer:

Make him laugh.

The idea only occurred to me a few minutes before the big moment, when I’d dutifully entered the line for the “number fours”. I felt surprisingly tense. But one thought popped into my head. Then one more. They passed the test of making me laugh…

Suddenly, the end of the line loomed before me. Ahead was the assistant with a tight smile that said “enforcer of the time limit”. She verbally brushed away the two young guys ahead of me who were talking with Cleese. I was up. No time for verbal dawdling.

The moment after my moment with John Cleese.
The moment after my moment with John Cleese.

“Waiting in line like this is a bit like Disneyland,” I said. Cleese chuckled.

“I quite enjoyed the book actually. I read it while I was waiting in line.”


At which John Cleese laughed quite heartily, and said, “That’s a good one!”

I left the line floating on air. I made John Cleese laugh. In 30 seconds, you could hardly do better.

With fellow musical theatre performer Lindy McLenaghan!
With fellow musical theatre person Lindy McLenaghan!

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