Near the top of the list of people who should never have been let near Twitter stands John Cleese. Before social media he was regarded, in Ireland as much as everywhere else, as a comedy colossus. From Monty Python's dead-parrot sketch and Ministry of Funny Walks to Fawlty Towers, he was outrageous, hilarious and absurdist. Even his political background as a campaigner for the thoroughly inoffensive Liberal Democrats suggests a comic beyond reproach.
Yes, we may have experienced the very occasional twinge thinking back to Fawlty Towers and David Kelly’s bumbling Irish builder, O’Reilly. But it seemed almost like a false memory – the mere shadow of a blot on the CV of a titan of chuckles.
Cleese has pretty explicitly made merry with the stereotype of the Irish as subhuman, tapping into the 19th-century British cliche of Irish people running around with pigs under their arms
But then along came social media, leaving Cleese free to speak his mind. And what a lot he has had to say. This week he repeated his mockery of Irish names – citing the spelling of Caoimhe as a reason why we “never had an empire”.
The internet, it is true, is full of people waiting to be outraged. But, as the pile-on intensified, it was clear that Cleese, who is now 80, wasn’t for turning. “Yabba, yabba, yabba,” he tweeted. “I think you just don’t want anyone to be able to identify any of you.”
It’s hard not to see this in the context of the recent furore about Fawlty Towers and the removal from a UK nostalgia channel of an episode featuring racial slurs. Amid the controversy, it was odd that nobody brought up the O’Reilly instalment from 1975, and its portrayal of Irish people as shifty and incompetent – disreputable pixies with a malicious twinkle in the eye, cunning peasants who’d only just learned to walk upright.
“He belongs in a zoo,” Sybil tells Basil as he reveals he’s hired O’Reilly to fix up he hotel.
“I have seen more intelligent creatures than you lying on their backs at the bottom of ponds,” she later tells O’Reilly. “I’ve seen better organised creatures than you running round farmyards with their heads cut off.”
Here Cleese, who wrote the episode with his then wife, Connie Booth, is pretty explicitly making merry with the stereotype of the Irish as subhuman, with the bonus "farmyard" reference tapping into the 19th-century British cliche of Irish people running around with pigs under their arms.
Was it funny then? Not really, but it hardly stood out given the huge quantities of anti-Irishness sloshing around UK television in the 1970s and 1980s (and which would linger until much later – see the EastEnders donkeys-in-the-parlour incident from 1997).
Well, okay, that was then. Different times, different jokes. The problem, of course, is that Cleese doesn’t appear to have gone on much of a journey in the intervening 45 years. Just last January, on Twitter, he was dusting down the sort of prejudiced groaner few of us will have encountered in the wild in decades.
On Fawlty Towers, the dim Irish builders and guileless Catalan waiters have aged like milk in a heatwave. Cleese's tweets reveal a nasty streak behind a towering comedic intellect
“A man walks into a bar, and asks the barman if he’s heard the latest Irish joke,” he wrote. “The barman says, ‘I should warn you I’m Irish, and so is the owner of the bar over there, and so are Séamus and Sean here, our oldest customers. Now. Are you still going to tell the joke?’ And the man says, ‘No, I don’t want to have to explain it four times.’”
There’s a case that the gag is as much a sin against comedy as an insult to Irish people. Yet it also a part of a pattern. In Dublin for a summit in January 2019, Cleese described Ireland as a “Catholic country”, noted our “alcohol problem” and then remarked on the name of his interviewer, Síle Seoige. “It’s impossible to pronounce,” he told a packed conference hall. “Why don’t you Irish spell your names properly?”
Monty Python's exalted position in the comedy pantheon had, until recently, appeared unassailable. Yet Cleese's inanity, not just on social media but also in the real world, has started to take the gloss off. Suddenly we are reminded that he and his partners in jest had a habit of portraying women as either airheads or battleaxes (the latter inevitably played by Michael Palin or Eric Idle).
And what of Python songs such as I Like Chinese and lyrics that go “I like Chinese, they only come up to your knees”?
On Fawlty Towers, meanwhile, the dim Irish builders and guileless Catalan waiters have aged like milk in a heatwave. Cleese’s tweets reveal a nasty streak lurking behind what is undoubtedly a towering comedic intellect. But perhaps we should have known it was there all along.