A photo of a young John Cleese, wearing a black robe and a white wig. He is dressed as a barrister.

John Cleese sued a critic over a “thoroughly nasty” review

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Since John Cleese is releasing a new TV series called John Cleese: Cancel Me, which claims to “explore why a new ‘woke’ generation is trying to rewrite the rules on what can and can’t be said,”, I want to tell you about the time he used British libel laws to silence a critic.

In 2002, Peter Clark wrote an editorial article for The Evening Standard titled “Has John Cleese Lost His Funny Bone?”. The critic takes jabs at Cleese for being stuck in a series of mediocre films and TV shows since the eighties. “With the exception of A Fish Called Wanda,” Peter Clark wrote, “the laughs have died in our throats.”

Of course, you know where this is going.

John Cleese sued the The Evening Standard for libel in 2003 and won (?!). The judge, Mr. Justice Eady, stated the article did not have any affect on Cleese’s career:

“I doubt in the light of the evidence, despite his own apprehensions, that his well-established reputation here and elsewhere will have been significantly damaged, if at all.”

Mr Justice Eady

Despite this lack of evidence, the judge still ruled in Cleese’s favor, stating “If they choose to attack someone of particular sensitivity or vulnerability, they must, generally speaking, be ready to take the consequences.”. The Evening Standard was forced to pay £13,500 in libel damages. According to an article in The Guardian, The Standard also faced a bill of approximately £120,000 related to this case.

“He may, perhaps, by some people’s standards, be regarded as unduly sensitive about this unpleasant article but his hurt feelings are certainly genuine.”

Mr Justice Eady

So yeah, the guy who is making an entire show about “cancel culture” once used a frivolous law suit to silence a critic. Apparently the judge in this case has a long history of using libel laws to prevent freedom of speech and the case itself is such a shocking abuse of using libel laws to censor critics that Brian Winston wrote about it in his book, “The Right To Offend”.

The article itself has almost completely been wiped out of existence. The Evening Standard removed it from their site, and all the archives seem to be deleted. I was only able to find one single copy of the article still online, thanks to a nearly 20-year-old post on a Monty Python fan site called The Daily Llama. Just to make sure there are two copies online, I’m posting the original article in it’s entirety below (as found on The Daily Llama):

So, Has John Cleese Lost His Funny Bone?

“So, has John Cleese lost his funny bone? How the legendary comedian faces humiliation after his latest TV flop” by Pete Clark published in the Evening Standard – London on 11 April 2002 (Section A, p. 32)

THERE are not so many British comedy heroes around that we can afford to be snippy about any of them. However, an exception has to made to this rule in the case of John Cleese.

The straight-faced buffoon who silly-walked his way up and down the nation’s collective funny bone, the complex bigot Basil Fawlty who, by turns, barked and cowered through the finest sitcom ever to appear on television, has now become the most disastrous bore. The news that his latest comedy series has been shown the door after only two episodes is simply confirmation of a sad truth that was already widely whispered: Cleese’s humour has fallen off its perch, he is now officially an ex-comedian, his only gags are old ones repeated parrot-fashion.

It falls to us to savour the irony of the fact that the fall which ended his decline should take place in America. Last year, Cleese announced that he was leaving these rain-lashed shores for the brain-softening sunshine of California. Apart from the weather, the principal reason he gave was that the British had somehow contrived to lose their sense of humour. Citing his height and satirical bent as talents which had mysteriously transformed themselves into intolerable burdens, Cleese set off on the yellow brick road without so much as a kiss goodbye.

Now that he has run into a roadblock, it would be churlish not to smile.

Americans who used to bend our ears about how much they loved Fawlty and our Monty Python – heavy stress always on the second syllable of the second word – have turned on Cleese. His puzzlingly entitled show, Wednesday 9.30 (8.30 Central), has drawn vitriol from a nation that he must have thought had milk and honey coursing in its veins. “Bad” and “desperate” are just two of the adjectives buzzing angrily in the ether. The hubris of this perma-tanned, wannabe Bob Hope has been richly rewarded.

Beyond the fleeting pleasure in seeing a bitcher bitched at, there is no satisfaction to be gained from watching a talent on the skids.

Anyone who has maintained even a cursory interest in Cleese’s career will know that the past 25 years have been an agonisingly slow death. With the exception of A Fish Called Wanda, the laughs have died in our throats.

Outside the straight-to-video quagmire, Fierce Creatures is the worst film many people have seen. Clockwise was OK, except that one could see the mechanism. The Sainsbury’s commercials stopped me from entering a shop which I knew had perfectly decent butter and ice-cream.

These, however, were merely symptoms of a deeper malaise. The root of the problem was that Cleese decided that comedy was something he could knock off in his spare time, and that quality time should be spent at the deep end of life’s swimming pool. He formed a company which made videos for corporate clients and lots of money for him. He went to a shrink obsessively, possibly in the belief that inside every tall satirist is a small Woody Allen trying to get out. He married and divorced a few women, and started writing books full of condescending psychobabble.

He began to analyse humour as if it were susceptible to a microscope. The humour drained from him visibly, as if he were attached to a reverse life-support system.

The message for Cleese is simple: come home. We knew you were having a funny turn when you suggested that a comedian could nurture his gifts in California. There are no banana skins there, all impromptu mayhem and spontaneous drama – the very stuff of his comic genius – have been surgically removed. The only answer is to come home and face the weather and the critics.

Our weird neuroses and peculiar accommodation with life will feed your muse again.

Like mushrooms, our humour thrives in the dark and damp. California will reduce you to a wrinkled prune. If you don’t return, all is lost. You will have reserved your place in history, and it will be as a latterday Norman Wisdom. That would be a shame.



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