by Ted Page
Principal, Captains of Industry®
When I first heard that I might be hired to make a video starring Monty Python veteran John Cleese, the idea seemed incredibly remote—about as likely to happen as the Knights of the Round Table riding across foggy moors into my office, propelled by the hoof-beat percussion of coconuts.
I’ve been a fan of Monty Python from the very first days they galloped onto the American cultural scene in the 1970’s. I was there at the City Center for Python’s New York debut, watching John Cleese walk through the aisles during intermission, hawking a dead albatross. His comedy had a certain “Cleeseness” you could spot a mile away, just as you could spot the Alfred Hitchcock touch in each of his classic films. Cleese, to me, was and is one of the funniest and most original people on earth.
Do a video with him? Sure, and could you please add Robin Williams, Tom Hanks and J-Lo?
But like the layers of John Lennon’s Glass Onion peeling away, impossibility began to give way to reality. My business partner Fred Surr and I are long-time friends of Doug Feinburg, founder of multimedia and video production company Thunder Sky Pictures. Doug received a call from his old friend Jeff Weiner, a marketing director working for an IT company called LiveVault.
Weiner wanted to produce a web video launching LiveVault’s new product, a disk-based backup system for corporate data, and he wanted to do it in ‘viral’ way, creating a piece so funny that IT managers would share it with friends. Brainstorming with LiveVault managers, we created “The Institute for Backup Trauma,” a rehabilitation facility for IT managers who have lost their data and gone off the deep end. Cleese would play Dr. Harold Twain Weck, director of the institute and a former patient.
A few days later, Doug, Fred and I were sitting in a conference room awaiting a script review call with Mr. Cleese. Even after his voice came out of the conference phone I was expecting Doug to say, “Boy, I really had you going.” But there was no mistaking Cleese’s voice. We were delighted when Cleese asked if the scriptwriter was British; it seemed to him that only a Brit could capture the nuances of language and humor in the script. Little did he know that I had seen almost all his movies, and knew the unique cadence of his vocal patterns, from the gradually rising rant of his architect’s sketch (“You hypocritical toadies with your Tony Jacklin golf clubs!”), to the berserk owner of a dead parrot confronting the beleaguered pet-shop owner (“It’d be pushin’ up daisies if you hadn’t nailed it to its perch!”), to the desperately middle aged barrister in A Fish Called Wanda (“We’re all dead, you know”). So writing for Cleese was essentially like writing a cello concerto specifically for Yo-Yo Ma.
Within a week, after one more script conference, everything was finalized. Cleese was happy with the script, and the shoot date in LA was set. While I would still occasionally panic and blurt out the word “Burma” during meetings, it seemed like the impossible was indeed happening.
The first shot of the day involved Cleese in drag, playing Hilda, the buxom-to-the-point-of-disability office manager. “Hilda” was supposed to search a supply room for some lost backed-up data tapes, but we deliberately made the room so narrow that Hilda’s gigantic Y-cup breasts knocked things off the shelves. During rehearsal, Cleese improved upon the script by heightening various physical bits and scaling back others. This aspect of the shoot was the most fascinating for me: Cleese as a craftsman of comedy. Each little bit required a great deal of choreography, and excellent timing. He’s a true perfectionist who has a perfect sense of what is and is not funny. Of course, I have to admit that one of the reasons I wrote the scene was to see Cleese act in drag. And I couldn’t resist having a small bit part opposite “Hilda.” Believe me, this is the stuff dreams are made of.
In the next scene, Cleese played a younger Harold Twain Weck, an IT manager who experiences the horrors of Backup Trauma firsthand. Michael Dorn, famous for playing Worf on Star Trek: The Next Generation, leapt at the chance to play Twain Weck’s fierce boss, Jankowski. After Dorn intimidated Twain Weck with a particularly Worf-like threat, Cleese improvised a hilarious bit, smashing dental molds with his phone receiver while repeating, “Not happy! Not happy! Not happy!” Dorn blew about 4 of his takes because every time he had to look at Cleese he burst out laughing.
Next up were a number of scenes featuring Cleese as the Director of the Institute, showing some novel ‘therapies’ used to treat patients. These included a straight-jacketed man bashing his head against a tape drive piñata, a seal-like man who was fed raw fish as a reward for answering Twain Weck’s questions, and my favorite: a patient strapped into a chair, eyes forced open a la Clockwork Orange, being shown a “retraining film” set to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. We included a special hidden frame message into this section of the video. Can you find it?
It occurs to me now that laughter is the most inexplicable of all feelings. It comes upon us all of a sudden and makes our abdomens compress, forcing out air in a sort of comedic Heimlich maneuver. Laugher wells up within us because of things we see or hear, but it is never one thing by itself – for example – a Medieval Knight; but rather a Knight banging coconut shells together while ‘galloping’ across a landscape. Even then, humor might not happen unless the look on the Knight’s face is serious and earnest. The Minister of Silly walks, Cleese pointed out at the LiveVault shoot, was silly only from the waist down, serious from the waist up; one without the other would not be funny. The bringing together of things that don’t normally belong together must somehow cross the wires in our brains, with laughter being the resulting spark. Cleese just knows how to make a lot of sparks. I wish today’s TV sitcoms had even a small fraction of Cleese’s electrical storm; if they did, they wouldn’t need mechanical laugh tracks to cue us when something was supposed to be funny.
The sets, the costumes, the lights are all stored away now. Cleese is back in his ranch in California’s rolling hills of vine. In many ways the LiveVault show was just one more production out of a million in Tinsletown. But not for me. I have something I didn’t have before. Something that will never be auctioned on e-bay. I have a smashed dental mold from Twain Weck’s desk. The holes from the missing teeth make it a great pencil holder.
Also read the other article by Ted Page, From Spam to Viral Web Video with John Cleese, which discusses more about the power of viral marketing, but in the context of the making of The Institute for Backup Trauma.
Ted Page is Principal/Creative Director of Captains of Industry and author of the Captains of Industry/Thunder Sky Pictures production of The Institute for Backup Trauma starring John Cleese. For more information or to view the video, please go to www.captainsofindustry.com.