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Comedian John Cleese spills the beans for Victoria fans

A bout of vomiting led to one Monty Python's most famous sketches, John Cleese told Victoria fans this weekend.
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John Cleese says the Cheese Shop skit — one of the most famous routines in comedy history — was inspired by a bout of seasickness.

A bout of vomiting led to one Monty Python's most famous sketches, John Cleese told Victoria fans this weekend.

Speaking at the University of Victoria Saturday night, the 75-year-old comedian and co-founder of Monty Python revealed the story behind the absurdist routine, Cheese Shop, in which a customer learns that a cheese shop has, in fact, no cheese for sale.

Cleese said years ago he became seasick — enough to vomit several times —while filming a comic routine on a boat. Afterwards, friend and fellow Python member, Graham Chapman, suggested Cleese buy food to settle his stomach. Driving by a drugstore, Cleese wondered aloud whether they would carry cheese.

This led to Chapman and Cleese hatching an idea for a sketch about “medicinal cheese.” And this, in turn, morphed into the Cheese Shop skit — one of the most famous routines in comedy history.

“Most of the time, it's just ideas popping into your head," Cleese told a sold out audience of 1,200-plus at the Farquhar Auditorium. "And you never know what's going to happen."

Famous for Monty Python's Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers and such films as A Fish Called Wanda, Cleese was interviewed on stage by CBC radio host Jo-Ann Roberts. The appearance was part of a book tour for the comedian's new autobiography, So, Anyway...

Devotees, who gave Cleese a standing ovation, responded warmly to tales behind classic Monty Python bits. The comedian also reminisced about his involvement in pre-Python comedy programs such as The Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show.

Dressed casually in a blazer and jeans (with no socks), Cleese proved he'd lost none of his irreverent edge when he expressed how "comfortable" he feels in Canada. "It's a decent country," he said, "but it's so f---ing cold!"

Interviewed in backstage before the show, Cleese said one thing that made Monty Python unique was that all the performers — including Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Michael Palin — were primarily writers.

“That was all we ever squabbled about, was the script. We never squabbled about who was going to get the best role, which is what actors squabble about.”

Cleese said boredom with conventional TV comedy spurred the Python gang to create routines that were edgy and unconventional in structure. Rather than presenting skits that ended with a traditional punchline, the troupe often dropped the punchline altogether.

“We’d just have someone walk in and say, ‘This is getting silly,’ ” Cleese said.

So, Anyway ... has received mixed reviews by some of Britain's leading newspapers. Cleese ascribed this to a long-running feud with the U.K. press, which he has criticized in the past.

“They don't like me and I don't like them,” he said. “It's a simple trade-off.”

The actor, writer and film producer originally studied law at Cambridge, where he joined the Cambridge Footlights, a dramatic club that also launched the careers of Peter Cook, Clive James and Hugh Laurie. Cleese said if he hadn't gone into comedy, he likely would have become a writer.

“I think I would have started as a lawyer, because that was the passage I was going down. But I think I would have started to write more and more, and probably have gone into journalism.”

So, Anyway... focuses on his early life, with only a brief discussion of Monty Python's Flying Circus, broadcast on the BBC from 1969 to 1974. Cleese said this was intentional. He plans to write a second autobiographical book.

“If I’d wanted to write a book that was almost guaranteed to be a big success, I could have just written about Monty Python,” he said.