Pardon my self-indulgence. So who is the man on the right in the photo? The good looking one. It is John Cleese, who rose to fame as one of the founders of Monty Python's Flying Circus.
For the first time in my 20 years at Trinity my wife and I were invited to a dinner at the President's home with a distinguished speaker. My theory is that President Brazil probably I couldn't say anything inappropriate to the person who once dropped the F-bomb into a eulogy.
In addition to Monty Python, Mr. Cleese has been in many movies and TV programs. His film credits include a Fish Called Wanda, the voice of the king in Shrek, and the role of Nearly-Headless-Nick in the Harry Potter films. He is a renaissance man of sorts, dabbling in business and writing. He has an impressive educational pedigree.
To prepare for the dinner I did lots of research on the Internet. Better to be over-prepared, right? It is a tough job, but looking at clips from the Holy Grail, the Python shows, and other skits was crucial to my preparation. I also was nervous and wanted to have conversation starters, so I posted on Facebook that I was soliciting ideas. Responses included a discussion about silly walks (it was determined that he had probably seen enough of silly walks), his divorces (glad I didn't ask about his wife - he's had three), Spam, bathroom humor, a penguin on the telly, and soccer. The tip about him being a vegetarian was my ace in the hole. Imagine my astonishment when he was served a nice steak. I couldn't let it go so one of only two or three comments I made during dinner was "Hey, I thought you were a vegetarian!" This is when he started to mostly talk to Dr. Liz Ward from Art, which was also after I made a reference to the aforementioned eulogy, which he either did not hear, or disregarded.
So here is how this works. There are typically about 15 guests who all sit at the same table with the guest of honor at the center of one of the long sides. This gives the whole table equal access, I think. The President sits at one head seat and the first lady at the other. (I sat next to Mrs. Brazil and she was a delight, as always, and even let me eat her silver-dollar shaped corn-wheat-pancake thing that tasted like a french fry - after I ate both of mine. I asked if she was going to eat it. She said no, but I think she just didn't want to disappoint me.) Couples are seated apart, so my wife Donna was at the opposite corner, but we could at least make eye contact. I think she likes me.
Mr. Cleese asked us what were some of our favorite comedies from the last five years, which he says are difficult to do well. As a movie buff I thought this was my big chance so I volunteered the films Wristcutters, Lars and the Real Girl and Kenny. Professor Aarons from English mentioned The Station Agent. Oh my gosh, I was embarrassed for her (it's like six years old). Anyways, the subject quickly changed and I thought "Burn After Reading! You idiot. How did you forgret that!"
I never got to use many of my conversation starters, unfortunately. But that's okay. I asked him to announce that Rat Race would be showing on campus after his talk. He was so gracious he nearly volunteered to attend, but had an early flight. Mr. Cleese was kind, charming, well-mannered, witty, and interesting. He pretended we were too!
This is one of my top celebrity experiences, along with talking to Rick Springfield in a bar (he blew me off), offering a can of beer to then-presidential candidate Jerry Brown on State Street in Madison, when I was a student, seeing veteran character actor Brian Dennehey at Mr. Whipple's Christmas Wonderland in Connecticut, getting a golf-cart ride from Steve McNair (he was cool), driving Greg Mortenson (awesome man), and getting kicked out of the Bell Center at Trinity for asking for autographs from the Spurs. Who knew they were in the middle of drug-testing?