What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I asked a psychiatrist named Robin Skynner, with whom I wrote a couple of books, how many people in his profession he thought really knew what they were doing. He said about 10 percent. So for the next few years, every time I met somebody I thought was particularly sharp, I asked them the same question. The highest estimate I got was 20 percent. That explained so much. I spent so many years worrying about executives and critics, but once you realize that very few of them know what they’re talking about, everything is simplified.
What advice would you give the younger you?
I was always too dutiful, always did what was expected of me. But you have to take control of your life more than that. You have to say, “What do I want to achieve?” I didn’t have that sort of courage, and as a result, I spent an awful lot of time doing things that didn’t interest me, just because it was expected.
How did therapy help you? Why did you seek it out?
I sought it out because I wasn’t happy and didn’t know why. There’s a simple phrase that says therapy is the integration of thinking and feeling, and if you can achieve that, then life shouldn’t be too difficult.
What’s the secret to a great collaboration like the one you had with Monty Python’s other main writer, Graham Chapman?
Well, it’s a bit like dating. At the beginning you’re both a little reticent because you don’t want to say anything stupid. So you feel each other out, and sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s strange because Chapman and I very much clicked as writers, but as people we could hardly be more different – and that’s true of two or three of the Pythons. People always want to think my first choice for dinner companions would be the Pythons, and that’s not true. When we do have dinner together, we have a very good time because we laugh so much, but we are very different people.
What’s your philosophy about comedy?
Humor is like anything else in life: You can arrange any kind of human behavior on a scale from paranoid to very inclusive. And the best kind of inclusive humor is to look at this extraordinary situation only human beings are in. We’re all in the same boat: We don’t really know if there’s any purpose to our being and nobody gave us a rule book, and once you start laughing about this, it’s very inclusive. And at the other end of the scale is nasty humor where people make racial or political jokes indicating that the other group or political party is beyond redemption. Somebody told me a joke that I thought was very funny: Why do the French have so many civil wars? The answer is so they can win one every now and again. That made me laugh a lot but not because I hate the French.
What role does religion play in your life now?
I think the main thing to realize is that everything is transient. The Buddhists have got it completely right. It’s all transient, and everything is a part of a process, and it’s an inevitable process, and yes, we are all going to die. It’s just a question of the date.
Who was your greatest influence?
Peter Cook was the most impressive. He wrote some extraordinarily funny sketches, and the wonderful thing about it was it was effortless. But the sad thing was when he finally began to lose it and not have that facility, he didn’t know how to sit there and grind it out like the rest of us mortals have to do. That’s the downside of genius: When the going gets difficult, when it’s not flowing the way it used to, they don’t know how to work hard at it. I did 13 drafts of A Fish Called Wanda. That’s a certain attention to detail.
What have you learned about work?
You have to try like hell to get it right, because if you’re going to do anything seriously, then not trying to get it right seems completely pointless.
What do you think your legacy will be?
I’m not interested in my legacy. But I’d like the people who knew me to think of me as trying to be kind, because I think that’s just about the only thing that matters.