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      Philadelphia Speakers Series

      With an Infectious Laugh, John Cleese Delights the Speakers Series Crowd Giving Insights into the Psychology of Humor

      Jeannine McKnight, senior editor in the Office of University Relations

      Philadelphia Speakers Series

      John Cleese, best known as the creator of “Monty Python,” greets Jeannine McKnight, senior editor in the Office of University Relations, at the Philadelphia Speakers Series presented by Widener University.

      Known as "the world's funniest man," it's no wonder John Cleese had the audience laughing from the moment he took the mic at the Kimmel Center for the Philadelphia Speakers Series on Jan. 16. A legendary actor, writer and comedian, and the co-founder of "Monty Python," Cleese gave us such iconic gems as "Monty Python's Flying Circus," "A Fish Called Wanda" and "Fawlty Towers." He attributes much of his success to the study of psychology and what drives us to behave as we do.

      Much of Cleese's humor pokes fun at himself. Cleese told the audience of how he began going to a therapist as a result of divorcing multiple times. He eventually wrote two books with Robin Skynner, a well-known psychiatrist: "Families and How to Survive Them" and "Life and How to Survive It." He laughed that his problems with women and love of dark humor stemmed from his mother. His mom, a centenarian, regaled him in the nursing home with her lists of worries and lists of reasons to be depressed. After letting her go on for a bit, he would tease her with how he could permanently end her problems, and she'd chuckle and say no, no, she had plans later that week.

      In his best-selling memoir "So Anyway...", Cleese chronicles his early developmental days. He told the Speakers Series crowd what it was like to grow up. He was an awkward 6 feet tall at 12 years old, and it was especially painful to be bullied by boys who were half his size. He stumbled upon a survival technique—to make the other boys laugh. Laughter stops bullying. By the time he got to high school, he was prolific in humor and on his way to becoming a comedic genius. It doesn't hurt that his laughter is contagious. All Cleese had to do was laugh, and the Kimmel audience joined him.

      Cleese has many causes, and one of them is protecting lemurs. Knowing Cleese's passion for psychology and the inherent playfulness of lemurs, it's easy to see why he "adores" them and seeks to save them. Following the comedic film "Fierce Creatures," featuring the ring-tailed lemur, he hosted the documentary, "In the Wild: Operation Lemur with John Cleese." The Bemaraha woolly lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after Cleese, and it's fitting that the playful lemur is metaphoric. Humor helps us survive what life throws at us.

      The Philadelphia Speakers Series presented by Widener University moves away from entertainment and into politics and world affairs next month with Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Feb. 13.


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