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SXSW 2022: John Cleese kicks off Comedy Festival with jokes about death, cannibalism

His daughter, Camilla Cleese, did an opening standup set before introducing her father on Saturday night.

AUSTIN, Texas — After kicking off the South by Southwest Comedy Festival as part of a panel of comedians on Friday night, British comedy icon John Cleese returned to the stage at Esther’s Follies on Saturday night for a standup set.

He was joined by his daughter, Camilla Cleese, who did an opening standup set of her own before introducing her father as “the man from ‘The Pink Panther 2.’”

The “Monty Python” and “Fawlty Towers” actor touched on his introduction to comedy growing up in England in the '50s and '60s, when he said jokes were mostly clean and upfront. It wasn’t until he encountered a punchline about a wounded nun (a twist on the “what’s black and white and red all over?” riddle) that he discovered just how funny the dark and absurd could be.

As you’d expect, the dark and absurd were themes of the night, with death and cannibalism getting big laughs from the crowd of about 200.

Taking his seat on the stage, the 82-year-old explained that at his age, this standup set was going to be done sitting down.

He listed off some of the benefits of old age and Alzheimer’s – no reruns on TV, you’re always meeting new people, you can hide your own Easter eggs and, if you’re famous like him, people are always reminding you of who you are.

He talked about how he liked cats over dogs – “they don’t taste very good, and that’s a survival tactic” – and how he’d unknowingly eaten a delicious poodle in Hong Kong, only to make eye contact with a poodle on the street the next day.

“Is it enough that I feel guilty, or do I need to go home and throw up?” he wondered.

As for vegans, he hates them, and he feels vindicated by new research showing plants have intelligence. Carrots have an IQ of 2, he said, chickens have an IQ of 3, cows are a 9, but steers are 8.5 – and he doesn’t have any problem eating them.

“The big question is whether I would eat a Trump Republican,” Cleese joked to an applause from the Austin audience. “They have an IQ of about 11.”

Donald Trump himself, however, he would not eat – he has a cholesterol problem.

Mixed in with his comedy were stories about his “Monty Python” days, how bits like the Black Knight and the Undertakers sketch came to be and pranks he pulled on fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin.

Camilla Cleese joined her father again at the end of the show for a Q&A, and the two took turns roasting each other. Both during her set and in interacting with her father, she played up the awkwardness of everyone’s uncertainty about what’s appropriate to laugh at.

While the younger Cleese is navigating “cancel culture” and still taking after her father’s comedy tradition, John Cleese, who made a career out of jokes about death and religion, is working on a comedy series in the UK called “John Cleese: Cancel Me” and has spoken out against rules on what can’t be said in comedy.

At Friday night’s panel, he reportedly made comments joking about slavery and reparations, leading to an uncomfortable exchange with “The Daily Show’s” Dulcé Sloan. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Cleese and Sloan later embraced with a big hug.

There were no such moments at Saturday night’s show, which ended with a light joke about a Polish pilot in Germany territory during World War II – apparently, told to John Cleese by a 6-year-old.

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