John Cleese on the meaning of life (after cigarettes!)

John Cleese

I can’t remember my first ever cigarette, but I know I had a rather odd attitude to smoking when I was at school in the late 50’s. Some of my friends smoked surreptitiously. They used to go to the cinema in the afternoon in Bristol, primarily to smoke cigarettes and I remember thinking, ‘That’s really pathetic!’

I was a bit of a late-starter when it came to smoking because of my attitude towards my school-friends. I didn’t start until I was 25 and rehearsing a show in New York at the end of 1964. We were working in a theatre club and there was a big cigarette machine there. I started off smoking menthols, then after a bit I moved onto Larks and Parliaments. Most of the time that I was doing Monty Python (and certainly Fawlty Towers) I was smoking quite a lot and I got into a cycle, as many writers do, of making myself a cup of coffee, then having a cigarette with it.

I knew that smoking didn’t make me feel too good, but I never thought of myself as a very heavy smoker. I was vaguely thinking about giving up and then, when I was talking to my dear friend, Robin Skinner, he said something that made a big impression on me. He had been a heavy smoker, but had given up some time before. I think we were talking about smoking and I said that I thought smoking cigarettes relaxed me. He suggested that the next time I had a cigarette, I check my pulse, before and after. I tried it and the moment I realised that having a cigarette put my pulse rate up, I stopped believing that it was relaxing!

Later on I went to see a nututrionist. The nutritionist tried to persuade me to cut out both coffee and cigarettes because he said they were both poison. I hate to say it, but I found it relatively easy to give up, which I think had something to do with the fact that I gave up coffee at the same time. It was a pretty wholesale lifestyle change for me. I went back to coffee eventually but I don’t think that I could have given up smoking if I hadn’t given up coffee as well. It also helped that I’d cut right down some time before I quit smoking completely. That might not work for everybody, but I think it helped me. I was lucky in that I didn’t suffer very severe withdrawal symptoms, I just began to feel a little bit better. I’d always had a bit of a wheezy smoker’s cough and I soon noticed that it had started to clear up. My sense of taste improved quite quickly and there’s no question that your lungs get better when you quit smoking.

I’d given up for some time when I was approached to do some anti-smoking ads by the Health Education Authority. I’d worked with them before and I trusted them to do a good job. They had some very, very good scripts for those ads and that persuaded me to get involved. The best single joke in the campaign was that wonderful one where I’m sitting there with a full ashtray, talking about how much ash the average 40-a-day man creates. “But then of course,” I add, “ they’re not all cremated!” There was another ad in which I coughed non-stop for ages, and one in which I shot a packet of cigarettes with a revolver.

Over the years I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the US, and I never cease to be amazed by the fact that although fewer and fewer older people smoke in America, there still seem to be loads of young people taking it up. The tobacco industry’s marketing obviously works very well as they are addicting new smokers all the time. I think it’s one of the most cynical commercial operations that I’ve ever witnessed. A long time ago, way back, in the early ‘80s, I was approached by a tobacco firm, who asked me to do some cigarette advertisements in Australia. That was when I was smoking 20 a day, and I’m ashamed to say that I agreed to do it. You’ve got to remember though, that the research gradually strengthens the case against tobacco in your mind, and at that time, even though I knew it wasn’t the healthiest habit in the world, I didn’t realise just how bad it was. I remember doing a couple of ads for them, which were shown only in Australia, but I would never agree to do such a thing now.

It is a source of concern to me that my two younger children still smoke, but my approach to trying to modify anyone’s behaviour is not to be dictatorial, as that has exactly the wrong effect. I do say things like, “Check your heart-rate, because then you’ll realise that it’s not relaxing you,” but I would never try and lay down the law.

John’s Top Three Tips:

If you still think that smoking is relaxing then try the ‘Pulse Rate Test’ like I did. Check your pulse before, and after having a cigarette, and you’ll see that smoking really makes your heart race.

Tapering off the number of cigarettes I smoked helped me to quit, but I wasn’t a very heavy smoker, so others might need to stop more abruptly.

Make it a major lifestyle change and consider giving up (or reducing) the amount of tea and coffee you drink. A bigger change can feel like more of a fresh start, and coffee or tea are closely associated with cigarettes for a great many smokers.