LOS ANGELES -- John Cleese was trying to tell 500 members of the British-American Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon that they should loosen up a bit. To illustrate his point, he stepped up to the microphone wearing a large, loud, altogether hideous tie.
'You aren't willing to risk making mistakes because you want to avoid hurting your egos,' he told the business leaders. 'But you need to show that mistakes are allowed. A man who wears a tie like this is saying, 'Look, I made a mistake.''
The joke went over big; the point was well-taken. The British actor, best known for making TV viewers laugh with his droll antics on the BBC's 'Monty Python,' is also making corporations think about how they communicate with employees and clients.
Since 1972, Cleese and a group of other TV professionals have made a series of award-winning business training films under the auspices of Video Arts, their London-based company with U.S. headquarters in Chicago.
The Video Arts catalog, which features titles like 'Meetings, Bloody Meetings' and 'If Looks Could Kill,' has introduced a new idea into the corporate world: better job training through entertainment.
'We're trying to persuade business that humor is not irrelevant or dangerous,' Cleese said in an interview after his March 17 speech, held in conjunction with the UK/LA Festival that brought the Duke and Duchess of York to Hollywood.
'We learn best when we're playing,' he said, removing the garish blue and orange tie.
The corporate world is learning from Video Arts films what television fans learned from 'Monty Python': you shouldn't take yourself too seriously. 'The worst problem in management -- in fact, the worst problem in life -- is the ego,' said Cleese.
He believes that too many employers and employees are hamstrung by fears: fear of failure, fear of looking foolish and fear of the unknown.
'Healthy behavior actually arises out of confidence,' he said. 'The less full of fear you are, the better you behave.'
'Behavior' is a word that crops up a lot when Cleese talks business. He is convinced that certain behaviors -- listening effectively, speaking articulately, drawing up efficient work plans - are equally important for the company intern and the chairman of the board.
The Video Arts films enact the dos and don'ts of those behaviors in the medium Cleese knows best: situational comedy.
Ever the master of deadpan caricature, Cleese dons a string of quirky guises to show corporate people how NOT to conduct themselves. In 'The Unorganized Manager,' he plays a savvy St. Peter, who helps a newly deceased executive (coronary victim, of course) figure out how his life got out of control.
In a miniseries on 'Finance for Non-Financial Managers,' Cleese illustrates the pitfalls of budgeting through the character of Julian Carruthers, whom he describes as 'a good-natured idiot who's in a position he doesn't deserve because of the British caste system.'
The rigid British work ethic and its long-time darling, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, are sterling examples of wrong-headed business behavior, said Cleese.
'Thatcher has a lot of very good ideas but I don't like her fundamental attitude: she's so self-righteous, so sure of herself. She makes mistakes because she doesn't listen.'
Listening is one of the skills Cleese urges all employees to learn and even rehearse. 'Sit down with a pad,' he said, 'and be very clear about which direction the conversation should take and what questions you should ask.'
And before you walk into a meeting, leave your ego at the door, he advised. 'You've got to talk to people on a purely personal basis. People will lower their egos to the extent that you lower yours.'
Developing good business skills, like honing a comedy talent, is 'a very slow process,' Cleese warned, and the process is one of trial-and-error.
'Fawlty Towers,' an early Cleese TV hit series, 'went virtually unnoticed during its first season,' he said, 'and the first 10 'Monty Python' shows went out without anybody getting excited.
'But once you overcome resistance, you gain momentum. Word of mouth builds and success follows.'
Word of mouth has made the Video Arts enterprise very successful and Cleese intends to produce more training films. He also is busy with his film career and has finished 'A Fish Called Wendy' with Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and 'Monty Python' co-star Michael Palin.
Screen comedy is still fun, he said, but screen business has its own peculiar rewards. 'I like talking to businessmen,' he said. 'They are perfectly prepared to listen to you even if you're not telling jokes. And the best audiences ever are IBM salesmen -- they're so quick.
'In a funny way, the idea of helping people is slightly more satisfying than the idea of making them laugh,' Cleese said. 'But maybe that's just the British work ethic.'