John Cleese Doubles Down on Slavery, Reparations Jokes Amid Backlash

John Cleese has hit back at his critics after facing a backlash over jokes he made about slavery while taking part in a talk at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival.

The Monty Python star, 82, fronted the "John Cleese in Conversation" event in Austin, Texas, on March 11, alongside fellow comedians Dulcé Sloan, Jim Gaffigan, and Ricky Velez, when the subject of colonization was raised.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Cleese said to Sloan, who is Black, that the British gave her "free passage" to the U.S., in reference to slavery. He also said the British are owed reparations by Italy, a joking reference to the Roman conquest of Britain nearly 2,000 years ago.

Addressing the article, Cleese tweeted on Tuesday: "Next time the Editor of the Hollywood Reporter sends someone to review a Comedy Festival he would do well to send a reporter with a sense of humour. Otherwise it's like sending someone deaf to review a concert."

One Twitter user responded to the star by saying that "mockingly comparing getting [reparations] for things that happened 1,000 years ago, to things that happened less than a generation ago is a flawed comparison."

While Cleese accepted that the person in question was "quite right," he asserted: "But that was the joke. The ridiculousness of the comparison was the joke.

"But if you lack a sense of irony, you might not realise that. But that's not a good reason to deprive people who do understand irony of a good laugh."

Per The Hollywood Reporter, when colonization was brought up, Cleese said people "forget the British Empire was the basic political unit of organization for 6,000 years—the British didn't start [colonizing]."

"We know, but ya'll did it so well!" Sloan, star of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, said in response to his comment. "It's the reason I'm here! I'm not supposed to be here!"

"We gave you free passage, too," Cleese reportedly replied to Sloan, with The Hollywood Reporter stating that his comment drew "shocked groans" from the crowd.

The British-born star is quoted as adding: "History is a history of crime. It's a history of people who were stronger beating up people who were weaker, and it's always been that. It's deeply, deeply distasteful. But to pretend that one lot were worse than another—you do know the British have been slaves twice, right?"

"The Dutch are the problem," Sloan is quoted as saying, before the subject of the conversation changed.

John Cleese
John Cleese speaks onstage at 'Comedy with the Cleeses' during the 2022 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Creek and the Cave on March 12, 2022 in Austin, Texas. The comedian has hit back after facing criticism for his recent jokes about slavery and reparations. Amanda Stronza/Getty Images for SXSW

Later returning to the topic, Cleese said: "[People] get competitive about this business of being oppressed. We were oppressed, the English, by the Romans for 400 [years], from about 0 to 400."

"You're really going back," noted Portlandia executive producer Dan Pasternack, who served as moderator for the panel.

"This is getting so uncomfortable," Velez quipped, before referencing another comedian. "[Is this the new] Dave Chappelle special?"

"I don't want to have a struggle competition," Sloan said.

"I want reparations from Italy," Cleese, star of A Fish Called Wanda, commented, adding: "And then the Normans came over in 1066... they were horrible people from France, and they came and colonized us for 30 years—we need reparations there too, I'm afraid."

"This is why your phones are locked up," Pasternack reportedly told the audience, before making a joke about "playing the Jew card."

According to the report, Cleese then set up a joke about a stereotypical physical trait pertaining to Jewish people, prompting Sloan to stand up and temporarily take his microphone away, to applause from some of the audience.

"And now you saved the colonizer," Pasternack said, to which Sloan is said to have replied: "I saved a comic whose career I respect."

Per the report, Cleese and Sloan hugged as the panel came to an end.

Back in November, Cleese canceled a planned appearance at his alma mater, Cambridge University, after a fellow attendee was barred by what he called "woke" staff and students for "doing an impersonation of Hitler."

John Cleese and comedians at SXSW
(L-R) Dan Pasternack, Dulcé Sloan, Jim Gaffigan, John Cleese, and Ricky Velez speak onstage at the event "John Cleese in Conversation" during the 2022 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Esther's Follies on March 11, 2022 in Austin, Texas. Pasternack served as moderator during the event. Samantha Burkardt/Getty Images for SXSW