“Yeah, 6-1,” Camilla Cleese says. She mugs for a beat and then traipses across the stage, displaying the obvious: Like her famous father, Cleese is really fucking tall. But height isn't the only thing she inherited from the genius Brit John Cleese, who's one-sixth of Monty Python. He also passed down to her a talent for funny-making.
Hollywood’s nepotism has a rich and textured history, from the Barrymores to that, um, one family with the big butts. There are so many seat-, suit- and costume-filling jobs into which the rich and famous can dump their offspring that even the most talentless son or daughter can make a decent living. And obviously, the act of fame itself can be a job (like with that aforementioned unnamed family).
But in the comedy world, particularly with stand-up, there’s a naked brutality and unrelenting rawness to the job: low/no pay, long hours, late nights. There are no barriers to entry, and the bar is set at laughs that no one can fake. If you’re already comfortably famous, you’d be crazy to pluck your coddled spawn from their cushy wealth-claves and let them swim among the rabble.
Which is why Cleese and fellow stand-up Mindy Rickles (daughter of insult master Don Rickles), in anchoring this weekend’s Ancestry Dot Comedy showcase at the Burbank Comedy Festival, deserve some respect. They’re not dynasty-building. They’re not empire-expanding. They’re just hustling yuks like everyone else.
Rickles’ Jewish-mom charm is as evident on the phone as it is onstage — and she has her dad’s shit-eating twinkle. She busts balls without making her targets feel like actual schmucks. The 49-year-old mother of two teenage boys, who describes herself as “Private Benjamin meets Richard Lewis," is only two years into her journey as a comedian. “It’s definitely a later-in-life kind of thing for me,” she explains. “And actually, it was Jeff Garlin who got me into it, not even my father. I was always kind of funny and always joking around, and my father was always like, ‘What, do you think you’re funnier than me?’ But it was Jeff who gave me the idea to actually do it.”
Garlin, her Malibu neighbor, at first had no idea he was dealing with comedy royalty. “I was going by my married name, Mann, so he didn’t know we were related,” she says. Through Garlin’s connections, she does one night a week at the Laugh Factory. “I said to myself, if I could just work as a comic and say funny things for, like, $3, that would be great. If I didn’t do it now, I figured I’d never do it.”
Rickles, whose bits tend toward adult life and mainstream pop-culture detritus, speaks to an audience that's mystified by the vapidity of social media trends. “How many new pictures can I post? That’s the whole new thing now,” she jokes, launching into a diatribe about her rich friends and their Instagram posts and Facebook brags. “It’s every moment, like, ‘This is the egg I ate this morning.’ Constantly with the posting.”
Rickles doesn’t typically include material about her childhood or her parents. “It’s more about my daily life. I don’t really talk about my parents as much, unless it’s people [in the audience] who really know them.”
Don Rickles, who’s been in comedy for decades and is still performing at 89, has had a famously stable home life — he and his wife remain happily married after 50 years. “We traveled with him to Vegas every summer and went to shows with him sometimes," his daughter says. "But when he worked he would come home and be like a normal dad. He was funny, but he watched TV and all that. His remote was a very good friend to him."
The 31-year-old Cleese, on the other hand, feels comfortable throwing shade at her father’s relationships. She begins a bit: “I got a surprise recently, very exciting news. We have a new child in the family ... my new step-mom.”
The tabloids latched onto that last year. Cleese explains over the phone, “Oh yeah, they twisted my words around and took things out of context. My dad can’t marry someone half his age and expect me, as a stand-up comedian, not to use that. That’s comedy gold.They also basically failed to mention that I was doing stand-up comedy — they made it sound like I was just ranting on the street.”
When it comes to trading witty barbs, you'd expect a Python progeny to shine. “It’s our way of showing affection," Cleese explains. "My dad and I are ruthless to each other. For us, the more you tease someone, the more you love them. It’s all fun and games, but we sharpen our teeth on each other, basically.”
While she can shake off having her playful jabs hammered by the press, it's the deeply personal stuff that makes having a famous last name difficult. Cleese lost her mother, American actress Barbara Trentham, in 2013. In the wake of that, a British interviewer went on the attack. “I was a bit of a wild child, and that still gets brought up every time," Cleese says. "My mother had some struggles with that, and this woman made it look like I was attacking my own mother. And then people were coming out saying that I was a devil child — people who were claiming to be good friends of hers. It was brutal.”
Cleese used that experience to delve into her craft and strengthen her material. Ironically, she took to stand-up four years ago as a way to escape her dad’s shadow. While she learned from him one-on-one — and shared with him some writing credits, including material on his 2011 show The Alimony Tour — her stand-up is all her own. "Unfortunately, if someone sees a credit that reads ‘John and Camilla Cleese,’ I think they often assume that I make the coffee while he writes. “
More than some folks, she gets why stand-up is a sink-or-swim pursuit, regardless of pedigree. “I think stand-up speaks for itself," she says. "It doesn’t matter who your dad is — you’re not going to be funny if you’re not funny. You have to work hard at it, and it’s all on you.
"Oh, and I’m a bit of a masochist, so there’s that. “
Cleese, Rickles and a whole bunch of other comedians who are relatives of comedians (some of them thrice-removed) perform Aug. 21 at Flappers in Burbank.
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