If you're someone who remembers the Ministry of Silly Walks or The Meaning of Life, the man on the screen is instantly recognizable. "Hello, I'm John Cleese," he is saying, ". . . [and] I expect you're wondering why a zany, wacky, off-the-wall weirdo like myself helped found a company . . . to make something as unzany, unwacky, and on-the-wall as training films."
Welcome to Video Arts Inc., a $14.5-million company cofounded in 1972 by Cleese, late of Monty Python. And why did Cleese decide to go from Silly Walks to training films? Well, I'll tell you," he says. "I was after a fast buck." But a funny thing happened on the way to easy riches. "I made a disastrous miscalculation. I got interested."
Cleese, 48, blames this failing on the two years he spent teaching, and his work in psychiatry. That background, he says, made it easy for him to spot the problem with most training films: "They are bloody boring." The humor, he explains, "doesn't work. Usually, after the script is done, they bring someone in to write jokes. If the jokes are good, that's all you remember. If the jokes aren't good, you don't remember anything."
Cleese hit on a simple solution. "Have the joke grow out of the lesson. That way, if you remember the joke, you remember the lesson." Thus, for example, his training film on purchasing -- entitled I'll Be in Touch . . . Everyone Is a Buyer -- begins with a secretary who strands her boss in a fleabag hotel. Lesson #1: before you buy anything, you have to know what you want.
That's pretty basic stuff, and the film doesn't get much more complicated. Nevertheless, it is effective and -- at $720 -- reasonably affordable. (Films can also be rented.) Meanwhile, Cleese has accomplished his original goal. "Thanks to Video Arts," he says, "I never have to work again."