Thursday, February 19, 2015


by Don Stradley

With the possible exceptions of Steve Martin and Neal Simon, no comedy star is better qualified to write an autobiography than John Cleese. For one thing, he's always been primarily a writer, albeit one fortunate enough to look convincing in either an army uniform or a dress. I also recall a TV clip of Cleese and fellow Monty Python star Michael Palin squaring off against notorious sourpusses Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood to debate the merits of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Palin held his own, but Cleese was remarkably poised and shot the snobs down. An intelligent, thoughtful man, this Cleese.

But as Cleese emphasizes during the first half of So, Anyway…, a burly, tell-a-lot memoir, he wasn’t always so ready for a debate with the likes of Muggeridge and Stockwood.   Growing up in Weston-super-Mare, an old-fashioned seaside town in Somerset, England, Cleese was the awkward only child of an insurance salesman dad and an occasionally difficult mother (she was an unpredictable type we might now call  ‘neurotic’). Young Cleese was not only extraordinarily tall and thin, but he was timid, "a yellow-belly by inclination," and was part of an English middle class that was "terrified of embarrassment." Yet, this clumsy, shy, boy grew up to take part in arguably the two most popular shows in the history of British television.  He also spent a long period of his adult life in therapy, trying to understand his everlasting discomfort.

Such a memoir might include some uplifting moment where he battles through his awkwardness, but he just seemed to grow out of it. In short order he goes from studying law at Cambridge University, to appearing on Broadway in a sketch show developed at Cambridge, to working for David Frost. The strangest thing about Cleese's life is that wonderful opportunities just kept coming to him. While standing on a Manhattan street corner, for instance, he's approached by someone from Newsweek who'd seen Cleese in the Cambridge Circus show and felt compelled to offer Cleese a job as a columnist. These occurrences, which Cleese describes as "apples falling into my lap," happened frequently. No wonder he ended up in therapy. His mind was free to roam its darkest corridors, because it certainly wasn't taxed by a need to focus on his future.

Although Cleese is aware of the lofty position he holds as one of the creators of Monty Python's Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers, this isn't a book about how he created those shows. Instead, he focuses on his earlier TV work such as At Last...The 1948 Show. While those chapters are interesting, the more riveting stuff comes early on when Cleese takes us in hand for a tour of his boyhood. He creates vivid pictures of his grumpy old headmasters, giving them far more life and color than he does, say, Peter Sellers or Marty Feldman. The Python cast, with the exception of Graham Chapman, is barely mentioned. As for Chapman, who was Cleese's friend and writing partner for many years and died at age 48, he comes off as a strange one who "enjoyed only a tenuous relationship with reality."

Cleese takes a swipe at most of the usual targets: religion, Britain's class structure, pomposity of any sort, American movie producers, British journalists, autograph seekers, emotionally stunted intellectuals, and Germans. He's even suspicious of the people reading his book, accusing us of "just flipping through my heart-rending life story in the hope of getting a couple of good laughs, aren't you?” Yet, the book isn’t mean spirited. Its overriding effect is of someone you've always admired taking you aside, quite unexpectedly, to share some stories from his past.

If you've wondered about Cleese's romantic life, a strained relationship with his mother resulted in Cleese developing an overly polite persona, which he claims "rendered me utterly unsexy." He lost his virginity at 24, but didn't seem bothered by the delay. Yet, Cleese married Connie Booth, an interesting and attractive American actress. Oddly, there's little mention of their eventual divorce, or of Cleese's other marriages. Perhaps he feared soiling his memoir with anything unpleasant. The marriage to Booth, after all, seems rather sweet and idyllic: "I still remember how Connie looked just as the minister gave us his permission to kiss," he writes. "Everything felt very right."

What makes Cleese's memoir so different from most is that he never spent time wistfully dreaming of stardom. He doesn’t cop to such feelings, anyway. He didn't spend years honing an act, or going to auditions, or dealing with rejection, or stage fright. It's as if those are all hackneyed notions he couldn't be bothered about. What comes through with amazing force is his deep love of comedy. This goes back to when he was a kid listening to The Goon Show on the radio, a program he adored "with an intensity that almost defied analysis." Later, he underwent a kind of catharsis watching Peter Cook and Dudley Moore appear in Beyond the Fringe, a stage show that left Cleese in such a state of hysterical liberation that he actually started chewing his scarf, for "ordinary laughter could not on its own release the joyous energy that had taken over my body."

This love of comedy seems to have been the key to his life. Yet, he never stoops to that ages old bromide about wanting to please an audience, or gain their love. No, Cleese wanted to make himself laugh, and that's where the famous sketches came from, from the dead parrot, to the cheese shop, all the way to The Meaning of Life. Sure, he hoped the audience would laugh, but his own enjoyment came first, and we can still feel his joy as he writes about "busting a gut" over one of Chapman’s ideas. It seemed the idea for a sketch, rather than the specific details, was what would send him into a fit of laughter. Then, with incredible patience, he would set about constructing the sketch logically. Yes, the master of the silly walk approaches comedy with the seriousness of a lawyer building an argument.

Regrettably, if we're ever to know more about the Monty Python years, we'll have to wait for a second volume. Cleese skips over most of the Python history, and shares only fleeting mentions of Fawlty Towers, and A Fish Called Wanda. Sadly, I'm not certain he plans to write more. He ends this book with the Python reunion show in 2014, which certainly feels like a final bow, roger dodger, over and out. As much as I loved So, Anyway...and I loved every page of it, I keep thinking about the book Cleese didn't write. Of course, none of this would matter if Cleese wasn't such a fine writer and raconteur. His tales of seeing a spider so large that one could hear its footsteps, or of a friend’s hilarious struggle to put an injured rabbit out of its misery, are priceless, as is Cleese’s shock at seeing himself on film for the first time, fretting as “the lower half of me floated about like a hovercraft, while my top half swayed to and fro, giraffe-style.”

My favorite story, though, had to do with Cleese's brief stint as a teacher. He tells of one particular boy's struggle to associate the Niger River with Nigeria. The story is poignant, yet ridiculous, and Cleese tells it beautifully, with a hint of despair. This is why I’d love a second volume. Cleese is the rare show business veteran who actually can write. With another 40 more years to pull from, a continuation would be just as rich as this volume. Besides, I’d like to learn more about the silly walk.

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