So, Anyway … by John Cleese (Doubleday Canada, $32.95)
By Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca
Sometime during the mid-1960s, John Cleese was in Washington, D.C. while performing in a scaled-down version of the British comedy revue “Cambridge Circus”. Following a performance, Cleese and his colleagues were in a Washington bar, when someone offered to read his palm.
After a lengthy look at his palm, the reader offered this assessment of Cleese: “Your logical, thinking side balances your creative side. Almost everyone has one side stronger than the other.
Somehow, this palm reading nearly 50 years ago has accurately described the multi-dimensional character of this most admired comedy legend. Cleese will always be associated with his years as a founding member of the legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where he has obtained a cult status for such characters as the frustrated dead parrot owner, and the rather limber civil servant from the Ministry of Silly Walks, not to mention his role as the loud, rude, high strung British resort town hotel owner Basile Fawlty on the hilarious TV series “Fawlty Towers”.
On the other side of this reading, Cleese also shows an intelligent, logical side, which he has displayed greatly as a university lecturer, a host of a series of business and industrial training videos, and author of books that deal with such sublime subjects as the human brain, life and even the sport of soccer.
And we get plenty of the two sides of John Cleese in his absorbing memoir So, Anyway…
Although I have been a near lifelong fan of Monty Python – and in particular the comedic talents of Cleese – since I first saw “And Now For Something Completely Different” at the Plaza Cote des Neiges cinema in 1971, I have to admit So, Anyway… started rather slow. His description of his life growing up in the western England resort town of Weston-super-Mare, not to mention attending his share of private boys’ schools and sharpening his cricket skills, reads like the England he grew up in during the period during and immediately following World War II … cold, logical, with a penchant for austerity.
It’s the period when Cleese grows into manhood and attends Cambridge University to study law where the narrative of the books really picks up and becomes quite enjoyable to read. This is especially when he joins Cambridge’s highly regarded Footlights drama club and associates with his fellow members who later become some of the biggest names in the British comedy world during the 1970s such as Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, Humphrey Barclay, and a no-nonsense medical student named Graham Chapman. Although at first Cleese’s role with the Footlights revues were small, his writing skills and ability to churn out sketches, coupled with his manic acting talent helps make the 1962 and 1963 Footlights Revues the toast of England, which later evolved into a successful tour of New Zealand and a brief run on Broadway (which was done under the name of “Cambridge Circus”).
However, Cleese argues in the book, is that he was more content to create the sketches and the lines as a writer, rather than perform them onstage. This was evident with Cleese’s stints as a writer/performer for such classic British TV and radio comedies as “The Frost Report”, “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again”, “At Last the 1948 Show” (in which he reprinted segments from several of its sketches in the book, and is still quite funny nearly 50 years since that show first aired), the pilot for “Doctor in the House”, as well as the screenplays for such British comedy films as “The Magic Christian” and “The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer”. Without tooting his horn too much, Cleese proves that he was – and still is – one of the most talented comedy writers of the past 50 years.
There is also plenty of the intellectual side of Cleese in the book, as he impeccably describes his theories of comedy and what techniques are used to successfully make people laugh. He also describes his insecurities about performing on stage and the fear of not getting reactions out of an audience, as well as his insecurities of establishing meaningful relationships with the opposite sex (his long distance relationship with first wife – and Fawlty Towers co-creator and co-star — Connie Booth best exemplifies this piece of personal insecurity, and is well detailed in the book).
The book ends in the summer of 1969, with the moment the first lines of the first sketch of the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is recorded in a BBC TV studio. However, Cleese decides to add an extra chapter for those Python fans who couldn’t wait for a second volume to find out what went on behind the scenes from the point-of-view of one of the most popular members of Monty Python. In a rather condensed, yet satisfying, manner, Cleese gives plenty of interesting insight on how some select Python sketches were written, the rather volatile creative process (especially between Cleese and Chapman), and the mega-successful series of live shows this past summer at the O2 arena in London this past summer that marked the troupe’s swan song (which was precipitated by legal fees of more than $1 million over a lawsuit dealing with profit sharing from the hit Python musical “Spamalot”). In a way, it sort of ties everything up with Cleese’s story without having to wait for volume 2 (although I would have liked to find out about the evolution of Fawlty Towers, and maybe the Ministry of Silly Walks).
For most part, So, Anyway … is a book that Python fans may – or may not – have been waiting to read for a long time, as we find out how John Cleese, a lanky potential teacher/lawyer became a multi-dimensional reluctant comedy legend on both sides of the Atlantic. And being the talented, multi-dimensional, reluctant comedy legend puts it so eloquently at the end of his book, as he contemplates in the wings of the 02 arena last summer, viewing the packed crowd before he goes on stage to start a Python sketch that he has performed countless times: “How is it possible that I’m not feeling the slightest bit excited? Perhaps I should stick to writing from now on.”
(Doubleday Canada, $32.95)