By John Cleese
392 pp. $28
John Cleese’s memoir is just about everything one would expect of its author — smart, thoughtful, provocative and above all funny — but it is not what his most ardent fans probably have been expecting, a blow-by-blow account of the making of his most notable work: “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” the many films made by the Monty Python troupe and the “Fawlty Towers” situation comedy. All of these are near-universally beloved, but telling us about them is not what Cleese is up to in “So, Anyway . . . .” Instead it is an account of what he did before he got to Monty Python, a picture, if you will, of the artist as a young man.
By pure coincidence, my early copy of “So, Anyway . . .” arrived as I was re-reading Noel Coward’s “Present Indicative,” the first volume of the great man’s memoirs. I could as well have been re-reading that other classic British show-business memoir, Emlyn Williams’s “George,” or for that matter the greatest of all American theatrical memoirs, Moss Hart’s “Act One.” All these books tell the stories not of the renown their authors eventually achieved but of the hard work, frustration and disappointment they underwent before that renown at last arrived. Ditto for “So, Anyway . . . .”
Cleese, like the others, had inauspicious roots. Born 75 years ago “in Uphill, a little village south of Weston-super-Mare” in the southwest of England, he was the only child of a difficult mother and a loving but rather feckless father. They existed somewhere at the lower levels of the British middle class — “class distinction” in Cleese’s native land inspires any number of tart and well-aimed comments — with the result that life was a bit of a struggle for young John, all the more so because he “was not just a little boy, but a very tall little boy,” awkward and not very coordinated. This meant that he was better (or less bad) at some games than others, a trait not calculated to win much popularity in the fierce world of little boys, not to mention that his “social skills were poor.”
He was a hard worker, though, at least when what he was working on interested him, and as he made his way upward through the system of education, he gradually gained more confidence. At St. Peter’s Preparatory School he “was irritatingly tall, and pathetic and wet,” but soon enough he discovered a “survival technique: I sometimes said things that made the other boys laugh.” By the time he advanced to Clifton College (what Americans call high school), his confidence had increased, and he felt himself strongly drawn to comedy.
It was a great time for British comedy, especially in the riotous films produced by Ealing Studios, most notably “The Lady Killers,” “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” all featuring the astonishingly protean Alec Guinness. Later, when Cleese reached Cambridge and soon after his graduation therefrom, there was a transatlantic explosion of comedy: Kingsley Amis’s classic novel “Lucky Jim” (“which consistently made me laugh out loud”), the breathtakingly funny stage production “Beyond the Fringe,” the satirical television show “That Was the Week That Was,” and, on our side of the Atlantic, the trenchant songs of Tom Lehrer (“I Wanna Go Back to Dixie,” “The Old Dope Peddler” et al.) and the brilliant monologues of Bob Newhart (“The Grace L. Ferguson Airline (and Storm Door Co.),” “Bus Drivers School” et al.).
Cleese soaked it all in and went to school on all of it. He began to try his hand at writing comedy but quickly learned “that it is exceedingly difficult to write really good comedy.” He says: “Those who can do it possess a very rare talent. Of course, there are a few writers who can think up decent jokes. A few more can do parody well. But the number who can invent an original comedy situation, and build that situation in a convincing but unpredictable way, and above all, get the emotional development of the characters right . . . is infinitesimally small.” At Cambridge he found a small group of talented and like-minded fellows (most notably, of course, Graham Chapman) and began performing as well as writing, further enhancing his education: “Now that I was performing eight times a week, I really had the opportunity to learn more about the rules of comedy, which, of course, are nothing more than the rules of audience psychology.”
In time Cleese caught the eye of David Frost, who in the 1960s was well on his way to becoming a stupendously popular and influential figure in British popular culture and who “would become the single strongest force shaping my career.” In the mid-1960s Cleese received “the most important phone call of my professional life.” It was Frost, who had used a few of Cleese’s Cambridge sketches in his own programs and was now offering him the chance to work on 13 shows he was preparing for the BBC. Over and over again in the years that followed, Frost was “my patron, guide and chief employer,” giving Cleese the experience and financial support that in time led him, Chapman and others to a show of their own called “At Last the 1948 Show,” which is now “generally regarded as half a step in the direction of ‘Monty Python.’ ”
Because tapes of these shows were not saved, Cleese treats us to written selections from some of them. One, “a parody of a popular BBC radio show where schools competed against each other in general knowledge,” had me laughing until I was sore, and when I followed Cleese’s urging and watched on YouTube a later performance of one called “Beekeeping,” I laughed even harder. For anyone who loves “Monty Python” as much as I do, these snippets from the “1948 Show” are a wholly unexpected bonus for which we can only be grateful.
At this point all you other Pythonites know the rest of the story. Cleese and Chapman teamed up with Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin — Cleese has always preferred working in teams to going it alone — to create what may well have been the greatest of all comedy shows. “Monty Python” was a natural outgrowth of the “1948 Show” but went much further in irreverence and unpredictability; it was indeed “Something Completely Different,” as per the title of the 1971 film collecting many of the very best sketches. Cleese does tell us a bit about the origins of the immortal “Dead Parrot” sketch, but he says not a word about my own enduring favorite, “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” leaving the sketch to be enjoyed forever but the mystery of its creation unsolved.
Now, however gratuitously, I cannot resist adding a small personal note. Cleese tells us that one day in New York City — like Noel Coward, he went there when he was young and immediately fell in love with it — he bought a New York Times: “I skimmed the front page and something caught my eye — the date. It was Tuesday 27 October 1964. I was twenty-five. So I went off and had a lovely celebratory lunch at my favorite restaurant.” I cannot remember what I did on that same day, but it was my 25th birthday as well, just as the same day last week was my 75th birthday and his. We have never met and probably never will, but we are transatlantic twins, even if he is six inches taller than I am. Oct. 27 is also the birthday of Theodore Roosevelt, Nanette Fabray, Dylan Thomas and a host of others, but so far as I am concerned John Cleese is the only one who matters.
SO, ANYWAY . . .
By John Cleese
Crown Archetype. 392 pp. $28