So, Anyway …
By John Cleese
Crown Archetype, New York, 2014
I’m proud to say I’m a huge fan of Monty Python. Have been since my early teens. I can still recite a few of their sketches and sing, sort of, the Bruce’s Philosophers Song. So, fair warning, this won’t be an unbiased review. (Mind you, I’ve ever claimed anything on this blog is unbiased.)
Surprisingly, John Cleese’s autobiography, So, Anyway…, is not uproariously funny. It is not a detailed history of Monty Python. It barely mentions Fawlty Towers. In fact, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting at all.
It gets off to a slow start, ambling through Cleese’s early years, picking up the pace a little when he starts law school at Cambridge in 1960. Can you imagine John Cleese as a lawyer? (You can if you’ve seen A Fish Called Wanda.) At Cambridge, he joins the Footlights, the student drama club, where he starts regularly writing for and performing in comedy revues. Just as he’s finishing up law school, he gets an offer to join the BBC as a comedy writer.
So begins John Cleese’s amazing career.
Throughout the book, Cleese is so self-effacing you might think he’s just some run-of-the-mill hack who lurched and stumbled from one lucky break to another. But you don’t get the likes of Peter Sellers calling out of the blue to ask you to write a few sketches for him if you’re not one of the best comedy writers in the business. In fact, Cleese worked with virtually the entire pantheon of British comedy including David Frost, Peter Cook, Marty Feldman, both Ronnies, and all three Goons. And that was before the formation of Monty Python.
There’s no question of Cleese’s talent or his hard work, but it’s also true that satirical comedy really took off in Britain in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, starting with Peter Cook’s Beyond the Fringe, and David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was. Cleese had the good fortune to begin his career in the midst of this wave. He was, of course, hugely influential in pushing it to hilarious, insane extremes.
In the book, Cleese seems more interested in narrating the story of his early life than reflecting deeply about it, but a few themes do emerge as you read along.
The first is about the nature of creativity and the difference between being witty and being funny. At a couple of points he notes that people with analytical minds are often clever or witty but not especially funny. They can’t make the creative leaps to the utterly absurd or completely illogical situations that are the spark of real comedy.
Another is the importance of diverse viewpoints and opinions in any collaborative effort. He talks about the passionate arguments he had with Terry Jones while writing some of the material for Monty Python. He argues these debates strengthened the final product, made it funnier, that is. Like creative leaps, diverse views take you to places you might not get to on your own.
Finally, it’s all about the writing. Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin and the other Pythons were first and foremost writers rather than actors. They worked very, very hard at writing. Once the script was finished, it was usually obvious who would play which parts. Cleese claims this made for a more harmonious group. He writes that if they had been actors constantly vying for the juiciest roles, there would have been far more ego-driven personality clashes.
Despite what I said about So, Anyway … not being uproariously funny, there’s still plenty of humor and a lot of interesting history about British comedy. And Python fans shouldn’t be disappointed with the book. Sprinkled throughout are the origin stories for some of the most iconic Python material including the Flying Sheep, Dead Parrot and Cheese Shop sketches.
I hope he’s planning volume 2.