I received for Christmas the least looked-forward-to book I have ever received: John Cleese’s “So, Anyway…”.
Cleese, of course, is a founder of Monty Python, the wildly successful British comedy group that took male teenagers by storm in the early 1970s and was considered inheritor to The Beatles’ mantle as conquerors of America by none other than George Harrison (according to his friend Eric Idle, another Python). Cleese is also co-creator, co-writer, producer and star of what has been called the best TV sitcom ever created, Fawlty Towers.
Thus, for a certain generation—i.e. male baby-boomers who came of age when Monty Python was laying waste to all previous notions of what was funny—a book, any book, by John Cleese would be a no-brainer for Christmas, or Hanukkah, or even New Year’s Eve.
But despite having grown up on the original Python series aired on PBS, and despite having seen the group live at City Center in 1976, and despite having seriously considered traveling to London to see the group’s final reunion at the O2 Center last summer, I had no interest in this book, the reason being an especially scathing review in the Wall Street Journal by one Wesley Stace, a British author who also performs as a singer-songwriter by the name of John Wesley Harding, the title of an old Bob Dylan album (go figure).
In his review, John Wesley Harding/Wesley Stace wrote pretty much what you might expect of a book by Cleese, whose intensely intellectual approach to comedy, and the well-known years he spent in psycho-therapy, tends to make him appear to be the John Lennon of the Pythons—Lennon being the ex-Beatle who had the nerve to dismiss his achievements as a Fab Four by saying, “We were just a band that made it very very big, that’s all.”
And that’s the tone of the Wesley Stace/Wesley Harding review in a nutshell:
The title “So, Anyway . . .” implies a cavalcade of convivial anecdotes and lengthy digressions. This is a grave misrepresentation, partly because of an occasional reluctance on Mr. Cleese’s part (“actually telling you about [the Footlights does] not fill me with excitement”) and partly because promising stories are derailed by the decision to narrate them in the voice of Mr. Cleese playing a crashing bore at a party in a Python sketch…
It’s a difficult book to enjoy and “The Last Laugh” would perhaps have been better a title, so often does Mr. Cleese give himself the punch-line in age-old disputes. He rehearses every perceived slight. The “undeserved insult” of being overlooked for a position of authority at school left a life long scar: “I believe that this moment changed my perspective on the world.” His ill feeling towards his dead mother is likewise undimmed by time...
But receive the book for Christmas I did, and am glad I opened it and began reading it.
Because if, as I suspect he did not, Hardy Wesley/Stace Wesley had in fact read the entire book, as I have, he would have discovered that [We interrupt here to explain that book reviewers frequently do not read the actual book before reviewing it; many reviewers, in fact, rely on summaries provided by the book publisher for scheduling and cost reasons, as we learned during the publication of “Pilgrimage to Warren Buffett’s Omaha,” when a reviewer took issue with a blog post the author had written, mistaking it for the book—Ed.] what John Cleese has done is write a tight, funny, comprehensive-but-compact biography that zeros in on the whys and wherefores of how he, and, indirectly, the Pythons, got to be what they became.
He starts at the beginning, when and where he was born, and while the stuff about his father and mother (and grandparents, too) may seem irrelevant and mean-spirited to Stacely/Hardley, it’s all part of explaining how he developed the sense of humor he did.
The fact that Cleese had a tough time with his mother explains a lot, while the fact that he really liked and admired his father seems jarring at first, considering his recurring role as the demented authoritarian figure in Python sketches, but that role is explained by his memories of being bullied at school, followed by this insight:
“Peter Cook [Another revolutionary British comedian—Ed.] always said that he quite deliberately staved off bullying by being funny. I think in my case it was less a conscious activity—more ‘Oh, that felt nice.’ And, as I realized, I became funnier, of course, because the spark is always there. So the bullying faded away, and I started, for the first time, to make friends.”
Hardly ‘rehearsing every perceived slight,’ as the Stacy/Hardy review put it.
In fact, the entire book is supremely well written in the Cleese manner—there is no “as told to” laziness here—and while the anecdotes are not, as the reviewer would seem to prefer, “convivial,” they all serve to tell a point: the point being, “here’s where it came from.”
Along the way, we learn where the germ of certain bits were developed (e.g. Sybil Fawtly’s description of her paranoid mother—“And she’s always on about men following her; I don’t know what she thinks they’re going to do to her, vomit on her, Basil says”—came directly from Cleese’s phobic mother); why he and Graham Chapman worked so well as a writing team (“When you begin to write comedy, the biggest worry is simply: is this funny? Writing with a partner ensures you get priceless feedback, and Graham and I worked together well: we found each other funny and when we did laugh, we really laughed); and how the path to Python let through unknown (in America, at least) radio and TV shows like “I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again,” “At Last The 1948 Show” and “The Frost Report.”
To be sure, Cleese aims zingers at old archaic conventions and the occasional petty personality who offended his sense of justice, but those asides are overwhelmed by the surprisingly affectionate portraits of writers, producers and directors who helped him along the way (including David Frost, despite the fact that Eric Idle gave a merciless portrayal of Frost as “Timmy Williams” in the Python series). All in all, it is hardly the cranky kind of stuff Wembley/Stadium would have readers believe, and even the occasional gibes all serve the main point of explaining where all this great stuff came from.
As, for example, when Cleese reprints parts of several old sketches from various pre-Python shows, including a couple that later made it into Python sketches, either on film or on records, as well as some laugh-out-loud bits that did not.
And for anyone interested in creativity—especially of the breakthough, Python kind—this is invaluable, and pleasurable reading.
Wembley Stadium notwithstanding.
Author “Secrets in Plain Sight: Business and Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett”
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