Monday, July 3, 2017

Book Review: 'So, Anyway...' by John Cleese

Review by David Wineberg

Cleese in Wonderland

“I did not know where my life was taking me and looking back, I seemed to be quite unconcerned about it.” This sums up the life of John Cleese, who drifts from peak to peak without any countervailing troughs. He had no plan, was not driven, but was enormously lucky. There are no hospitalizations, no alcoholism, drug addiction, arrests, war wounds, bankruptcies, firings, swindles, desperate povert or even school suspensions. He got his first real job while a teenager, teaching at his old school until Cambridge could take him in two years. At Cambridge he switched to criminal law two weeks before finals. The master agreed to take him, and gave him a small book with all the answers, which Cleese duly crammed. He passed with ease. A legal job already awaited in London, but BBC producers swept him off his feet with an offer at almost triple the pay, straight out of law school, writing comedy. Just as he started at the beeb, his college play got taken on tour to New Zealand (where he loses his virginity), and then on to Off Broadway. In New York, he was all but drafted into the Broadway hit Half A Sixpence. It just never stops.

Even with Monty Python. The guys wangled a meeting with the BBC head of comedy, through someone else’s contacts. They came without a presentation, without a name, without a plan, without stars, without samples, without any ideas to pitch at all. And he told them to go ahead and make 13 programs.

Cleese had no training to teach, none to act, none to write. He didn’t learn how to ride a bike until his late 20s and to drive until his 30s. Everything just came his way, from theater to radio to tv to film, where David Frost asked him to write him a feature film without any experience in script construction beyond the two minute sketch. Let alone film production.

The closest he ever came to grief was his neurotic mother, and also nervousness before he tried anything new. Hardly unique. And both of those can be attributed to growing up British, where avoiding embarrassment is the most important thing in life, followed by not discussing anything personal. His British upbringing has him describing his entire life as walking on eggshells. His mother issues can be seen from this succinct description: “When mother was not actually angry it was only because she was not angry YET.” Also, in New York, he once found himself unemployed over a weekend. But he got over it.

For someone “with a distinctly average memory”, John Cleese remembers a staggering amount from his childhood and school days, the focus of the book. At age 74 he remembers everyone’s name and all kinds of details about them. Perhaps this is because he has been in therapy since the age of 31 and has likely had to dredge it all up repeatedly for various therapists again and again, keeping it fresh in his mind. 

Monty Python fans will learn the real life origins of many sketches: how the vicious rabbit of The Holy Grail came to be; the Black Knight; the introduction to sex education in The Meaning of Life; the graffiti scene in Life of Brian. He also gives us the essence of Basil Fawlty; it is fear of failure, pure and simple.

There is very little on A Fish Called Wanda, or Clockwise, and not nearly enough on Monty Python. And not a word on his second and third wives or children. But overall, So Anyway does what a biography should do: reveal the essence that made the man, warts (and Luck) and all. And of course, it is immensely entertaining in the process.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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