So, Anyway… by John Cleese.
—by John deJong
The Argentine writer and eloquent wielder of Occam’s razor, Jorge Luis Borges, famously asked, “Why write a book when you can write a book review?” So, what do you do in this age of fluid modernism when you want to write a book review? A blurb? A text? A Tweet? Blog it? I’ll stick to a modern definition of book review.
Our favorite Monty Python member, John Cleese, has written a memoir: So, Anyway… (2014: Crown Archtype).
I have a strange sense of humor, thanks to the records my parents played as I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s. My early years were shaped by Harvard math professor Tom Lehrer’s irreverent ballads, Flanders & Swann’s stage revue At the Drop of a Hat and Bennett, Cook, Miller and Moore’s ground breaking Beyond the Fringe—all predecessors or collaborators of Cleese and the Pythons.
John Cleese’s So, Anyway… might be titled So,’ Where Was I?, but Cleese always brings his digressions around after shedding light on the psychology and craft of comedy, being English, or education (he spent two years teaching as a master at a tiny school called St. Peter’s, before heading to Cambridge to “read” law).
The law profession may be poorer for his decision to abandon law for comedy two weeks after graduating, but the world is immeasurably richer.
Cleese repeatedly slides from the mundane into the surreal. I often found myself rereading passages to find just where things slipped.
It is interesting that almost every successful British comedy has been done (or undone) in the States, with the notable exception of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
As I neared the end of the book I became concerned. Cleese had made scarce mention of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus years and there wasn’t much room left. Then I realized that Cleese had touched on the origins of many of the best Python sketches in the chapters on his time with the Cambridge
Footlights and the BBC in the early ’60s. Cleese draws an important distinction between writer/actors and actor/writers.
All of the Python crew were writers first, much more concerned with the whole than just their part in it.
Cleese explains how difficult it is to write good, original comedy and comes to the conclusion, with just about every successful comedian, that stealing is the par for the course. Only the names are changed to protect the guilty.
Cleese puts a lot of emphasis on the ability to make comedy seem effortless. He reserves his highest praise for comedians like Peter Sellers who could “saw it off by the yard” and who would, after an evening of brilliantly entertaining a house party, lament that no one had been writing it down, as it was now lost. Life is a lot like that.
Cleese’s intelligent, funny and informative book has lessons for all of us couched in the memoir of a middle-middle class English boy who made good.
John deJong is associate publisher of CATALYST.