Book Reviews: So, anyway… by John Cleese

AuthorJohn Cleese
Title: So, anyway…
Publication Info: Crown Archetype (2014)

Pretty much as good as one would expect from an autobiography of a famous comedian and writer.  It’s funny, and offers some insights into the writing process.  For some reason I expected that Cleese was an angry person, so I was surprised that he looks back on his life with amusement more than anger.  I was also surprised at how much of his career he seemed to stumble into rather than working toward a goal.  At least that’s how he presents it.  After probably a bit too much detail about his childhood and education, things get interesting at he gets involved with the Footlights Revue who put on a performance so successful it ends up being performed in London’s West End as Cambridge Circus.  The show then goes on tour to New Zealand and then to Broadway.  While in New York, Cleese meets Connie Booth, and performs in a Broadway musical, something that seems to surprise him as much as it does the reader.  Back in England, Cleese takes on comic writing roles for radio and tv programs such as The Frost Report, increasingly taking on acting roles as well and then getting a program with his own group, At Last the 1948 Show.  During this period, he and Graham Chapman cement their relationship as a writing duo.  The book ends just short of the debut of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  I don’t know if this is it, or if Cleese intends a sequel, but like any good performance, it left me wanting more.

Favorite Passages:

Young children have so little life experience that they inevitably assume that what happens around and to them is the norm

Another way of looking at this: real anger can work in real life; it won’t work as comedy. Funny anger is ineffectual anger.

One of our professors described a lecture as “a mystical process by which the notes on the pad of the lecturer pass on to the pad of the student, without passing through the mind of either.” It would certainly have been so much more efficient and absorbing if our lecturers had provided full notes for us, and had then discussed them. There could have been real interaction, question and answer, even argument, instead of dictation. But this never happened, …

I met very few of the upper classes, but when I did, I realised how different their lives were. They genuinely liked chasing things and shooting them and hooking them out of the water and asphyxiating them. Death seemed the inevitable result of all their entertainments, despite their excellent manners.

I remember reading about the doctrine of American “Exceptionalism” and thinking that what I liked so much about Canadians was that they consider themselves unexceptional. This modest, unthreatening attitude seems to produce a nation that is stable, safe, decent and well respected. It’s just a shame that for seven months of the year it’s so cold that only Canadians would put up with it.

I think there have only been about four occasions in my professional life when I have shown any real initiative: suggesting to Graham Chapman that we should contact the other four Pythons-to-be; arranging to write a sitcom with Connie; proposing to Robin Skynner that we should write a TV series about basic principles in psychology; and initiating and shaping A Fish Called Wanda. The rest of the time I have just accepted the next interesting offer, or continued in a pattern already created.

Cleese’s Two Rules of Writing Comedy. First Rule: Get your panic in early. Fear gives you energy, so make sure you have plenty of time to use that energy. (The same rule applies to exams.) Second Rule: Your thoughts follow your mood. Anxiety produces anxious thoughts; sadness begets sad thoughts; anger, angry thoughts; so aim to be in a relaxed, playful mood when you try to be funny.

Recommended booksThe First 20 Years of Monty Python by Kim “Howard” Johnson, The Life of Python : And Now for Something Completely Different by George Perry, and Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years by Michael Palin
Rating: ***1/2

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