John Cleese’s memoir is just about everything one would expect of its author — smart, thoughtful, provocative and above all funny — but it is not what his most ardent fans probably have been expecting, a blow-by-blow account of the making of his most notable work.
That would be “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” of course, and the many films made by that troupe and the “Fawlty Towers” situation comedy.
All of these are near-universally beloved, but telling us about them is not what Cleese is up to in “So, Anyway ….”
Instead, it is an account of what he did before he got to Monty Python, a picture, if you will, of the artist as a young man.
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Born 75 years ago “in Uphill, a little village south of Weston-super-Mare” in the southwest of England, he was the only child of a difficult mother and a loving but rather feckless father. They existed somewhere at the lower levels of the British middle class, with the result that life was a bit of a struggle for young John, all the more so because he “was not just a little boy, but a very tall little boy,” in the fierce world of little boys, not to mention that his “social skills were poor.”
As he made his way upward through the system of education, he gradually gained more confidence. At St. Peter’s Preparatory School he “was irritatingly tall, and pathetic and wet, awkward and not very coordinated.” Soon enough he discovered a “survival technique: I sometimes said things that made the other boys laugh.”
By the time he advanced to Clifton College (what Americans call high school), he felt himself strongly drawn to comedy.
It was a great time for British comedy, especially in the riotous films produced by Ealing Studios, most notably “The Lady Killers,” “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” featuring the astonishingly protean Alec Guinness.
Later, when Cleese reached Cambridge and soon after his graduation therefrom, there was a trans-Atlantic explosion of comedy: Kingsley Amis’ classic novel “Lucky Jim,” the breathtakingly funny stage production “Beyond the Fringe” and, on our side of the Atlantic, the brilliant monologues of Bob Newhart such as “The Grace L. Ferguson Airline (and Storm Door Co.).”
Cleese soaked it all in and went to school on all of it. He began to try his hand at writing comedy but quickly learned “that it is exceedingly difficult to write really good comedy.”
He says: “Those who can do it possess a very rare talent. Of course, there are a few writers who can think up decent jokes. A few more can do parody well. But the number who can invent an original comedy situation, and build that situation in a convincing but unpredictable way, and above all, get the emotional development of the characters right … is infinitesimally small.”
At Cambridge he found a small group of talented and like-minded fellows (most notably Graham Chapman) and began performing as well as writing, further enhancing his education: “Now that I was performing eight times a week, I really had the opportunity to learn more about the rules of comedy, which, of course, are nothing more than the rules of audience psychology.”
In time Cleese caught the eye of David Frost, who in the 1960s was well on his way to becoming a stupendously popular and influential figure in British popular culture and who “would become the single strongest force shaping my career.” Frost called to say he had used a few of Cleese’s Cambridge sketches in his own programs and was now offering him the chance to work on 13 shows he was preparing for the BBC.
Over and over again in the years that followed, Frost was “my patron, guide and chief employer,” giving Cleese the experience and financial support that in time led him, Chapman and others to a show of their own called “At Last the 1948 Show.”
Because tapes of these shows were not saved, Cleese treats us to written selections from some of them: one, a parody of a popular BBC radio show where schools competed against each other in general knowledge, another a performance of “Beekeeping.”
At this point, all you other Pythonites know the rest of the story.
Cleese and Chapman teamed up with Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin — Cleese has always preferred working in teams to going it alone — to create what may well have been the greatest of all comedy shows.
“Monty Python” was a natural outgrowth of the “1948 Show” but went much further in irreverence and unpredictability; it was indeed “Something Completely Different.”
So, Anyway … by John Cleese (392 pages; Crown Archetype; $28)
John Cleese will be at the Midland, 1228 Main St., for a conversation with Vivien Jennings, president of Rainy Day Books. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $38.50 and include an autographed copy of his book. 816-283-9921. axs.com.