Book review: “So, Anyway…” by John Cleese
Special to the Daily
A cult classic is defined as “something, typically a movie, TV show or book, that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.” Everyone has his or her own list of favorite cult movies and shows, some shockingly obscure and many with a cult following of only one member. Few can argue though, that the talents behind Monty Python’s Flying Circus created a lasting and entirely outrageous endeavor that would resonate for generations.
For those familiar with the comic brilliance of Monty Python, founding member, John Cleese’s recent book, “So, Anyway…” will be sure to revive some fond memories of good entertainment and belly-aching laughs thanks to the incomparable wit of the legendary British funny men.
Unsurprisingly, Cleese’s memoir of his earliest days of comedy provokes much more than a chuckle or two, and for fans of any of his work — whether it be his groundbreaking repertoire as a founding member of Monty Python or his beloved role as the adorably cantankerous hotel owner on Fawlty Towers — “So, Anyway…” is nothing short of a joyous romp down his memory lane. His whip-smart humor is present from the very start. One can almost hear Basil Fawlty holding court about health inspectors.
As one reads his book, one is reminded that his influence within the world of comedy did not begin — or end — with Monty Python; his formidable gift for comedic timing and his unforgettable physicality were first honed in front of live audiences, where the potential for failure was much greater. Also, so much of who he became on screen for his millions of fans had its beginnings in his quirkily yet undramatic upbringing.
The book opens with one of Cleese’s first vivid memories, that of being bitten by a rabbit … “or rather, I was nibbled by a rabbit, but because I was such a weedy, namby-pamby little pansy, I reacted as though I’d lost a limb.” Sigmund Freud, it could be said, might have tagged that memory as inspiration for the much-feared beast in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” or the decided lack of body parts on that same movie’s famed, yet stubborn, Black Knight.
This is just one of the many details of the book that evokes a recollection of favorite scenes from many of Cleese’s lauded roles, and one of the numerous joys of the book is finding these little morsels buried within the story-telling. Fans will revel in the hunt, and it seems very evident that Cleese knows his followers well enough to place those Easter Eggs where they are sure to be found.
It is not uncommon for extremely funny men and women to be also extremely clever and thoughtful. Though Cleese writes the story of his life with great humor, he also shares deeply poignant and personal truths about the more somber sides of his past, namely his uncomfortable relationship with his mother, who he says was very nervous and easily frightened about the world around her. “Mother experienced the cosmos as a vast, limitless booby trap.” As he explains it, life for her was a journey from one worry to the next, and when those worries overwhelmed her and things did not go her way, Cleese often resorted to humor to bring her back to her happy place. He attributes some of his skills at improv to this deft handling of his mother’s moods.
Being exceedingly tall and lanky at a young age also meant he could hide his own feelings of inadequacy behind an early talent for humor. Academically, he insists, he remained average, and it wasn’t until high school that he finally built some firm friendships and a sense of belonging. He discovered theater as well as an interest in psychology, a topic about which he has co-written two successful books.
Most of “So, Anyway…” covers the years leading up to the success of Monty Python, and it is a delight to read his thoughts on his perspective of that unlikely trajectory to fame, during which Cleese rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest comic talents and entertainment icons of the 20th Century, working alongside the likes of David Frost, Peter Sellers, and Dudley Moore. The most profoundly impactful collaboration, though, was with Graham Chapman, with whom he co-wrote much of the material that gave Monty Python its identity. Together, they made comedy history, all the while doing what they loved most, brain-storming funny nonsense that continues to make millions laugh.
It has been said that laughter is the one equalizer in a very unbalanced society. Certainly, John Cleese and his Monty Python companions sought to project the world in such a way. “Pompous people,” he writes, “mistrust humor because at some level they know their self-importance cannot survive very long in such an atmosphere.” Perhaps it is the comics, who will, after all, lead the way.
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