Aside from a final chapter that even he suggests is something of an afterthought, John Cleese’s new memoir, So, Anyway … ends in 1969, the year Monty Python’s Flying Circus made its BBC debut. Some readers might wonder if this isn’t a bit curious. Python nuts—of which, famously, there are many—will find it downright perverse.
Are they right? Not to get all Argument Clinic on you here, but no, they most definitely are not. On its own defiant terms, So, Anyway… is a charming book that contains colorful anecdotes about life in class-obsessed England during and after World War II, the fertile British comedy landscape that inspired Cleese’s best-known work, and P.G. Wodehouse’s brother’s penis.
Cleese is not above nostalgic paydays. His Twitter page promotes a smartphone app based on one of his old sketches, and last summer he reunited with his fellow Pythons for a series of arena shows in London. (Unsurprisingly, the few pages he devotes to the recent performances are platitude-laden and boring.) When it comes to analyzing old Python bits, however, this book takes an eminently sensible position: Enough’s enough. Sure, there are a few tales about Python’s anarchic early ’70s prime, but these account for a tiny fraction of the text, and most have an obligatory, oft-told tinge to them. Even casual admirers might know that Cleese used a thesaurus as a writing prompt, and that the alternate list of titles for Flying Circus included doozies like Owl-Stretching Time and The Toad-Elevating Moment.
True acolytes may not forgive him for this. Yet as a big-if-not-obsessed fan—a few years ago, I sat through every minute of a six-hour documentary about Cleese and his cohort, the existence of which speaks to the level of scrutiny the absurdist comedy troupe has received over the decades—I can’t help but see things his way. There’s not much to say about silly walks and upper-class twits that hasn’t already been said.
So why write the damn thing at all? Because at 75, Cleese still has lots of great stories that he’s only now decided to share, and he has a talent for explaining how fleeting experiences shaped his later successes.
So, Anyway… covers his first 30 years. The chapters about his youth in towns and villages with very English names (Burnham-on-Sea, Weston-super-Mare, Horrabridge) are the book’s most cinematic. He recalls “being out on a walk with Dad, and hearing a rumbling sound, and looking up and seeing the sky fill with large planes, flying toward the Continent. This was one of our daytime raids, Dad explained. We were winning the war so we didn’t have to fly at night anymore.”
His mother Muriel grew up in a family that Cleese playfully characterizes as “upper-upper-lower-middle class.” Her father didn’t support her decision to marry a “middle-middle-lower-middle class” boy named Reginald Cleese. Reginald eventually did OK as an insurance salesman, but he and his “family never contemplated buying ‘expensive things.’ They weren’t on our radar,” his son says. “For example, it literally never occurred to me that we might go abroad for our holidays.” (Cleese’s father provides the book with its only off-color moment, in the form of a funny but obviously fictitious story about Wodehouse’s brother. The men were housemates in India in the ’20s, as the younger Cleese tells it: “Like Dad he was in his mid-twenties, but it was only when visiting a doctor in Bombay that he discovered that his foreskin was retractable.” His father enjoyed his stay away from his home country, he adds, “not least because he was not present when Wodehouse made his discovery.”)
A lanky teen (“six foot of chewed string,” in the words of one teacher) and a devotee of “activities which required neither courage nor strength, like table tennis, chess and snooker,” Cleese was a mostly average student. He recalls being bullied until he developed a “survival technique: I sometimes said things that made the others boys laugh.” He wisely doesn’t spend too much time going on about his wacky schoolyard hijinks. But he does offer a hilarious portrait of a classmate who had a meltdown caused by an inability to manipulate a drafting compass. The boy’s “emotional state was, in fact, almost identical to the one (then-wife) Connie Booth and I tried to create” years later when they wrote the sitcom Fawlty Towers, a manic farce about a perpetually furious inn owner named Basil Fawlty.
Cleese’s path to stardom was anything but linear. He spent time teaching history to 10-year-olds, and the idea was that he’d eventually become a lawyer. But things gradually changed during his years as a Cambridge student. As a member of Footlights, the university’s celebrated theater group, he got into the habit of writing and performing humor bits on a regular basis. And he met Graham Chapman, his future Python writing partner, and David Frost, who would later hire him for several TV jobs.
Around the same time, Cleese had the good luck to be in the audience for a raucous variety show that has since taken on legendary status: “Beyond the Fringe, with Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, featured four comic geniuses” whose subversive and unprecedented mocking of the Church of England, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and other prominent figures elicited “laughter of a phenomenal volume.” Cleese was immeasurably influenced by this group of slightly older but vastly more experienced performers.
By the mid-’60s, Cleese was touring abroad with a comedy outfit called Cambridge Circus—he was 24 when he lost his virginity in New Zealand, an event he describes with admirable poise—and making humor shows for the BBC. His early duties included writing jokes for holiday radio broadcasts with titles like Yule Be Surprised, and serving as an extra in sketches penned for established British comedy stars like Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker. In the process, he was picking up lots of pointers: “I still remember this: always put the funny word in a sentence at the end of it, as this will give it maximum impact.”
He and his fellow future Pythons were now moving in similar professional circles, but for the most part, Cleese the author isn’t interested rehashing how the group went about its work. In So, Anyway… he pens a thoughtful portrait of Chapman, with whom he would work most closely. But he doesn’t delve deeply into his relationships with Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, or Terry Gilliam. The book’s last chapter touches on “heated disputes in the script meetings,” but this is not new to fans. And Cleese’s recollection of how Monty Python’s Flying Circus was shot—“Once a script was accepted, acting it out was a very straightforward process”—is almost willfully uninformative.
After all that’s been said on the subject, Cleese’s reticence about Python’s heyday is understandable, although it would’ve rendered the book pointless if he didn’t have such an abundant cache of other stories to tell. On the book’s last page, he suggests that he’s going to “stick to writing from now on.” So maybe in the future he’ll be more expansive on the work that means so much to so many of his fans. But let’s assume that So, Anyway… is the last word on Cleese’s career. And let’s appreciate it for what it is: a lively and gracious self-portrait of an apprentice comedian about to establish himself as a true professional.