So, Anyway . . .
By John Cleese
Crown Archetype. 400 pages. $17.65
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Reviewed by John Caroulis
Give John Cleese points for candor: He freely declares that he wrote this memoir, So, Anyway . . . , because his third wife took him to the cleaners in a divorce settlement. That's also why he did a stand-up comedy tour last year, and possibly why the Monty Python troupe embarked on a reunion tour in England.
Give him additional points for graceful writing and sly humor. But if you're looking for backstage stories of Python or Fawlty Towers, you won't find them. You're not going to find much explicit introspection, though the lines are there to read between. You won't find anything about his last two marriages (he never mentions his second spouse) or even his roles in the James Bond and Harry Potter film franchises.
It's not a tell-all or a detailed chronicle of his life. So what is it? It's a portrait of a mind's evolution on its way to a career in law - a career that gets pushed (fortunately for us) to the stage.
Born on the west coast of England in 1939, Cleese had a warm relationship with his father, but his mother was difficult. He writes that he owes "what sanity I have" to his father's "loving kindness." I wondered, but did not find out, whether he sees any connection between his tensions with his mother and his gravitation to comedy. Cleese says he's been in analysis but doesn't reveal outcomes or insights from those sessions. He points out that research shows children with disharmonious parents tend to be innovative, but he never applies it explicitly to himself.
There's a great deal about his school days, and you can almost hear Charles Dickens in the background as Cleese talks about his instructors, school bullies, awkwardness, and insecurities when puberty struck.
He was an only child, and a tall one: Six feet by age 12, and taller than most of his teachers. He was gangly, uncoordinated, and by his own account, not very brave, so soccer and rugby were out. But he did summon the courage to go onstage once he got to college. For comedy buffs, there are nice sections on the cutting-edge British humor Cleese listened to on the radio: The Goon Show, with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, and the Beyond the Fringe troupe.
Cleese fans will be surprised to learn he had a small part in a Broadway musical, Half a Sixpence (based on a Dickens story). For several months, he came on stage and read his lines, then read James Thurber and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the dressing room. That's another insight about Cleese: Reading was important to him, and not just literature or history.
At Cambridge, he studied law but really majored in comedy, frequently writing and performing in revues and sketches before classmates. A theatrical producer staged one of the shows on London's West End (their Broadway). After Cleese graduated, two BBC producers offered him a job writing comedy. He had an offer from a law firm, he said; he'd need to think about it. He didn't think long.
It's truly funny: A man with no intention of pursuing show business winds up with a job straight out of college with the BBC, while other students who studied media had to wait for their lucky break.
But after finishing the book, I thought, "Wait, doesn't he realize his extraordinary good fortune?" He never says so. That's the weakest part of this memoir: There are just too few times when Cleese is directly honest about his outer and inner life.
If Cleese doesn't have much to say about his three wives, he offers much about another important partner in his life, the late Graham Chapman, his writing collaborator before, during, and after Python. There's more about Chapman's inner life - his homosexuality, occasional standoffishness, and interior darkness - than about Cleese's own.
Ultimately this is an enjoyable book, and Cleese offers glimpses into what is one of the hardest tasks in the world: being funny.