Friday, March 20, 2015

So Anyway...

Hi everyone,

Thanks to my Monty-Python-viewing upbringing, John Cleese is one of my favorite comedians. (Thanks, Dad and PBS!) He can walk into a room and make me laugh without saying anything.

Scott Simon and John Cleese
It was thrilling to see John Cleese in person last November in a live interview event, organized by Smithsonian Associates and conducted by NPR's Scott Simon, in support of his new memoir, So Anyway.... As the Smithsonian representatives struggled with audio and visual issues before the start of the program, John Cleese and Scott Simon stood around watching them test microphones and move furniture. John Cleese quipped, "Why don't we make all the arrangements now, and then you [the audience] can come back tomorrow night." Then he muttered, "I left New York for this..." The biggest problem was that the clip-on microphones they planned to use didn't carry the speakers' voices: "Jokes don't work if people can't hear them," he observed. At one point he clipped the microphone to a nostril and excitedly asked us if this improved things. We were all disappointed that it didn't help.

The best part of this event was not a John Cleese gag, but a teenage girl who sat next to me and attentively studied John Cleese's every word through the whole interview. She arrived wearing a tie dye t-shirt, jeans, and UGGs, carrying a large Barnes and Noble bag full of books, a backpack, and a rubber chicken, which – for the entire length of the interview – she held up erectly at just as much attention as she was.

When she stood up to ask the last question of the night, I think John Cleese was as impressed as I was that such a young person was so interested in this 75-year-old British comedian. He motioned for her to come up to him to ask the question since he's a bit hard of hearing these days. She told him she was here courtesy of a kind lady she'd met in line who had a spare ticket. The woman's friend couldn't attend because she couldn't find a babysitter. John Cleese ended up borrowing the woman's cell phone to call her friend, who didn't pick up. He left her a message complaining about that. He asked to see the girl's rubber chicken and began to bite its head off while she told him its name and that she has five others at home. Eventually, she asked her question: Her #1 favorite comedy film is a tie between John Cleese's A Fish Called Wanda and Robin Williams's Mrs. Doubtfire, so she asked if he had any fond memories of Robin Williams that he could share. After a thoughtful response about Robin's apparent defense mechanisms, constant joking, and innate kindness, he gave her a long hug that we all envied. She came back to her seat in tears, having shared a monumental moment with one of her heroes. It was the best moment for all of us!

While I knew that So Anyway... was a memoir that leads up to the start of Monty Python's Flying Circus, it wasn't until I was more than 100 pages into it that I heard two more books were to follow that cover the rest of John Cleese's life. I lost some motivation, thinking that his next book – which will cover the Monty Python and Fawlty Towers years – is the better one to read.

So Anyway... had peaks and valleys for me: learning about his upbringing and relationship with his parents was very intriguing to me, but I couldn't relate to his British school studies, professorship, and love for cricket. I got through some tediously described, over-analyzed sections by looking forward to what was coming in the next chapters. It seemed sudden, too, that he began writing and performing comedy. On one page, he was studying for law exams and, on the next, he had a new job at BBC developing skits for a local comedy show.

What I like about this book is that it's written very distinctly in John Cleese's voice. The audio version would be perfect because so much of John Cleese's comedy comes from his tone, inflections, and facial expressions. I tried to hear his voice in my head as I read this book, but that's hard to do for 375 pages. Videos of the sketches he discusses in this book would have had more impact on me too. I'd rather see a sketch for the first time than read through it with someone telling me how funny it is.

Until this magic electronic version of So Anyway... that I've developed in my head is released, fans will still enjoy this book. It occurred to me how useful it'd be to up-and-coming comedians who are trying to learn the history and business of comedy. John Cleese is very serious about comedy, as all good comedians are, and this book is instructional at times about how jokes work best and how to achieve the greatest audience response. It mentions many comic legends, such as Peter Sellers and Marty Feldman, and others who, despite their key contributions to comedy, were less well known and completely unfamiliar to me.

Monty Python in 1968: clockwise - John Cleese,
Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry
Gilliam, and Michael Palin
The formation of Monty Python doesn't occur until page 356. Before that happens, the best thing about this book for me is learning about John Cleese's relationship with Graham Chapman, whom he first met and worked with at Cambridge. It was interesting to see how the other Monty Python members trickled into their lives and came together with the idea for a new TV show – one that became essential, iconic, and synonymous for British comedy.

I love John Cleese, but there are some grumpy old man moments in this book that I don't really understand – his disdain for taking photos with fans and remark that we readers don't really care about him and are just waiting for a laugh and Monty Python trivia. (Is this sarcasm that's just not translating for me?) I wouldn't blame him for being sick of talking about Monty Python's parrot sketch and all the other classic jokes that made him famous, but it's kind of a downer to end the book saying that, while waiting to do a live sketch during the recent Monty Python reunion tour, he wondered, "How is it possible that I'm not feeling the slightest bit excited?"

But I am excited. I was going to include the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch to give you a taste of what we have to look forward to in John Cleese's next volume, but you all know him from that one, right? I got lost on YouTube watching all the old Monty Python skits and trying to pick one. It's difficult, so I encourage you to check out their YouTube channel for a healthy, consistent dose of laughter. Picked at random, here's a good one that he did with Graham Chapman:

© Monty Python's Flying Circus, Management Training Course Interview

Now you know where I get my weird sense of humor.

Keep up the silliness,

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