In 2002, I sat in a dark movie theater watching Attack of the Clones. Around the time Yoda goes from wise wielder of the Force to crazy Ninja muppet, I contemplated walking out. I’ve never left a movie theater mid-screening, but on that day I was sorely tempted. Not because Attack of the Clones was the worst movie I’d ever seen, or even the worst movie I’d ever paid to see; I just couldn’t face any more disappointment in that series. What was once a beloved childhood memory had become ridiculous.
Now I’m not in any way suggesting that John Cleese’s memoir So, Anyway. . . is remotely on the same level of travesty as the George Lucas ego-fueled monstrosities that we call prequels, but my level of disappointment was similar. As I trudged through page after page of disjointed ramblings, one thought kept running through my mind: “Why isn’t this book BETTER?”
So, Anyway. . . follows Cleese’s life from his time at St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Weston-super-Mare to the recording of the first Monty Python skit in 1969, with a bonus chapter covering the 2014 Python reunion. So there’s a gap there of almost 50 years in which not much of note happened except for all the Python films, Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda, three divorces and three marriages. I understand that this isn’t a traditional biography. I think what Cleese is trying to do is demonstrate how he became the writer and performer he is through the influences of his early career. At least, that’s the story the publisher is pushing, since the back of the book jacket announces “THE MAKING OF A PYTHON.” I also understand that if I want to read about the Python troupe specifically, I should maybe pick up The Pythons: Autobiography by the Pythons.
The problem is that even if I accept the premise that this is a study of the making of the entertainer we know as John Cleese, the book still falls short. Cleese can write, no doubt about it. It seems, though, that either the editor of this book didn’t have the courage to tell him which of his stories are interesting and relevant and which are not, or the editor was ignored. Cleese recounts some amusing anecdotes about the teachers at St. Peter’s Prep and other entertainers he has known throughout his early life, but they are just that–amusing anecdotes without any substantial connection to the development of his own skills or career. For example, he tells several stories about a history teacher named Tony Viney whose good intentions often went awry and resulted in mishaps. In one story, Viney attempts to put a diseased rabbit out of its misery to the horror and outrage of a score of witnesses who are stuck in traffic and who misinterpret his actions. Cleese makes a tenuous connection between Viney and the character of Manuel from Fawlty Towers: Manuel causes havoc through his attempts to help Basil rather than through any mean spiritedness. These parallels aren’t convincingly drawn, though, and one gets the impression that Cleese was really just determined to include that rabbit story.
I did learn some interesting tidbits from this book. I had no idea that Cleese worked with David Frost and Marty Feldman in his early career. Or that Terry Jones and Cleese had the most volatile creative disagreements among their troupe when they started working together. Or that Graham Chapman had some serious penis envy. This is all very interesting, if only it were part of a more cohesive whole.
There are poignant moments that are few and far between that I would have liked to read more about. Cleese had a difficult relationship with his mother, whom he describes as a good mother in all practical aspects but who was so anxious and self-absorbed as to be emotionally cold. In one heartbreaking episode, he describes how he excitedly called home the minute he took his last final exam and knew he had passed: “‘Mum,’ I said, ‘I just wanted to tell you I’ve taken my final exam and I know I passed, so that means I’ve got my Cambridge degree!’ There was a pause. Then she said, ‘You remember the greeny-brown pullover you took back at the beginning of term. . .?’ ” That one passage tells me more about John Cleese than a hundred funny stories.
As an aside, last November I saw John Cleese and Eric Idle perform Together Again at Last. . . For the Very First Time at the Fred Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks, California. It was a fun evening, though even then I thought, “Wow, these guys have a pretty sweet gig. They can get an audience to pay to listen to them tell their stories with a few skits thrown in for good measure.” This book reads much like that night, except without the charm and delight of their live performance.
I adore John Cleese. The minute I finished this book I wanted to watch A Fish Called Wanda, a movie that never fails to remind me how charmingly goofy the man is. But this book. . .well, I think Otto said it best: