John Cleese Delivers Comedy Lessons in Memoir

Monty Python has been a part of my life since the early 1970s, when WTVI in Charlotte broadcast the episodes. I can still remember the first episode I saw, which featured the Spanish Inquisition, which moved from Graham Chapman as a working man telling Carol Cleveland that there’s “trouble at the mill” with “one of the cross-beams gone out a-skew on the treadle.” Her repeated questions about that point irritates Chapman so much that he declares he “didn’t expect the bloody Spanish inquisition.”

The Spanish Inquisition: Michael Palin (center), Terry Gilliam (right) and Terry Jones as "Biggles, the Littlest Inquisitor."

The Spanish Inquisition: Michael Palin (center), Terry Gilliam (right) and Terry Jones as “Biggles, the Littlest Inquisitor.”

And in bursts Michael Palin in full Spanish Catholic gear, followed by his mates, including Terry Gilliam pulling a face so spastic that it looked like the result of your mother’s threat that your face will freeze if you keep doing that. Then Michael shouts “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is fear. Fear and surprise.” He realizes he got the count wrong and starts again: “Our TWO chief weapons are fear and surprise. And ruthless efficiency . . .”

And so on and so forth. (Note to assistant: Don’t link to the YouTube clip or we’ll never get the bastards back. Ring me in Canne. Chow! Bill)

monty python john cleeseSo in reviewing John Cleese’s memoir So, Anyway…, I won’t bother saying I enjoyed it immensely (which I did) or that I’m looking forward to volume two, which will cover the Python years (did that too) and that his “A Fish Called Wanda,” was one of the best farce-comedies I’ve ever seen (you can stop now), or that his book “Families and How to Survive Them” (written with shrink Robin Skynner) helped me understand and cope with my family’s dynamics (shutup shutup SHUTUP!).

So . . . let’s talk about comedy. Cleese seemed to me to be the intellectual of the bunch, the one who really really thought about things. This is confirmed in “So, Anyway,” because every once in awhile, he’ll stop the narrative and go down the side alley into Funny: What is it, What isn’t it, and Where did my pants go? Since I am clearly not funny, I decided to pull, nearly at random, five lessons Cleese learned about comedy and discuss them.

1. Tastes vary, sometimes radically

At Cambridge, Cleese joined the Footlights, a small amateur comedy troupe that put on a couple shows a year as well as regular “Smokers” where people got up on the small stage and tried to be funny. In this atmosphere of creative collaboration, sketches would be written, tested, taken apart, reworked, and at the end of the year a show would be held. At the end of the year, they performed the show at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, and it was so successful it was moved to London’s West End theatre for a short run.

During that creative process, Cleese discovered that nobody knew what really worked. “When members of the cast talked about the show, for example, we all felt that about twenty per cent was comparatively weak, but there was constant disagreement about which twenty per cent that was.”

2. Be inspired by great comics

When he was a young’un, Cleese discovered the “Goon Show,” a radio show consisting of three comics (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe) performing a skit using silly voices and strange sound effects to tell insanely logical, twisted stories that were also incredibly funny and subversive towards the Establishment.

“Years later, I became bewildered by the reception of Monty Python by some of our looniest fans, I suddenly realized they were experiencing exactly the combination of emotions that had rendered me such a devotee of the Goons, and so I was able to forgive them.”

3. Anger is useful, but it has its limits

Think of Oliver Hardy’s slow burn after Stan Laurel does something particularly stupid. Or Ricky Ricardo after one of Lucy’s foul-ups. Anger can be funny, but only to a point:

“I find anger, like Basil Fawlty’s, hilarious — provided it is ineffectual, as real anger might be too disturbing. I’m terrified of violence, yet I shout with laughter at great slapstick comedy that threatens people’s physical safety (think of Harold Lloyd or Chaplin, or of Eddie Murphy crossing the freeway in Steve Martin’s “Bowfinger”). My sense of humour has been described as cruel (mainly by BBC executives), yet I am almost obsessively appalled by torture. And I howl at absurdity and nonsense when my deepest psychic fear is a sense of meaningless. Am I trying to diminish a fear by laughing at it, and thereby belittling it, reducing its threat?”

4. Even the greats fail

Watching a Marx Brothers festival, Cleese realized “just how much dross there was among all the brilliance: even the greatest comics, I concluded, frequently fail.”

5. In fact, a lot of comedy is shite

“There exist vast hordes who can write bad comedy, and they do so in immense quantities, entirely uninhibited by any awareness of just how atrocious it is. . . . So if I may give a word of advice to any young writer who, despite the odds, wants to take a shot at being funny, it is this:

“Steal.

“Steal an idea that you know is good, and try to reproduce it in a setting that you know and understand. It will become sufficiently different from the original because you are writing it, and by basing it on something good, you will be learning some of the rules of good writing as you go along. Great artists may merely be “influenced by” other artists, but comics ‘steal’ and then conceal their loot.”

Cleese demonstrates the principle of stealing by confessing to ripping off Professor Stanley Unwin, a comedian who turns plausible speech into gibberish.

“The first time I heard him I became so hysterical with mirth that I frightened my parents. . . . I watched Unwin obsessively and slowly figured out how he did it — which was to take certain syllables from very ordinary words and mix them up with syllables from other equally common words, so that the sounds were totally familiar English ones, but the overall effect quite meaningless.

“His version of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ for example, began: ‘Once apollytito and Goldiloppers set out in the deep dark of the forry. She was carry a basket with buttere-flabe and cheesy flavour.’

“So, anyway . . . once I had worked out how Stanley Unwin produced his strangely convincing gobbledegook, it was easy to scribble out another example for the Footlights audition.” . . . The Stanley Unwin rip-off has become a standard part of my cabaret routine, last performed on my one-man show’s UK tour in 2011, fifty years after its first appearance at the Footlights clubroom.”

That’s just a few of the lessons learned from “So, Anyway.” In between, Cleese covers his life from his parents’ time to the formation of Monty Python. He talks about his influences, his friends, his stunted upbringing at the hands of a trying mother, his shyness, his backing into comedy (he was trained in law and was about to join a firm until by sheer happenstance he was invited to take the Footlights show to Edinburgh). He worked hard, tried different things, thought about what it all meant and went back out to try again. I won’t say that if you’re a Monty Python fan you’ve already got the book. I won’t say that comedy fans should get this book (and if it leads you to the Goon Show, you’ve got a treat in store).

I will say that I hope he’ll call out Eric Idle and Terry Jones as the short-sheeting bastards they are, in the hopes they’ll come out with memoirs of their own.