So, Anyway – the Autobiography of John Cleese

So, anyway, John Cleese has written this autobiography and it’s called So, Anyway. With the exception of the final chapter, which is a sort of post-Python Reunion extra track, the story cleverly focuses on Cleese’s childhood and formative years as an author and performer and finishes during the television recording of the very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

As anyone who has read multiple autobiographies will know, the best part is always the author’s description of his or her childhood and growing pains. All the business of public life after the author has achieved success, fame and fortune tends to be largely namedropping and ego boosts. And then so many of the Monty Python sketches (and the Fawlty Towers episodes – and many of their backgrounds) are so well-known that regurgitating them here, while it would be, I’m sure, lapped up by the fan base (now that’s a disgusting image) would be pretty boring for the rest of us.

So it’s clever that the book dispenses with (most of) that, but it’s clever also because of the structure of the story as it is told.

The autobiography follows the conventional chronological route of childhood, youth, life as a student and the first hesitant years in which our hero discovers his talents, his professional life and the friends who will sustain him. At the same time, Cleese bakes into this mix flash-forward references to his future career with the Pythons and after, and to his philosophical, psychological and sociological interests, giving a new and different slant on the origins of some of the classic sketches. (Oh, and he’s still in love with Connie Booth – that’s what I see anyway.)

For a wider audience, I guess, Cleese is so identified with the Monty Python gang that many people are under the impression that Monty Python was where his career started. Even if you know something about his history in the Cambridge Footlights – the student revue club at the University of Cambridge – you may not know of his involvement in so many of the stage, television and radio shows that preceded Python. It was good to be reminded of these, and given a more rounded picture of John Cleese before he became a household name.

He comes across in the book as a very intelligent and generally a very kind, rather modest man. A loyal friend and who is always prepared to give credit where it’s due. There are moments though where his sharp intellect and the wicked side of his humour shine through and you get the feeling that you would not want to cross swords with him. (He has some cutting things to say about theatre and television critics, for example. You can understand why the Daily Mail is not among his more enthusiastic supporters.)

Cleese IlloI want to take a quick look in particular at what Cleese has to say about writing, and of course writing comedy.

After graduating from university John Cleese was recruited as a writer to the BBC’s Light Entertainment Department. Now, aged about 25, he had a job that involved writing comedy sketches on a regular basis.

I would start the morning with a blank sheet of paper, and I might well finish the day with a blank sheet of paper (and an overflowing waste-paper basket). There are not many jobs where you can produce absolutely nothing in the course of eight hours, and the uncertainty that produces is very scary. You never hear of accountant’s block or bricklayer’s block; but when you try to do something creative there can be no guarantee anything will happen…

But the man who had recruited him, Peter Titheradge, once a writer himself

…was able to calm my incipient panics when fruitless hours were passing. He got me to understand that, if you kept at it, material would always emerge: a bad day would be followed by a decent one, and somehow an acceptable average would be forthcoming. I took a leap of faith and my experience started to confirm this mysterious principle. (p185)

Writers – especially writers who are writing to a deadline – all struggle with the anxiety of wondering whether they will manage. It’s not just getting the words down on paper, it’s also a matter of producing something which is interesting, exciting or in John Cleese’s case funny. Cleese takes up the ambiguous nature of fear – on the one hand how it can block you, on the other hand how it may stimulate you.

Anxiety, he says, is the enemy of creativity.

The more anxious you feel, the less creative you are. Your mind ceases to play and be expansive. Fear causes your thinking to contract, to play safe, and this forces you into stereotypical thinking. And in comedy you must have innovation because an old joke isn’t funny…

Your thoughts follow your mood. Anxiety produces anxious thoughts; sadness begets sad thoughts; anger, angry thoughts; so aim to be in relaxed, playful mood when you try to be funny.

On the other hand you should try to [g]et your panic in early because

Fear gives you energy, so make sure you have plenty of time to use that energy. (p316)

(I think it’s a comfort that, despite this insight, the young John Cleese seems to have had exactly the same problems getting started as me. I’m encouraged to think this is a rather general problem. It was always quite difficult for us [Cleese is writing with Graham Chapman] to get down to work in the morning, and we developed many strategies to postpone doing so… (p368))

Assuming you manage to get going and actually write something, however, you must be open to the prospect that you will not be able to produce something brilliant every day that you work. Cleese credits Peter Titheradge again with teaching him the importance of finding the thing that is “good enough” (this is specifically in relation to punchlines, but in my experience it applies generally).

Later in the book, once Cleese and Chapman have established a working rhythm:

Our average rate was about four minutes of screen time a day, which may not sound much, but if sustained would theoretically have given us a movie script every six weeks… (pp368-369)

Theoretically.

John Cleese also has interesting things to say about the differences between writing sketches – even half-hour TV episodes – and whole films.

The need to keep the plot moving all the time is a hugely demanding one – the slightest moment of stagnation and a cinema audience is immediately bored (although a lot of explosions do help to sustain their attention). Add to that the following difficulty in comedy: you cannot make an audience laugh continuously for 100 minutes – human psychology and physiology will not allow it – so you have to plan a sequence of alternating peaks and troughs in the laughter while ensuring that you engage the audience’s attention fully during the passages that are not trying to be funny…

You will now understand why I have managed to write only one really good film script in 50 years (though I contributed to Life of Brian, too). (p382)

The good film script is, of course, A Fish Called Wanda.

So, anyway, I very much enjoyed reading this book, and giggling or even laughing out loud in places. The passages quoted above by no means exhaust what Cleese has to say about writing, and there is a great deal more on many other subjects too. If you know Cleese and his work (and you haven’t yet read the book) you have a treat in store. But even if you know nothing about the man and his career yet still have an interest in the writing process, the history of light entertainment or the British class system (for example) it is well worth a look.

There are also some great tips on keeping control of a primary school class when you are an untrained young teacher. Take it from me, they also work at secondary school level.


Do also pay a visit to John Cleese’s official website.

The illustration shows my copy of So, Anyway, with slips of paper in all the pages where Cleese says something funny or pithy about writing, comedy or teaching. I hate to write in books or stick things in them, but slips of paper are OK. I think it is a bit Pythonesque that they seem to be coming out of his mouth.

This review is also published on Goodreads

In the swim with Dr Sacks

I had intended to publish a review of John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway, but I find myself travelling and without my notes. Another time. Instead, as I have a copy of Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life (which I am reading with great enjoyment), I think I want to encourage you to get in the swim with Dr Sacks.

Oliver Sacks On the Road cover imageFriends and followers will know that I enjoy swimming and have written a number of posts about it over the years. (Most recently here at Stops and Stories.) One of the positive features of swimming I find is that it clears my mind in a way that allows creative thought. One of the disadvantages, though, is that I have to train myself to hold in my head the great ideas I have while I’m swimming until I can get to either a notepad or a recording device. I was delighted to read, in On the Move, that Dr Sacks had exactly the same problem, though he solved it differently.

In the chapter called “The Bull on the Mountain” he describes a period in the 1970s when he used to spend weeks at a time at a sleepy lakeside resort in upstate New York called Lake Jefferson (Lake Jeff). He writes:

Life at Lake Jeff was healthy and monastic… [I]n the long summer days I would cycle for hours. I would often stop at the old cider mill near the hotel and get two half gallon jugs of hard cider, which I would hang on the handlebars. I love cider, and the half gallons, sipped gradually and symmetrically – a mouthful from this jug, a mouthful from that – would keep me hydrated and slightly tipsy through a long day of cycling.

I’m not really sure that riding around on a bike all day slightly tipsy from regular sips of cider is best described as “monastic”. (Although, to be sure, the monks of Belgium do make their world-renowned beers.) However, Sacks goes on:

…the greatest joy of all was swimming in the placid lake, where there might be an occasional fisherman lounging in a row boat but no motorboats or jetskis to threaten the unwary swimmer… Swimming timelessly, without fear or fret, relaxed me and got my brain going. Thoughts and images, sometimes whole paragraphs, would start to swim through my mind, and I had to land every so often to pour them onto a yellow pad I kept on a picnic table by the side of the lake. I had such a sense of urgency sometimes that I did not have time to dry myself but rushed wet and dripping to the pad.

As a result, these notes for Oliver Sacks’ book (it became A Leg to Stand On) were handwritten, blotted, and almost illegible.

Jim Silberman, my editor and publisher in America, was disconcerted when I send him the Lake Jeff section of the book. He had not received a handwritten manuscript for 30 years, he said, and this one looked as if it had been dropped in the bath. He said it would have to be not just typed but be deciphered, and he sent it to one of his former editors… My illegible, water-stained manuscript with its ragged incomplete sentences, arrows, and indecisive crossings out came back beautifully typed and annotated with wise editorial comments.

I can’t help but think that Oliver Sacks’ earlier success – Awakenings – helped. His editors and publishers knew the quality of his writing and were prepared to tolerate a little eccentricity in manuscript submission. If I – or any unknown author – were to submit to a publisher a handwritten manuscript that had been composed poolside, I think I would be guaranteed a rejection.

By the way, reading Oliver Sacks’ book I find myself wondering if he ever met John Cleese. Neither one mentions the other in their respective books, but they were of more or less the same age and they both knew Jonathan Miller. Sacks went to school with Miller in London and they were friends throughout their lives. Miller and John Cleese were both undergraduates at Cambridge University and both members of the Cambridge Footlights, though at slightly different times. Cleese describes how he first saw Jonathan Miller when Miller performed in Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. Later Cleese himself performed with Miller in sketches for The Secret Policeman’s Ball – the series of comedy shows put on in aid of Amnesty.

There is no reason in the world why Cleese and Sacks should have got to know one another and the only reason I associate them now is because I’ve just read both their autobiographies (which both include photos of the respective authors with Miller). But I think they might have enjoyed one another’s company. I imagine them both swimming in Lake Jeff, coming up with ideas at the same time and racing one another to the lakeside to be the first to reach that yellow pad.

Ah the magic of imagination, eh?


The illustratons are borrowed as follows: The partial image at the head of the article is of the cover of the US hardback version of On the Road, the smaller intertextual illustration is of the front cover of the UK paperback edition. The latter is loaned from Oliver Sacks’ own website, the former from the review of the book on the website of the New York Times