While I cannot say that I am a passionate Monty Python fan, it has still been a strong influence in my life. So much of my family’s vernacular traces back to a Python sketch, and I think I may have fell in love with my husband at the point in our relationship that he told me that he could have been an aeronautical engineer, except he spent most of high school memorizing Monty Python instead.
So when I stumbled across John Cleese’s autobiography, I thought that I would give it a whirl. About 2/3 of the way through the book, however, I realized that Cleese wasn’t just taking a long time to get to the Python years – he wasn’t going to get there at all! Closer perusal of the jacket summary does say that he tells his story “to the founding of the landmark comedy troupe”…guess I missed that “founding” when I first read it! Truthfully, I was much more interested in reading more about Fawlty Towers, which is also a long-time favorite (my family legit quotes from the episode with the Germans all the time), but we didn’t even get to that point in life. Ah well.
Other than wondering when we were going to get around to Python stuff, the book was an interesting read. Cleese is a little too fond of self-analysis for my taste (things like, “As an adult, I was talking with a therapist when I realized that this episode of my childhood caused me to blah blah blah”), but that was mostly in the early chapters. The early chapters also included a lot of slightly crude humor, with jokes involving things like penises, but thankfully that also wasn’t as prevalent for the entire book.
There were multiple things that caused me to laugh while reading the book. For instance, I loved when he was talking about the bombing, during World War II, of his hometown, Weston-super-Mare, and how the people there were, in a weird way, proud that they were bombed on multiple occasions.
The Germans were a people famous for their efficiency, so why would they drop perfectly good bombs on Weston-super-Mare, when there was nothing in Weston that a bomb could destroy that could possibly be as valuable as the bomb that destroyed it? That would mean that every explosion would make a tiny dent in the German economy.
Cleese spends several chapters describing not just his early years, but also how his parents met. His parents actually eloped since, Cleese tells us, the social gap between them was too great:
You see, Dad came from, at best, the middle-lower-middle class; to be exact, he was middle-middle-lower-middle class. Whereas Muriel Cross came from the great auctioneering house of Marwood Cross, who were almost middle-middle class; their lowest possible social classification was upper-upper-lower-middle-class.
Throughout his book, Cleese actually returns to this concept of class on multiple occasions.
He was the epitome of the Oxonian code of “effortless superiority,” whereby to be seen trying really hard to achieve something was in many ways worse than actually failing at it.
As Cleese’s history continues, he goes to school and then to college, and then is a teacher, and then works for the BBC…throughout, there is this sense of randomness that Cleese admits is real. He didn’t have much of a plan, and things just sort of seemed to come together. Once he reaches adulthood in his story, the book gains in interest (for me, anyway), as he talks about stumbling into the drama group at college and how things grew from there.
One tidbit that he mentions is how none of the Pythons considered themselves actors – they were all writers who also acted. And so what you see as you read about Cleese’s life is how writing became more and more important as he began to find his place.
A final thing that really struck me was when Cleese was talking about one of the things that made so many Python sketches work –
…no matter how wacky the premise of a sketch was, once it had been established, its rules had to be followed, or else the sketch would lose coherence and, thus, “believability.” It may seem bizarre to use the word “believability” about a Python sketch, but in some mysterious way the audience will accept any premise, no matter how weird, and then allow it to set the rules for what is, and what is not, believable in that piece.
I think this really stuck out to me because this is an issue that I have with a lot of fantasy/sci-fi that I read, or even just a piece of regular fiction where the characters don’t make sense – any story has its own rules. The important thing isn’t that you have make “believable” rules, or rules that are real-life rules, but you have have consistent rules. The same goes for a character – I can accept any crazy character if that person stays true to the character as established. It’s so frustrating to read a book and feel like it is floating around wherever the author wants to go because the author hasn’t bothered to tighten up his rules. That’s a big reason that I stopped reading the Pern books once they were being written by Todd McCaffrey – he just never seemed to understand the world of Pern, and all of his books felt so discordant, not just with the series as a whole, but even within each story.
Anyway, this was an overall entertaining read, worthwhile if you are interested in Cleese or in learning about how someone becomes a successful comedy writer, but it isn’t particularly one of those autobiographies where you get a real scope of the times or anything like that. Overall recommended.