Being a longtime fan of the Pythons, and of John Cleese‘s work in general beyond that, it was inevitable that I would read this book. Did I say read? What I meant to say is that it was inevitable I would listen to Cleese perform this book via audio. I love my paper books, don’t get me wrong. It pains me that whenever I do get the chance to read, I read so insufferably slow that it takes far too long to get through a book. Audio is usually a crutch for me that allows me to read faster and retain more, but along the way I also get a performance. When it comes to this title, the paper book was never even a consideration. If you know the name John Cleese at all, you already know what to expect on this front. He has a specific delivery style, a cadence, a way of verbally turning a phrase that would come across as flat on a typewritten page no matter how well you think you hear his voice in your head when you read. Comedy comes across best when a performer makes a personal connection with the audience. And then you add in his trademark impersonations and funny voices… as I say, it’s a performance.
Last December, I was fortunate enough to see John Cleese on stage with his fellow Python, Eric Idle. I consider it one of the greatest moments of my life to be in that room, to hear their stories, and, of course, to experience their comedy firsthand. But it was the stories that really stuck with me.
This book, So, Anyway…, is perhaps the expanded foundational material for the stage show I saw, which makes it even more special for me because now I feel I have a more direct connection to it and to its author, even if only on some tiny level. A lot of what I saw on that stage is covered in this book, but this book is so much more. It’s Cleese’s perspective of his own journey, from rather blunt backstories of his family, through his early years and proto-Python gigs, and right up to the formation of Monty Python. There are some scattershot bits beyond that point, especially in relation to his film A Fish Called Wanda, but by and large the book stops at Python’s start and pretty much begs for a sequel that I hope we’ll get. Spoiler Alert: we probably won’t get it based it on how he ties it all up in a neat bow with the O2 Arena Reunion.
Yes, there is most certainly a great deal of humor to be had in this book. It really couldn’t be otherwise. There are some stories in here that, if only related on paper without the trademark Cleese delivery, would be simply horrifying. With his delivery, they’re both horrifying and hysterical in a ways that’ll make you question your moral center… not unlike listening to the classic Monty Python records (in whatever medium you choose since not everyone has records anymore). The big difference is that the comedy here comes from personal accounts instead of scripts, and Cleese can’t stop himself from laughing at his memories. The stories chart Cleese’s improbable career, which include his insights into comedy, why it works, when it falls apart, and how it relates to us all. Cleese puts it all in here: his passions, his awkward moments, his profound dumb luck, all described in equal measure with sarcasm and heart.
“I know this book is supposed to be an autobiography, but the fact is I know that most of you don’t give a tinker’s cuss for me as a human being or feel for the different forms of suffering that makes me so special. No, you are just flipping through my heart-rending life story in the hope of getting a couple of good laughs, aren’t you?”
If, by the end of this, you don’t feel as if you’ve listened to an old friend relate to you a profoundly human story about the professional and personal relationships he’s experienced, just remember… he’s not really concerned about impressing you anyway. It’s not something he ever set out to do in the first place. That’s part of what makes this story so fascinating. The other part is, naturally, the way he tells it. While I’m sure the book is wonderful in its own right, the audiobook is quintessential Cleese.