In his new memoir, actor and writer John Cleese, who closes Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, reminisces about his affection for The Goon Show, a BBC radio program he listened to as a kid.
“I loved this show with an intensity that almost defies analysis,” he writes of the program, which starred Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan. “It united me with my friends. We adored it, and discussed it, and swapped jokes from it, and it made us feel more alive. In some way, it was cathartic; it exhilarated us by lifting us up above our everyday frustrations and boredoms.”
Decades later, millions would feel the same way about the work of Cleese and his colleagues on the groundbreaking, anarchic BBC comedy sketch series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which ran in Britain from 1969-1974, and the Python movies Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life. Say the word “ex-parrot” to a Python fan, and — like Cleese and his friends did with The Goon Show — that fan will happily launch into Cleese’s famous sketch with Michael Palin in which a customer (Cleese) tries to return a dead bird to a pet store proprietor (Palin) who refuses to admit the creature 1. has ceased to be; 2. joined the choir invisible; 3. is pushing up daisies.
These days, though, Cleese, who also created the hilarious 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers, doesn’t find quite as much popular entertainment to laugh about.
“I don’t watch a great deal of television,” he admits from the airport in San Francisco, where he has missed a flight on his book tour (“Somebody once told me, ‘The important thing is to remember things never go according to plan,’ he says, resigned to his layover.) “When you get to my age — I’ll be dead in 10 or 12 years — you have other things. I have books that I am much more interested in reading than watching sitcoms. … Most of the good jokes have been made. It’s unusual now, in this conservative, unadventurous climate, for much on TV to be exciting.”
If you think Cleese, 75, sounds morose, he’s not, not really. He’s still curious about what makes people laugh, asking, “Did you find anything in the book funny?” Answer: yes. Cleese has great fun shooting barbs at his Python mates, and just wait until you get to the part about the guy who tries to put a dying rabbit out of its misery on the side of the road (the story is “absolutely true,” according to Cleese).
But So Anyway… (Crown Archetype, $28) isn’t merely a rehash of the Python years. The memoir takes the reader through Cleese’s childhood; his years at Cambridge (where he met future Python Graham Chapman); his early radio and TV work, including his association with David Frost; and his courtship with and marriage to Connie Booth, who co-wrote and co-starred in Fawlty Towers.
“A lot of people assume it’s going to be about Monty Python,” Cleese says of the book, “but it’s got a lot of irrelevant stuff about my birth.”
Cleese writes honestly and wryly about growing up, touching on his awkwardness (he was five foot three before he turned nine and would pass six feet before 12), his love for cricket and his gentle insurance salesman father, his difficulties with his mother, who was, he writes, “self-obsessed and anxious.”
“I was annoyed that critics said I was hard on my mother,” he says now. “I was truthful. I was fair. It was as fair a portrait as the portrait of Graham Chapman. There were wonderful sides to Graham but strange ones too.”
Attorney Peter Gonzalez, one of the founding partners of SMGQ Law — who will introduce Cleese — grew up a Python fan and loved Cleese in the James Bond films The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day. He says he enjoyed reading So Anyway… for Cleese’s perspective.
“He’s a smart guy, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. That’s what I like about him. He went to Cambridge; he was a teacher at his prep school. He could easily have taken a safe route in teaching or had a business career, and he would have been successful in either one, but instead he was willing to do all sorts of foolish antics to make people laugh. What’s better than making people laugh?”
Writing comedy has long been Cleese’s strength (he also wrote the screenplay for A Fish Called Wanda). Writing about personal subjects was different, he says, but not unmanageable.
“I’ve done an enormous amount of therapy, so most of this was well-explored territory,” he says. “I think most of the emotional charges associated with those experiences were defused long ago, so I was able to write about them with humor. You know, very little matters. All those evenings you felt utterly destroyed because the latest girlfriend has dumped you, it doesn’t add up to anything in the long run.”
Fans, of course, will be scouting for Python mentions, and Cleese obliges, explaining how various sketches came to be. He also writes about the Python reunion — minus Chapman, who died in 1989 — this past summer at The 02 arena in London. The first show sold out in a record 43 seconds, which prompted the addition of nine more performances.
“I was quite shocked” by the demand, Cleese says. “I had no idea we were still so popular. Partly because most of us live in England, where Monty Python is regarded as passe by the press, which has been unremittingly negative. ‘They were quite funny a long time ago but now aren’t as good.’ That’s what they’ve written for the past 30 years, so you think maybe that’s what the public thinks, too. But when the tickets went on sale there was this reservoir of affection.”
Cleese, too, has affection for the old days, which weren’t without drama. The Pythons were writers first and actors second, which made doling out parts easy. But the creative clashes over scripts, particularly between Cleese and Terry Jones, were legendary. “Terry Jones and I would lock horns and … not behave well,” Cleese writes. But the arguments were useful, he explains, adding that they allowed the group — which also included Eric Idle and animator Terry Gilliam — “to make good comedic decisions.”
“I think the first couple of series, before Mr. Chapman quite rapidly became an alcoholic, were very enjoyable,” Cleese says. “We were mining some fresh stuff. I was very proud of those. Making Life of Brian was a happy experience, one of those occasions that the shooting and editing went according to schedule. That never happens in movies. It was such a pleasure to make it in Tunisia. In England you’re getting up in the dark to work, but it was wonderful to get up in the sunshine. Terry Jones was on top of his game shooting. It was efficient, we were all in good form, and it was a delightful process.”
He wonders, though, if Python or Fawlty Towers would even be made today.
“I think they would not get made,” he says, musing. “I don’t think it’s so much the tightening of moral standards. It’s the things we did on Fawlty Towers about racial prejudice people would object to. They wouldn’t understand it’s ironic stuff we were doing. … In those days there were so many fewer channels, and people were a little more relaxed. People in TV now are terrified they’ll be sacked tomorrow. They go ’round in herds, but you can never find anybody making a decision.”
If you go
Who: John Cleese
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., downtown Miami
Tickets: Free tickets required, but there will be a standby line