So, Anyway by John Cleese

The back of the dust jacket of So, Anyway… by John Cleese gives the book an unofficial subtitle, “The Making of a Python,” and indeed, that is what all but one of the book’s chapters describes. There are a few flash-forwards, or asides regarding later events, but the bulk of the story concerns what happened before a collaboration with five other comedians launched him to global fame.

It’s a straightforward book, and I suspect it’s a terrific audiobook, since Cleese reads it himself. His comedic voice comes through clearly, and he permits himself the occasional zany tangent, usually returning to the main thread of the narrative with his titular phrase, “So, anyway…” Reading through, one also inevitably learns a certain amount about mid-century England, Cambridge, and the BBC. It also surprised me at how easily Cleese fell into success in fields that are now fiendishly competitive. He seems a bit surprised in retrospect as well.

The best parts of the book, in my view, were the ones in which he talks about the craft of writing comedy, how difficult it is to be funny, rather than just clever or witty. The sketches that he often co-wrote with Graham Chapman often had an internal logic and Cleese worked very hard to keep that logic consistent with itself, no matter how tenuously the sketch might be tethered to consensus reality. Ultimately, though, funny defies definition; in the end there are no rules, only laughter. A BBC censor let them end a Python sketch with the exclamation, “Bugger!” As he explained, “I would never have believed I would OK it … but when I actually saw it, it was so funny, I’m going to.”

I would like to read Cleese’s take on the Python years, and even more a behind-the-scenes account of A Fish Called Wanda. Just as an aside, I’ve noticed that general-interest non-fiction books originally published in the UK have better indexes than those first published in the US. The observation holds true for So, Anyway… as well, and I wish that however the British publishers manage to make the economics work would find its way across the Atlantic.

So, anyway … the book is detailed, it’s written very much in Cleese’s voice, and it sheds a lot of light on where he came from.

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