So Anyway

I know this book is supposed to be an autobiography, but the fact is that most of you don’t give a tinker’s cuss for me as a human being or feel for the many different forms of suffering that make 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?

Yeah, pretty much.

We begin with that excerpt not just because Cleese is right, but because it is indicative of his unique comic genius. His ability to not just build a situation, but to consider the context of it, the framework of it, and then tease out the fundamental absurdity that invariably lies at the center of it. Like here. His deep and nuanced analysis of people that are long since dead for an audience of people who didn’t know them and are just here for the yucks.

And it’s also got that great Cleese anger in it too, doesn’t it. The barely contained rage, like the dancing lid of a pot on the boil – the exasperation of a Pope arguing with Michealangelo, the frustration of the owner of an apparently dead parrot, the apoplexy of Basil Fawlty, well, all of the time, actually. A sort of highly articulate, idiocy-fueled fury, that, for reasons I cannot explain, is just damn funny.

But most importantly, we begin this review with it because it rather admirably encapsulates the essence of the book. For So, Anyway, is, sort of, Cleese’s autobiography. And it is funny. But it’s actually quite a bit more than that and, at the same time, quite a bit less.

We’ll start with the less. It’s less, because while it dives deep into Cleese’s childhood, education, and entry into comedy, it very assiduously avoids discussing Monty Python. The closest you’ll get here is some explanation about how he got involved in it, and a chapter on the O2 reunion concerts. So if you’ve came looking for his thoughts on the parrot sketch, “Holy Grail” or even the other Pythons, well, you’re going to be disappointed.

Which, in and of itself, is actually quite interesting because of how it recalls what Michael Palin explained to readers in his book on the Python years; that Cleese was actually already something of a star when he joined the Pythons. He’d been in movies, he’d been a featured player on several David Frost shows, he’d had his own show. None of the other Pythons could even remotely say that at the time. Which does give So, Anyway an element of legitimization. That Python did not make him for all it may have done for Palin, Idle and the rest. Along the way it also contextualizes how comedy was practiced in England in the 1960s – a series of one or maybe two season gigs that talent like Cleese bounced among. Frankly, he probably expected Python to be just one more in the string of shows that was making his name. Certainly not the thing that would de facto define him for the rest of his life.

But the book is also slightly more because of how different it feels from a standard memoir or autobiography. Instead of the usual “I did this” and “I did that” and “I did some other damn thing”, So, Anyway relates a man exploring why he thinks about his personal history the way he does. It very much has the feel of a man who’s been through a significant amount of therapy and is opening his mind up to the reader in much the same way one does to a therapist (um, or at least, so I’ve been told that’s how it works. Ahem). He doesn’t simply recount the events of his life so much as hold them up to the light and contemplate how he thinks about them. Instead of “oh my word, I dislike my mother”, we have “here’s the particular form of anger I have towards her, and how it manifested itself not just for me, but also, I believe, for my father, and also, I think I’m safe to say, into my relationships with women generally throughout my life, which isn’t exactly her fault, of course, and yet, neither is she entirely blameless”. For another writer, this would be unenduringly tedious, but for a man of the prodigious intellectual and comedic talents of Cleese it makes for quite an entertaining ride.

That said, who bloody cares?

Well, you should because in the end, Cleese was in the creativity business. More importantly, he was in the collaborative creativity business, and he was extremely successful at it, and any insights he can give about how that works are valuable to anyone reading this essay.

Like this, late in the book:

All the research shows that teams whose members share the same attitudes will enjoy the experience of working together, will have good opinions of the others in the team, and be keen to repeat the experience; but creatively they will produce bugger-all. By contrast, teams whose members view things differently from one another will argue, but this creative conflict produces innovation. You want creative conflict; what you don’t want is personal conflict, because that will complicate proceedings and can result all too often in deadlock.

And we like that not only because we think it’s right, but because it reminds us of what Harry Lime says to his buddy Holly Martins in Graham Greene’s The Third Man:

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

So, Anyway shows you how to create a da Vinci, a Michealangelo, a Renaissance.

And how to avoid creating cuckoo clocks.


So, Anyway by John Cleese was published by Crown on 11/04/2014 – order it from Amazon here, or order from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Please be advised that The Agency Review is an Amazon Associate and as such earns a commission from qualifying purchases

You May Also Want to Read: