Illustration by TERRY WOLFINGER
Performing live comedy is like “a series of little scientific experiments,” says John Cleese. “When you do comedy in front of an audience, they are the ones who tell you whether it’s funny or not,” he tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies, and each subsequent night on stage is an experiment in making jokes land better than the night before. Cleese — who co-founded the Monty Python comedy troupe, and co-wrote and co-starred in Fawlty Towers, Life of Bryan, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life — has just written a memoir called So, Anyway…. The book actually covers relatively little of his 50-year career in radio, television, film and theater. Rather, it’s about Cleese’s childhood, education and his early years in show business. Early on, Cleese wrote and acted in British radio and television, working with his future Monty Python collaborators and others, including Marty Feldman, Peter Sellers and David Frost. The book is a breezy collection of memories, insights and funny observations — such as his impression of the upper class boys he got to know in school: “I realised how different their lives were,” he writes. “They genuinely liked chasing things and shooting them and hooking them out of the water and asphyxiating them. Death seemed the inevitable result of all their entertainments, despite their excellent manners.” MORE
PREVIOUSLY: In 1969 Michael Palin quit smoking, a pasttime he was quite fond of, through sheer will power. Having achieved a victory for mind over matter, Palin decided to raise the stakes — he would keep a diary for the next 10 years come hell or high water. What makes this enterprise interesting to people like you and me is that the decade he chose to document would also see the rise and fall and return of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In clean, dispassionate prose spanning some 650 pages, Palin documents the trials and tribulations of the daring, off-the-wall comedy ensemble from humble-but-edgy beginnings (the name Flying Circus was foisted on the lads by the bullying BBC) to globally-recognized comedy institution (when translated for Japanese television, it became Gay Boy’s Dragon Show).
PHAWKER: Let’s start out with a localized softball: You mention Philadelphia rather fondly in the book.
MICHAEL PALIN: I was just looking at that. That’s the beauty of diaries — you look back in hindsight and say, “Oh I love New York, I always loved going over there” and then I read the little entry and I couldn’t wait to get out of New York and Philadelphia was like the Promised Land. The good thing about diaries is they remind you of things like that. If I hadn’t written that down I would have just carried on with this misconception that New York was more fun than Philadelphia, which clearly it wasn’t. We came to Philadelphia two or three times, I remember once, which is in the diary, we get flown in to do the Mike Douglass show and the helicopter flight from New York landed on top of a huge skyscraper, we rushed down to the studio and thenpalindiaries.jpg back up to the helicopter and back to New York. Crazy times, not the way I’d like to travel nowadays.