[Review] - John Cleese: So, Anyway... Live

Courtesy of Indigo Events
I always have a tight bunch of nerves deep in my gut before I attend such events; this is because, while I feel little embarrassment for myself, I feel considerable embarrassment for others (oddly, this is the only kind of empathy which I'm capable of, which suggests I'd make a rather interesting psychological study subject). And so, when I decide to sit and watch someone present themselves as themselves, with no benefit of script or structure, but are expected to just talk, I worry uncontrollably that it won't be any good. That the person in question will suffer that most indignitable of failures, that they are human. I have sat through many an excruciating presentation where a speaker has fallen short, and is unable to live up to the demands put upon them by the audience. I feel for them, and wish such moments to be over.

I should not have felt this way for John Cleese. Perhaps it is because he has spent his life having to be continuously clever, that his mind remains a wet stone on which he can polish his life, and thus responds with youthful dexterity and aged wisdom when asked about even the most cobwebbed corners of his existence. Saturday evening past I had the chance to see him speak, marking the publication of his 75 year spanning memoir So, Anyway..., covering everything from his earliest memory to the Python's recent final bow at the O2. A sit down, one on one interview conducted by the Globe and Mail's Ian Brown, and an evening of personal philosophy and brutal honesty. And simply put, one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life (so far). Cleese here is his simple self. Not the arrogant, angry straight man character that he has refined himself to be in the media over these long years. Certainly, it is a portrayal, a more sympathetic one than some who might have known hi through his life would suggest is honest, but a more flexible and introspective Cleese.

Hit the jump for the brief review.


The key to these events is the moderator. Some, like Stephen Fry recently, forego that aspect of it entirely, leaving it to their own restraint and sense of interest to guide the evening. There is a certain arrogance to that, a certain dictatorial clenching that removes the questioning of life and intent entirely, and replaces it with practiced script. Cleese submitted to inquiry at the hands of Ian Brown, a man not bereft of humour and was able to get a few over on the storied funny man in the course of the evening, and hold his own throughout. His reverence for the man across from him never poisoned with sycophancy, because the reverence was documented. He was able to pull examples, both from the book and Cleese's career as readily as the author, proving that he hadn't simply brushed up on this British fellow by YouTubing old clips over dinner that evening. Of course, what sort of person might one be, to not know who Cleese is and how much he has impacted the world, both comedically and culturally.

Cleese himself is a presence, not surprising at six foot too many inches, balanced on what the audience came to the surprising realization over the course of the night are still very thin legs. Despite his constant refrain that he is an old man likely to die at any moment, he has the vigor of a man a quarter his age, and a mind still sharp and ready to pounce on an available joke when it presents itself, like a leopard stalking a tapir. Even sitting relaxed and informal, his hand constantly at his cheek or chin, informal as anything, he still carries a heir. And it's not just reverence from me that is clouding my memory; there is a reason he has spent his career playing authority figures. He may well have been mocking them senseless all the while, but the undeniable sense of gravitas simply from his presence assures that in some alternate universe out there, he made a startlingly effective judge.

The evening carried a sense of direction that was almost immediately disregarded. Brown attempted to meander a course of prepared questions and set ups for passages read direct from the text, but Cleese literally snatched this out his hands early on, preferring to let his mind wander through the general ideas of Browns questions rather than address them directly. Often through the evening, Cleese, after bewitching us with some remembrance would pause, look sidewise at Brown and ask "How on Earth did we get onto that?" This wasn't a betrayal of faculty, it was just that Cleese was more interested in talking about a psychological concept tenuously related to a question then he was paraphrasing a passage of the book we'd all just been given, or retreading some old Python-related event.

What is clear after spending an evening with Cleese is that he is a man of many thoughts, and that he is quite self aware and knowledge about where these thoughts come from. His interest in psychology dominates his mindset, and was able to reference without pause (for the most part) professors and research and books on the subject that set up his own individual beliefs about where humour comes from, or why people act in certain ways, or the state of the world. He also was not short on expressing his honest opinion on a dessert cart of subjects. Much like Fry stating that he is now able to look back on the events of his youth with a disconnection that allows for a greater exploration, Cleese spoke starkly about subjects, and himself. His reasoned positions on his mother, and former cohort Terry Gilliam, for instance, are not "kind" but the evidence he gives to support his position is not unreasonable. He clarifies a life's opinions with a debate-like starkness that is refreshingly unemotional. He did not deny his behaviour, but explained himself in an ends-justify-the-means sort of way. And all the while reminded us that his only goal was to be the best at what he did, and that sort of goal requires a certain mind set and a certain performance.

The book, which I'll admit I'm only half way through at this point (though I only got it Saturday, and have spent every spare moment with since), is very much the same: honest and blunt, and detached in a way that doesn't read as apologetic. As he states in the book, as he learned during his time with the Footlights and at BBC radio, the key to comedy is simplicity. He's carried that over into his narrative style. Chronological, without a multitude of getting ahead or retreating. A blissfully unflowered style that is also distinctly in his voice. His timing and cadence emanates from the page, by benefit of stating what needs to, as well as the occasional lapse into bleak absurdity. He paints pictures with little indulgence. As he is describing his old school masters, or the madness of his mother, it doesn't strain the mind's eye. He also avoids romanticizing his past, and not over dramatizing it for the sake of a better story. He lets the sequence speak for itself, and offers his own commentary on it from his position of hindsight.

The evening was a night of laughs, as one might expect, but he also was unafraid to bring the subject matter to difficult and unappetizing places. A long sojourn onto the topic of death did not rumble the audience, but we were gripped on his words. So too as he lapsed into obvious love and the faintest hints of lingering pain was he discussed Graham Chapman. And the highlight of the evening was when he and Brown performed, from the book, a script that Cleese and Chapman performed "only once, in 1967," a standard Cleese/Chapman scenario involving a man walking into an appointment with unexpected results. All evening we had been given the chance to see the man we all admired, and he gave us the gift of performing. Yes, he has a history of being abrasive and arrogant. But given his disposition, and his insistence that he isn't interested in revisiting things - he admits to having a writer's desire to create, and move on, not an actor's to refine and perfect -  some might argue that he's earned that. And, unlike some creators who are unable to see beyond themselves, he readily admits and celebrates those that inspired him, and continue to do so (both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert received praise during the course of the evening).

Though, personally I was disappointed by his disparaging comments regarding Fierce Creatures, which I clearly hold in a higher regard than he.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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