I received an advance copy of this autobiography from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
This is a very generous and unexpected autobiography. I say that because most books of these types merely retell the scandals, bask in the highlights, and dish the dirt on the nasty habits of famous people. Well, we all love that and if we are being honest, that is why we paid the price of admission.
Not so this time. While Mr. Cleese does tell us what he really thinks of some of the famous, and not so famous, people in his life, the book isn’t really about that. Even when he does roast someone, it is usually in terms that are so over the top, and above all so damn funny, that it is hard to see any animosity in it. No lurid tales. No hatchet jobs on celebrities. What you do get is an extended tour inside the mind of a comic genius.
Mr. Cleese is a very intelligent, well read, and introspective man---who just happens to enjoy and be very good at absurd and farce. For me though, his brand of comedy is superior to the more recent absurdist humor of say a Will Farrell or Seth Green because through it all, it never loses its intelligence. You don’t feel that you lost IQ points just by watching the movie. Quite the opposite, actually. I always felt that Cleese and the other writers that he worked with had a respect for their audience that I feel is lacking in some modern writers. Give me A Fish Called Wanda every time.
Writers. This is a book about comedy writers. That is a real distinction here. Cleese points it out and that is something I took away from this book. Cleese, Chapman, Idle, Palin, and Jones were first writers, and only secondarily performers. Cleese doesn’t focus on description of performances, other than telling in hilarious and self deprecating detail as to how nervous he was before many important performances or how something got screwed up and why. What he does do is describe his views on what is funny, and even why we perceive it as funny. As someone who might have been happy living the life of an academic, he gives the reader a master class in comedy, and human nature. He also lets us in on what makes him tick, both as a comedy writer, and as a person, which in turn shaped his individual mindset and, from there, his very original sense of humor. It is almost as if a famous musician would explain what he was thinking as he wrote a iconic song, which they seldom do. I doubt they would want us to know. Not so with Cleese who seems to enjoy the analysis, as did I.
If you are interested in hearing who had the drinking problems, who cheated on who, and who had the most sex with farm animals, this is not the right autobiography. If you are interested in an intelligent conversation with a comedy genius (who doesn’t consider himself to be one) about the nature of comedy and comedians, the history of British comedy, and his own place in the overall scheme of things, then you will enjoy this very thorough yet lightly conversational book.