Comedian John Cleese opens his autobiography “So, Anyway” with a memory of his first “public appearance,” running a gauntlet of taunting schoolboys as he made his way to the nurse’s office. Standing five-foot-three at the age of 8, his height made him stand out, which, coupled with a weedy physique and an “ineffectual” disposition, led to teasing. Like many a good comic, Mr. Cleese would go on to turn his weakness into a strength, and that gangly physique would get a workout with his Minister for Silly Walks on the groundbreaking “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and the manic Basil Fawlty on “Fawlty Towers.”
Mr. Cleese stops by Santa Barbara, one of his former homes during the ’90s, for a Wednesday evening at the Granada, through UCSB’s Arts & Lectures. He’s got a solo show and the book to promote and, as he has been reminding fans for many years now, alimony payments to make.
Fortunately, his fans are loyal, and by all accounts have a good sense of humor. When he reunited with his former Pythons —Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam —this summer, their first show at the O2 arena in London sold out in 43 seconds. The troupe has always been up front at the financial incentives behind reunions and re-releases, and that humorous honesty has worked in their favor. The London shows were less about a group pretending they were still vital and more a gift to fans who knew the skits word-for-word better than the performers.
In “So, Anyway” Mr. Cleese devotes a majority of the book to his pre-Python life, growing up an only child in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, attending Cambridge University to study law and finding himself drawn to the school’s comedy troupe, the Cambridge Footlights. There he met medical student Graham Chapman and soon they were writing and performing skits together in the Footlights, along with several other future British comedians like Bill Oddie and Tim-Brooke Taylor. Though he never became a barrister —he’s played several over the years —law’s loss was comedy’s gain and that work at college led to comedy writing gigs for radio and television, finally combining forces with a similar bunch of comics from Oxford. Monty Python was born.
“So, Anyway” offers a fascinating look at pre-Python, including the long-forgotten “At Last the 1948 Show,” which the BBC scrubbed from tapes after broadcast to save money. The book is filled with excepts from these sketches, and that last episode of “At Last…” is not too far away from the first Python episode, “just missing the animations” as Mr. Cleese recently said in an interview.
He finally went into his archives in earnest when he started writing the book, he told interviewer Ethan Gilsdorf in Salon.com, and discovered a lot of rarities.
“I was actually in a storage place in Santa Barbara on my birthday, which was last Monday. And I found some scripts there and I was absolutely thrilled to find the script of a movie that Graham Chapman and I wrote in ’67. I didn’t think there was another copy of that script anywhere left on the planet. And it’s an absolute perfect, pristine copy. I was really thrilled.” Will we ever see that script? There’s always a second book to be written and more alimony payments to make…
This writer interviewed Mr. Cleese in 2009, and what struck me at the time was how much happier he had become as he has aged, without losing his very particular sense of humor. The younger Cleese had a lot of anger, released through the very uptight characters he used to play. But there was something blissful about the septuagenarian Mr. Cleese. And the recent interview in Salon confirmed it:
“What I’ve found, as you get older, you really worry about things less,” he says. “You just don’t get thrown the way you used to when you’re young. And so my perspective, when I look back on events that I probably found upsetting at the time, is that I find it hard to take them seriously… By and large, a lot of the other things that happened that used to upset me, from getting dumped by girlfriends to getting bad reviews, none of it matters anymore, really. And that’s lovely.”
John Cleese, In Conversation with Terry Hughes
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.
Cost: $28-$58 general, $16 UCSB students
Information: (805) 899-2222, www.granadasb.org, www.artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu