Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Memoirs of Basil Fawlty

When the Monty Python cast reunited in 2014, the first performance sold out in 44 seconds. John Cleese wasn’t the slightest bit excited.

By Wesley Stace, WSJ
Nov. 3, 2014 7:15 p.m. ET

With titles like their “Contractual Obligation Album” and “The Final Rip Off,” the British comedy troupe Monty Python have never been afraid to point out that the joke was on you, and it’s almost impossible to believe that Python co-founder John Cleese didn’t undertake his new memoir in a similar spirit. “Most of you don’t give a tinker’s cuss for me as a human being,” he writes in “So, Anyway . . .” “No, you are just flipping through my heart-rending story in the hope of getting a couple of good laughs, aren’t you?”

It’s a joke, right? A passive-aggressive, not very funny joke, written in the tetchy, schoolmasterly tone of Basil Fawlty, his greatest comic creation. My surmise: This is what John Cleese really thinks. For a man who’s been the source of so much hilarity, he’s not typically a barrel of laughs. When occasionally seen on talk shows, his laugh is mirthless: Everything about him reminds us that comedy is a serious business. Reading “So, Anyway . . .” one can’t help concluding that the author was able to satirize the stiff upper lip so well because no upper lip, literally, was stiffer than his own.

Mr. Cleese (his father changed it from Cheese) takes us through his childhood (a difficult mother, an affectionate father), via school and university (cutting his teeth in the early 1960s Cambridge Footlights Revues), his days working on the first British satirical TV shows (“That Was the Week the Was” and “The Frost Report”), up to the taping of the first episode of Python, as he and Michael Palin, watching from the wings, worry whether their new show will soar (as, in the show’s first sketch, the sheep who think they’re birds hope they’ll fly) or plummet (the sheep’s subsequent fate).

(More here.)


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