John Cleese

So, Anyway…

“Why was I so...ineffectual?”

I’m a loyal fan of John Cleese’s (b. 1939) humor and characters and was delighted to read his autobiography So, Anyway… To love John Cleese is to appreciate his love for psychology and human nature.

Beyond his brilliant comedic timing and physical ingenuity, Cleese understands humans. His most famous character, Basil Fawlty was a study in anger. Yet we loved him because he lacked self-confidence and security. He inspired pity – what poet Wilfred Owen saw as the root of our deepest care and empathy – not fear.

Cleese understands the world and himself through psychology. He’s seen psychologists most of his life and doesn’t shy from excoriating self-examination.

I noticed years ago that when people (myself definitely included) are anxious they tend to busy themselves with irrelevant activities because these distract from and therefore reduce their actual experience of anxiety. To stay perfectly still is to feel the fear at its maximum intensity, so instead you scuttle around doing things as though you are, in some mysterious way, short of time.

He also writes an excellent retrospection on his unbalanced mother and how her emotionally instability affected him.

She had no information about anything that was not going to affect her life directly in the future, and that consequently, she possessed no general knowledge. And the reason for this was not that she was unintelligent, but that she lived her life in such a constant state o high anxiety, bordering on incipient panic that she could only focus on the things that might directly affect her.

Of his long experience writing comedy, for which he is underappreciated, he gives us this head-nodding truth:

There are not many jobs where you can produce absolutely nothing in the course of eight hours, and the uncertainty that produces is very scary. You never hear of accountant’s block or bricklayer’s block, but when you try to do something creative there can be no guarantee anything will happen.

British entertainer Stephen Fry said that when he was young, John Cleese had rock star status and, as such, Fry didn’t aspire to be like him. It is easy to underestimate how influential Cleese and his cohort have been to British culture and yet…well, I smiled when Cleese admitted he’s an introvert. His book is human and intimate. Not surprisingly, much like Fry’s.