“Study these rules, and imitate the English.” wrote Hungarian-born Gyorge “George” Mikes in his timeless satire of the complexity of “being” British, “There can be only one result: if you don’t succeed in imitating them you become ridiculous; if you do, you become even more ridiculous.”
To love comedian John Cleese is to appreciate his reverence for psychology and his willingness to showcase the hypocrisy and complexity of human nature. Especially as it pertains to being British.
I’m a fan of John Cleese’s (born October 27, 1939) humor and characters, and I was delighted to read his autobiography So, Anyway….
Beyond his brilliant comedic timing and physical ingenuity, Cleese appreciates human contradiction. His most famous character, Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers, a sitcom written by Cleese and co-star Connie Booth, was a study of the comedy of anger.1
Basil’s anger is almost always underpinned by fear: fear of a hotel inspector’s bad report; fear of having poisoned a guest; fear of a healthy inspector seeing a rat; fear of offending German guests; fear of revealing that the chef is unfit to cook on Gourmet Night; fear of making a fool of himself in front of the friends invited to his wedding anniversary; fear of his wife discovering he’s been betting on horses… Need I go on?
Basil Fawlty, through his feckless inability to accept and manage everyday life, inspires pity. Pity that poet Wilfred Owen saw as the root of our deepest care and empathy. An empathy that is often a source of perceived vulnerability in British culture. Minding one’s own business is “one of the basic English virtues,” wrote George Mikes in his wonderful How to Be a Brit.
Cleese firmly grasps the buttoned-up British persona and how funny it can be when it shatters. Admitting to having had seen psychologists most of his life, Cleese 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.
So, Anyway… includes an excellent retrospection on Cleese’s unbalanced mother and how her emotionally instability—mainly fear and anger—affected his development.2
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 of high anxiety, bordering on incipient panic, that she could only focus on the things that might directly affect her.
Cleese remembers his father differently: an extremely kind, if not all-together battered man. Cleese also remembers a fond childhood: “I now realize how glad I am that I grew up in the small West Country villages, surrounded by verdant green foliage and emerald hues.”
Of his long experience writing comedy, Cleese 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 (Fry is about twenty years Cleese’s junior) John Cleese had rock star status. It is easy to underestimate how influential Cleese and his cohort have been to British comedic culture, and yet…well, I smiled when Cleese admitted he’s an introvert.
Of course he is. So, Anyway… is human and intimate. Not surprisingly, much like Fry’s.