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John Cleese interview: Clockwise, Muppets, writing, stand-up
By SP_COP on December 10, 2014 | From www.denofgeek.com
John Cleese interview: Clockwise, Muppets, writing, stand-up Chatting about writing, The Muppets, DreamWorks, Clockwise and Charles Crichton, all with Mr John Cleese...

Now out in hardback is John Cleese's autobiography, So Anyway. It's a genuinely interesting read, very much written in his own voice, and he spared us some time to have a chat about it, and his career.

Here's how it went...

Can we start with the predictable stuff first, but I always wonder this when anyone writes an autobiography: why do it? Why put your life down in a book, who is it for, and did you enjoy it?

Well let's go backwards on that. Yes I enjoyed it very much. Who is it for me? In a funny kind of way it was for me, because some people seem to think that I've had a very interesting life, which compared with people who have fought in wars, and been spies, and discovered rivers in Africa, seems to me that my life's been pretty safe. Even if it's been varied. You see what I mean?

You mean in terms of peril?

Yes, yes. I don't think of myself as a very bold man, I don't go in for extreme sports or anything like that. The thing that originally really did motivate me was hearing Michael Caine saying that when he had written his autobiography, he had regained parts of his life that he'd forgotten about. And I thought I'd like to do that.

Then I went and asked a New York agent, and said that if I do this, I want to do it for the experience. I'd like to write a book that I think is funny, and I had a couple of comic influences in mind - Three Men And A Boat, Lucky Jim and even James Thurber. I thought it'd be nice to write about my life so that people who thought it was interesting, and who liked my kind of humour, would have a funny read with little interpolations about comedy and other little aspects. Philosophies of life, that sort of thing.

Does that explain what you don't talk about in the book then? I'd assumed you'd not gone into much depth on things such as A Fish Called Wanda and Fawlty Towers because you figured those were stories people might already know?

Well I think when I started to write it, I hit a style fairly early on. And I didn't know if I was going to do that, because I've written dialogue all my life. Yet I've written just about nothing in terms of narrative, and I didn't know if I would find that difficult. For instance, I have a feeling that I'd find it very, very difficult to write a novel. I couldn't do it. It's an odd thing to say, but I just don't think I could do it.

But in this case, I think that when I started to tell stories, I could do it alright. And my editor said yes, most people have difficulty with the dialogue, and can do the narrative. I could do the dialogue easily, so I though okay, if I can do the narrative...

Then I found a pace at which I wanted to tell it. I soon realised that I wasn't going to get through the whole of my life or anything like it. And I didn't know how long it was going to be, because when you settle down to write the biography of your life, you really don't know how interesting it's going to be, until you're actually writing it. Then you suddenly think this is worth doing.

For example, I didn't write much about cricket, although I've had some interesting experiences, because I didn't think it was particularly relevant. But if I had an amusing tale or some point I had to make about comedy, I thought the people reading this book would like that. If they like my work and think I'm funny, or even if they like the psychology books I wrote, they might be interested in where it all came from. And I thought the most interesting thing was to tell it as honestly as I can, because otherwise, it's simply an exercise in making money.

The book that would make the most money would be 60% Monty Python and 40% Fawlty Towers, with nothing about anything else.

If you follow the Michael Caine path of course, you have to do a volume two?

Oh yeah.

Does that interest you? Because you leave this one on a lovely final line.

Yeah, but I think I'll have a year off. I think the greatest mistake I made a few years ago... I've made a few professional mistakes, and I think one of them with Python was going straight into Meaning Of Life after Life Of Brian, without taking a year off. So I think I should take a year off, and then come back to it.

At one point in your book, you talk about a period of 20 months where you did 80 episodes of TV shows, 41 I'm Sorry I'll Read That Agains on the radio, on top of TV and film appearances...

It was an intense period of activity, and I think you've got to be very careful. Because even those of us who are good at this, we've only got a limited spread of talent. And you can easily start appearing too much on television. People can get to the point where they say 'I know what he does'. I think it's terribly good to take breaks.

In fact, one of the reasons I took a break was that I had such a bad experience on How To Irritate People. That was such a bad experience, but in a way it was good for me, because it scared me away from performing for 18 months. So people didn't get fed up with me. At one stage, I was doing so much.

I got a sense that there was a certain fearlessness in those 20 months though. That you were back in the 1960s, and opportunities were landing at opportune moments, so that you attacked them without thinking about whether to take them on or not?

Well, suddenly something comes along and you think that might be interesting. That's the only criteria. I was watching these episodes of Do Not Adjust Your Set with Graham Chapman, and we thought these guys are really funny, why don't we do a show with them? It seemed like a good idea....
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