May 2, 2015

Book review: So, Anyway... by John Cleese

One of my favorite comedians is John Cleese. I don't know how many times I've watched and laughed at Fawlty Towers or Life of Brian. But I haven't really known anything more about him, so I decided to read his biography called So, Anyway... written by himself.
It turns out that John Cleese grew up as the only child in a family with a mother who was a little bit crazy and the family constantly moved around in England. He explained in the book that constant relocation in childhood is often associated with creativity. Your mind will become more flexible and capable of combining thoughts and ideas in new and fresh ways. Another proof that this theory might be the truth is the entrepreneur Elon Musk. His parents divorced when he was young and he moved around the country of South Africa, and is now considered a creative genius. If you want to read more about Elon Musk, you should read my biography book on him called The Engineer - Follow Elon Musk on a journey from South Africa to Mars
But back to John Cleese. If you have watched his movies, it might be difficult to accept that John Cleese was an introvert. He was also a good student who studied at Cambridge and he was also a teacher in science, English, geography, history and Latin. He was smart and got one of the best grades in criminology after just reading the book two days before the exam. 
It was at Cambridge he started practicing comedy. After the exam he decided to pursue a career in comedy instead of law. He said that "very, very few people have any idea what they are talking about," a reference to those who said that he should work with practicing law instead of comedy. In hindsight, it turned out that it was a good decision to not listen to other people.
But the road to fame wasn't always straight. Like other skills, writing and performing comedy is not easy. What John Cleese learned was that when acquiring some skill, we don't improve gradually, like some ascending straight line on a graph; the improvements take place suddenly. After a period of not appearing to get better at all, if we just keep patiently practicing, there will be an unexpected jump up to the next level:

Plateau... jump!
 
Plateau... jump!

Plateau... jump!

Because writing comedy is difficult, John Cleese delivers several blows aimed at mostly British journalist who tended to sometimes write bad reviews of his shows. He explained that 
British journalists tend to believe that people who become good at something do so because they seek fame and fortune. This is because these are the sole motives of people who become British journalists.
Also, some journalists tend to write bad reviews just to get noticed. This happened after a show in Canada. The audience in Boston liked it, but when John Cleese performed it in Canada, the reviews dismissed it as a dreadful, talent-free disaster. But then someone told him that "the Canadian critics are always like that."
If you happen to be an aspiring comedian, John Cleese's best advice is to steal the idea that you know is good, and try to reproduce it in a setting that you know and understand. 
Comics steal and then conceal their loot. The fact is that it is exceedingly difficult to write really good comedy. Those who can do it possess a very rare talent.
What you also should do is to always try to improve and learn something from each performance. If you are performing the same piece night after night then you can carry out a series of little experiments, discovering what works and what doesn't. Every single night you will learn something new about the psychology of your audience. 
It will always be difficult to learn the psychology of your audience. John Cleese noticed that sometimes his audience started laughing at things no one had ever previously laughed at. Laughter is also infectious, so people tend to laugh together, but when they view the same production separately their opinions will vary more widely. It may also take time before a sketch becomes a classic. It took about five years before the "Dead Parrot" mysteriously morphed into a classic. 
Neither should a comedian try to be a perfectionist. John Cleese learned that when you stop concentrating on avoiding mistakes, you relax a bit, and consequently you will actually make fewer mistakes. The more anxious you feel, the less creative you are.

No comments:

Post a Comment