We don’t have to think about the dreary news of the day all the time. Here are a two antidotes to the slough of despond that I have resorted to lately.
Two very different funny men have written two surprisingly moving memoirs. John Cleese describes an awkward youth that will strike a chord with anyone who has felt himself to be an unintentional outsider in his own place, time and family. With excessive, sales-depressing, British understatement, it’s called, “So, Anyway…”
His father was a hard-working traveling salesman, genial, kindly and struggling to keep a roof over the family’s head. He also had a sense of humor. When their seaside resort town of Weston-super-Mare was pointlessly bombed by the Germans when Cleese was four or five, his father said the Germans were trying to demonstrate they had a sense of humor.
Thanks to his father Cleese was able to attend what he calls a second rate public school, that is private school, where he did well enough to matriculate at Cambridge – the route to upward mobility in class-bound Britain. His mother, by contrast was a self-obsessed walking encyclopedia of phobias, distant and given to cowering neediness or violent tantrums.
She is undoubtedly the source of a serious interest in psychology on the author’s part. The usual traumas of public school may also have spurred this interest. The family name was originally Cheese and they might as well not have bothered changing it because the moment he appeared in school he was called Cheese. He also grew very tall, very early without any accompanying muscle so that he resembled a flamingo. Two things saved this shy, easily bullied, unsocial, only child. He was surprisingly good at cricket and discovered he could make his classmates laugh. A star is born.
Cleese also seems to have had from an early age what Hemingway called a writer’s necessary equipment, a bullshit detector. Or he just never learned not to question authority, so much of his memoir recounts all the silly or incomprehensible things the establishment of the day expected him to believe about God, King, Country, and other institutions. He spent a lot of time thinking that these old fools must be kidding. A satirist is born.
Rather surprisingly, unless a second volume is contemplated, Cleese closes his memoir just as Python is about to begin, so it is really A Portrait of the Comic as a Young Man. Those hoping for backstage gossip and outtakes from “Monty Python,” “Fawlty Towers” and “A Fish Called Wanda” will be disappointed. Instead it offers a memorable portrait of growing up in a very different world and slowly leaving adolescent idiocy behind and coming into his own.
Martin Short, by contrast, seems to have been Mr. Show Business from birth. No self-effacing title for him. His memoir is: “I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend.“ He was the youngest of a large Canadian family whose room, due to the crowd, was in the attic. That was fine with him. He turned the space into a TV studio of the imagination where he practiced hosting his own show. Very few years later he actually was hosting a TV show in Toronto.
Soon he was in the Canadian cast of “Godspell” alongside Gilda Radner, Paul Schaeffer and Eugene Levy. He has since then always worked, but has never achieved the superstardom of some of his peers. But a resume including “Saturday Night Live,” “Three Amigos,” and starring in Broadway musicals is fine with him.
He cheerfully drops names of famous friends like Tom Hanks and Steve Martin, but it appears they really are longtime friends. Every year they have their colonoscopies together. He was also honored to be asked by Nora Ephron to speak at her funeral, and he comes across as a proud, doting father and for 38 years a devoted husband. And then the charmed life takes a turn with very few laughs when he narrates heartbreakingly, but not mawkishly, his wife’s death from cancer in 2010. It is the story of a ham with heart, and unexpectedly touching.