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Miami Book Fair: John Cleese is seriously satisfied

John Cleese's silly memoir, "So, Anyway … ," is as much a confession as it is a cliffhanger.

In closing out his autobiography about the making of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Cleese, the tallest and "best mustached" of the British sketch-comedy troupe, writes that the string of stage shows they performed at London's O2 arena this past summer would be the last public Python reunion. "We'll meet together now and again for a meal," he writes, "but otherwise, we'll all go off happily in our different directions. Michael [Palin] traveling, Eric [Idle] writing songs, Terry [Gilliam] raising money for another plotless extravaganza, Terry [Jones] to the anger management classes that are beginning to transform him, and me to puzzle out an experience I'd had at the O2."

"Monty Python has ceased to be," Cleese deadpans over the phone, echoing a line from his infamous "Dead Parrot" sketch, speaking from a roadside in downtown Chicago. "There are no regrets. We all have things that we're up to, but being part of Python is the last thing I want to do with my life. Some things you do in life are for money, or to hang on to something you love, and they can sometimes be more satisfying than the things that ring in the big bucks."

Just like other post-Python comedy material (1980's "Contractual Obligation Album," 1987's "Monty Python's the Final Rip Off"), the most recent reunion (billed as "Monty Python Live (Mostly)") came together over money, Cleese admits. A "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" producer demanded royalties for the "Spamalot" musical, forcing the quintet, he says, to perform shows "to sort out the appalling mess of our legal costs." But Cleese is quick to point out that "So, Anyway … ," which he'll talk about during his Sunday, Nov. 23 visit to the Miami Book Fair, is less a money grab, and more a "strong urge to reconnect with my youth."

"I've only done three things in my life that have satisfied me. One was the 'Life of Brian,' then 'A Fish Called Wanda,' and now this book," Cleese says. "Publishers wanted me to plunge deep into the 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' years, but I wanted to write a book that satisfied me, and not to race through bits of my life that had a distinctly formative effect on me. When Michael Caine told me he was writing his own memoir, he rediscovered parts of his life he'd forgotten. I already did the one-man shows last year to pay off my alimony. This is for me."

The book's chronology stops just before Cleese's time on "Monty Python" and "Fawlty Towers," two totems of subversive wit and quotable madness that defined British TV comedies of the late 1960s and 1970s. "So, Anyway …" starts with his inauspicious childhood in the sleepy town of Weston-super-Mare, England (he disliked mom, but dad was "gentlemanly" and "astute"), then cycles through "boring" adventures in boarding school.

"It all went toward developing a sense of humor, and thereby to talk about where the sense of humor came from before and after the Cambridge Circus was terribly important to me," says Cleese, 75.

School lessons become morality tales (a wrestling match with a staunch opponent later inspires the overconfident Black Knight in "Holy Grail"). Touring with the Cambridge Circus comedy troupe while he was in college, meanwhile, informs the Python philosophy about punch lines in sketches ("don't bother with them.") But it was hooking up with future Python and writing partner Graham Chapman, first at Cambridge and later on British TV satires "The Frost Report" and "At Last the 1948 Show" (both zany ancestors of "Python"), that sharpened Cleese's comedy chops.

"He seemed to have a better judgment of what was funny than I did," Cleese recalls of Chapman, who died in 1989. "I talk about the 'Cheese Shop' sketch's origins in the book, where I keep nattering on about flavors of cheese. I didn't think it was funny. Graham told me it was. Graham was quite lazy, sitting back and staring into space for long periods of time with a pipe in his mouth. I used to joke that I did 80 percent of the work, but his extraordinary abilities made us a good team. He was wacky, more out of left field, and I'd work more on the logic, building emotion in the sketch. I still find it difficult to know what is funny, which is why I miss Graham a lot. Now, he's bleeding demised, and I'm still broken up about it, because he had a lot left to contribute."

When his book tour wraps in December, Cleese says his focus may turn to finishing his memoirs, since "So, Anyway …" ends on what he calls an "artful cliff-hanger." A "volume two," covering his Python years and beyond, may compel further reunions with his old comedy comrades, even if they aren't public.

"When I get on to the next volume," he says, "I'll go into the Pythons in greater detail. I'm going to ring the guys up and say things like, 'This sketch that I just discovered today: Was it primarily written by you, Terry, or you, Michael?' And I will hope to bloody hell they can remember."

John Cleese will appear 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, at Miami Dade College's Chapman Conference Center, 300 NE Second Ave., in Miami. Admission is free, but tickets must be reserved at MiamiBookFair.com. Call 305-237-3258.

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