As I was growing up, two famous comic troupes worked from different sides of the pond. On public television, Britain’s renowned Monty Python’s Flying Circus dazzled us with a singularly bizarre brand of humor that at any time might feature exploding penguins, singing lumberjacks, Spam-loving Vikings, or a pantomime Princess Margaret. Back home, each week, LIVE FROM NEW YORK! came Saturday Night Live, with its Coneheads, Blues Brothers, Land Sharks and Killer Bees.
Some tried to argue over which series was funniest. The rest of us were content just to enjoy what we knew was a golden age of televised comedy.
Now, we can take a look at these celebrated series and two of the men behind each with the release of So, Anyway…(Crown Archetype, 2014) by Monty Python’s John Cleese, and I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend (HarperCollins, 2014) by SNL’s Martin Short.
Cleese’s So, Anyway… is the story of how the comedian grew from an awkward, six-foot-tall 12-year-old to an international comedy legend. Gangly and awkward—a “gutless little weed,” by his own description—Cleese survived his early days of preparatory school by making the other boys laugh. At Cambridge University, after a humiliating audition for the Footlights drama club, Cleese met Graham Chapman, who would become his main writing partner for the next 20 years. Cleese rubbed shoulders and worked alongside such comedy legends as David Frost, Peter Sellers, and Marty Feldman before earning a gig writing first for radio, and then for television on the groundbreaking show The Frost Report. Later, Cleese and Chapman approached four other young comedians about doing their own TV show. They landed a meeting with BBC comedy. “I know it sounds incredible,” Cleese writes, “but we had no proper discussion at all about what kind of show we were going to do. We just wanted to do one.” They were immediately signed for 13 shows, and one Flying Sheep skit later, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was born.
The book follows Cleese’s Python career all the way through 2014’s triumphant reunion show at London’s O2 arena—a show which sold out in 44 seconds. Eventually, the surviving Pythons (Chapman died in 1989) gave 10 performances of Monty Python Live (mostly)—One Down Five to Go to audiences of 16,000 people per night.
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In I Must Say, Short recounts his life from his provincial Canadian upbringing to the pinnacle of show business success. Obsessed with the spotlight as a young boy, he would mount elaborate one-man variety shows in his childhood bedroom. His youth was not without tragedy, though—he lost both parents and a brother by the time he was 20, and it would not be the last time he lost a loved one under tragic circumstances.
Short’s big break was being cast in a Toronto production of Godspell. There, he worked with many young comedy stars, including SNL pioneer Gilda Radner, with whom he had a rocky love affair. “Gilda was a rare event, hard to explain if not experienced in person,” Short writes. “I have never met a woman who was so comfortable in her strangeness.” During the run of Godspell, Short also met Nancy Dolman, the woman who would later become his wife of 36 years.
Stardom came to Short when he became a cast member of the legendary SCTV troupe, alongside comedians such as Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara and John Candy. Next came his stint on SNL, where he introduced such memorable comic alter-egos as Jackie Rogers Jr., Irving Cohen, and of course, Ed Grimley.
Despite success that saw him perform in movies including Three Amigos and Father of the Bride, and a Broadway career that found him in such shows as The Goodbye Girl, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me and A Musical for Little Me (for which he won a Tony Award for Best Actor), Short and Dolman enjoyed a quiet, normal marriage against the backdrop of show business celebrity. That ended, however, in 2010, when Dolman succumbed to ovarian cancer. In I Must Say, Short writes about how his wife endured her ordeal with unimaginable perseverance and grace, and he celebrates the life and family they created together.
With So Anyway… and I Must Say, readers can learn about a golden age of comedy from two men who were at its core. Whichever side of the pond you prefer, you’re guaranteed a hearty laugh.