In this probing collection of essays and lectures given during his tenure as Cornell University's “professor at large,” Cleese (So, Anyway…, 2014, etc.) reminds us that his intelligence and wit extend well beyond Monty Python and Fawlty Towers.
The beloved British comic actor, writer, and director began his academic association with Cornell in 1999, when he was invited to serve as a visiting professor, holding forth on everything from The Life of Brian and the nature of religion to creativity, screenwriting, group dynamics, and physiognomy. He has continued guiding these scholarly workshops and classes flecked with humor for almost 20 years. This book assembles the best of them in a thoughtful, engaging way—at least to liberal thinkers—though the author sometimes succumbs to broad generalizations. Apart from his look at frameworks that fire creative energies, of particular note is his discussion of the dichotomy between the authoritarian impulse of organized religion and the liberating mysticism expressed by Buddhism. Cleese also offers trenchant (if familiar) commentary on political and cultural matters while relating much practical knowledge about film and TV, including the eventual demise of the Pythons. Although aspects of it are somewhat dated, movie buffs will savor a long, detailed, often eye-opening interview Cleese conducted in 2000 with respected screenwriter William Goldman—during which Cleese also recalls his experiences writing and performing in A Fish Called Wanda. In “The Human Face,” the author talks to developmental psychologist Stephen J. Ceci, and the two brilliantly explore the parameters of perception and recognition, with an illustrative aside on the “golden mean.” Cleese, 78, reveals a sharp but humane sensibility as well as a wicked sense of humor when it comes to human frailty. What surprises is the depth of his understanding.
As provocative as it is amusing—an edifying journey through the mind of a major talent.