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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

October 18, 1992|CHRIS GOODRICH

CLEESE ENCOUNTERS: The Unauthorized Biography of Monty Python Veteran John Cleese by Jonathan Margolis (St. Martin's Press: $19.95; 286 pp.). In 1979, on the day Monty Python's religious satire "Life of Brian" was released, John Cleese appeared on a talk show with Malcolm Muggeridge only to hear the elder critic call the film "miserable" and hardly as memorable as Chartres Cathedral. Cleese replied, deadpan and undoubtedly with perfect Cleesian timing, "Not a funny building." The episode illustrates nicely both the nature of Cleese's wit and his ability to home in on an argument's weakest link--an ability that contributed not only to some of Monty Python's best sketches but also to the comedy group's eventual breakup. "Cleese Encounters," by English journalist Jonathan Margolis, is a well-written, serious biography only moderately hampered by the fact that Cleese, being almost as proper and repressed as the authority figures he has mocked throughout his career, refused to cooperate in its creation. Cleese's repression is central to Margolis' understanding of the man, just as it is to Cleese himself, who has spent many years in psychotherapy attempting to overcome, or at least limit, his British reserve. Cleese, nonetheless, apparently still longs for conventional respectability: A graduate of Cambridge University who long planned to become a lawyer, over the years Cleese has talked about writing novels, becoming an historian, and even--frightening thought--getting involved in international diplomacy. Fans of "Fawlty Towers" will find this book more to their liking than will Pythonites, for Margolis focuses on his life and individual career rather than his best work, of which the ultimate example, as any silly, non-barmy twit will tell you, is Python's "Argument Clinic."

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