Book Review: “Timothy Leary: A Biography” by Robert Greenfield

Ever start reading a book and you think, “This sounds cliched and slow, maybe I should move on?” DON’T STOP READING. This book is cliched and slow at the beginning, yes, and the early pyschological observations seem overly simplistic, yes — but, still, don’t stop reading.

By the time Timothy Leary goes to West Point — the future psychedelic drug guru of the entire western world in the most conservative and rigid part of US society — the book becomes riveting. And after that, it never stops.

Timothy Leary was a consummate showman above all else — to him, life was all about fame and performance, and he even manages to be interesting and compelling until the day he dies.

And the research — the sheer detail and amount of reading Mr. Greenfield must have done is staggering. I couldn’t write a book like this with a staff of 20. Just about all of Leary’s personal correspondence is referenced, all of his books as well, all of the books of his peers, all of his scientific studies, all the articles WRITTEN ABOUT him at contemporary parts of the book, interviews with critical figures — it’s all there. Staggering in volume.

And, until this book, I thought I knew who Timothy Leary was, what he stood for, and how he fit into our culture. I didn’t know anything.

If only Mr. Greenfield would write biographies on EVERYONE I’m interested in reading about. Highly recommended.

Available on Amazon here.

Book Review: “A Liar’s Autobiography” by Graham Chapman, Douglas Adams, and David Sherlock (audio, abridged)

If you’re looking for something unashamedly Pythonesque, read by on of the members of Monty Ptyhon, this is it. Graham Chapman’s autobiography, read by Chapman himself.

The central premise of this book is that you never know what’s true and what’s a lie. Pretty daring for “non-fiction” — Werner Herzog before Werner Herzog.

There are some obvious fictional elements — long passages from the fictional British flying ace Biggles’s point of view, a few purloined Monty Python sketches — and strangely THIS is where you are on your solidest ground. You are comfortable in these waters — or in this airplane — because you KNOW they aren’t true. Everything else, though, is up in the air. Higher than even Biggles’s airplane.

The impressive part of this work is the sheer unrelenting creativity of it — if a German airplane shoots at Biggles, the bullets say “ping” in German; almost every line is a study in inverted meaning, irony, sarcasm, litotes.

And it IS hilarious. I

t’s one of the few audiobooks (or book of any kind) that I have listened to twice, because not only is it enormously entertaining, it represents something so surreal and fresh that I haven’t seen it’s like in the written word before. Not even in Chapman’s close friend Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which is the only book I can compare it to.

For all that is good about it, there are flaws —

It is abridged, for one thing, even when it says it is not (yet another lie! 🙂 ), and I in general despise abridgements. However, I can’t tell what is missing. It’s short, 4 CDs, and I know from the reviews I’ve read online that SOMETHING is missing, but I can’t tell.

What really annoys me are the extraneous adverbs. There are places in this where the adverbs are absolutely critical for the humor, but many of them are only clunky additions, and the author can tell this as well as he trips while reading them. Basically, he should have read the whole book out loud at least once in the final edit. But, really, this is a minor complaint.

Overall, the work is genius and quite rewarding. I even found it inspiring — I blame the irresistible need to start the current “silly” novel I’m working on directly on this book. It’s well worth a read.

Available on Amazon here.

The Interconnectedness Of the 1970’s – Monty Python, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Timothy Leary

I’ve been reading quite a few books; in case you haven’t been reading my other posts, here are just a few:

The Life of Python
Michael Palin’s Diaries 1969-1979
A Liar’s Autobiography (Graham Chapman)
Timothy Leary: A Biography
John Lennon: The Life

What strikes me about Lennon (and the Beatles), Timothy Leary, and Monty Python is how they intertwine through the years, indeed how all the icons of the era — including the Rolling Stones and the WHO — all seemed to hang out together on a relatively constant basis.

Leary shows up in Chapman’s autobiography, and mentions of him meeting Eric Idle are present in Leary’s biography. The Beatles, especially George Harrison, became very close to the Pythons — GH funding five million pounds of “The Life of Brian” at extreme personal risk.

Per Chapman and Palin, Eric Idle starts to hang out with the Stones constantly and was very close to George Harrison, Chapman hangs out with the Who and helps train the fledgling Douglas Adams, Palin becomes very close with George Harrison as well and is friends with the whole world, and Pink Floyd helps fund “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.

It’s like some vast, tangled web of interwoven causality, where the whole counter culture (especially in Britain) conspires to lift itself higher and higher, until the whole period is still iconic today.

It really does echo down, even to Gen-X icons. Johnny Depp and Wynona Rider were very close to Timothy Leary (Rider was his god-daughter), and Uma Thurman was the daughter of one of Leary’s ex-wives and a Buddhist monk that had interacted with Leary on several occasions.

An aristocracy was formed during this period, a clique of people and hedge-maze of relationships that helped create modern entertainment and came dominate the last quarter of the 20th century, especially many pop-culture icons.

Is there anything similar happening in the world in the present? It makes me wonder if this aristocracy continues, or if our isolative technological culture that make each person into an unassailable island fortress has turned even this network of entertainment cognoscenti into a group of lonely hermits.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Monty Python, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, and Depp, but I never realized exactly how tightly locked together all these gears were in the turn of the years.

Monty Python is the Meaning of Life

Well, I’ve done it. To improve the silly, Monty Python-esque, surrealism-inspired book I am currently writing (in truth, I’m currently writing two books simultaneously, and only one of them is silly) — I’ve determined that I need to come to a greater understanding of stand-up, skit, and other forms of comedy. Essentially, I need to rapidly, efficiently develop a high level of expertise in something I’ve never done. Yay! MORE impossible goals!

So, how do you graduate from being just a snarky writer and entertaining guy/gal in a crowd to a full humorist? No idea! But here’s my current strategy:

1) Read books by and on Monty Python:
– The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus: All the Words (Vol 1 and Vol 2) (reading one episode a night and acting out key scenes to practice movement, elocution, and emotion)
– Michael Palin’s Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years (the full 700 page book, not the abridged audio (which is also good) for an inside perspective of Python in it’s heyday and the personalities involved)
Monty Python Speaks (for the opinions of the other members)
– Graham Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography (I only have the abridged audio read by Chapman, I’d love a hard copy so I can get past the abridgements but they are rare and expensive! I re-listen to this regularly to try and get that madness back in my words)

The goal of this research is to be able to build a sort of mental armature or model of each member of Monty Python as they were back in the old days, to try and estimate how each of the six members might think. Not sure if this will prove to be of any value, but I’m hoping it will give an extra perspective and polish to my work. As a note, I am finding Terry Gilliam to be a particularly fascinating individual, and John Cleese is a strange type of hyper-analytic genius.

Note: I would really like to read The Pythons: Autobiography, the classic Monty Python’s Big Red Book (which is blue, of course), and Brand New Monty Python Bok, but I haven’t been able to find them for a reasonable price — and I’ve spent so much money already, it’s really hard for me to justify it.

2) Read books on Comedy:
The Comedy Bible by Judy Carter (very interesting insights to modern joke and sitcom structure)
The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus (Vorhaus wrote “Married With Children”, but I can forgive him, there are some great brainstorming techniques in here, but his plot advice is pretty rudimentary)
Step by Step to Stand Up Comedy by Greg Dean (not very far into this one, but it gives you a lot of information about the classic punchline that is missing from the Comedy Bible, as CB focuses on “Act-Outs” and performance.)
– Signed up for Dean Lewis’s Comedy Workshop, where I will have a last performance at the Dallas Improv. (I sat in on one of his Level 2 classes, and everyone was HILARIOUS; if there is any hope for me to really learn this, this may be it)

The goal of this is to learn performance and modern joke structure, to give me more insights into the old Monty Python mindset. This is far outside my normal limns and safety zones, a dramatic shift for myself personally, and the stage work especially is a stretch for me — and fills me with a terror of a uniquely gut-clawing and nauseous breed. A bit like gas, really. Or a chestburster.

3) Listen to Watch Comedy
– Eddie Izzard’s Dressed to Kill (he is the heir apparent to Python’s style, and it’s amazing how effortlessly it all comes together; especially trying to work out when and how he does his faces and changes in intonation)
– Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy (some obvious influence on Izzard, love his body mechanics)
– Steven Wright I Have a Pony (great surrealism, but I crack up when I try to be that stonefaced)
– Comedy Central Presents and Comedy Central Death Ray, whatever other stand up I can get used/cheap
– I’d say Flying Circus and all the movies (Holy Grail, Life of Brian, Meaning of Life), but I’ve seen them so much they’re almost memorized.
Beyond the Fringe (A strong influence on Monty Python, where Dudley Moore got his start; really kicked off the wave of satire that Python later rode)
Do Not Adjust Your Set (Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle) and At Last the 1948 Show (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle) (both series are Monty Python pre-cursors)
I’m Sorry I’ll Read that Again (John Cleese and Graham Chapman radio show, another precursor)
– The Compleat History of Britain (Palin and Jones) (another precursor that I’ve only found on youtube)
The Goon Show — Spike Miligan, Harry Seacombe, and Peter Sellers (a strong influence on the 5 British Monty Python members when they were kids)
Fawlty Towers

The goal of this is to identify what I like best and to analyze it, to see what is being done. For instance, how to Martin and Izzard fill time when they’ve forgotten what’s next? What do you do if a joke fails? How do you make the audience accept surreality in their humor? And HOW IN GOD’S NAME does Martin walk around on his toes with his knees bent without falling down?

4) Constant Practice
– Carry notebook to jot down ideas constantly
– Carry Digital Voice Recorder to record act-outs and ideas and test runs of jokes and anything that gets a snicker during the day
– Do brain storming exercises every day (this also helps with serious writing)
– Somehow learn to have no shame on stage, practice Act-Outs as part of every day stuff, but only if appropriate
– KEEP WRITING BOTH OF MY NOVELS (this has been difficult and slow since I broke my thumb (hey, did I mention that my right hand is in a cast? typing now requires gymnastic effort), but it is critical; this is all about making me a better writer.)

This is the part where the rubber meets the road, practice, reciting jokes aloud, opening up myself and uncoiling the stresses that keep me mousy and quiet during the crushing banality of ordinary life. I don’t LIKE being quiet and mousy, and I’m NOT, not with my friends or on my own time. While I obviously find this freeing — downright revolution-inspiring — there’s one part I don’t like a about it: Comedy is built on negativity in an almost universal manner. Comedians talk about what scares them, annoys them, upsets them, weirds them out — jokes about things they like usually flop for the same reason long periods of happiness with no conflict flop in fiction… Conflict is central.

In fact, what I’m finding out is that the elements of comedy — even stand-up jokes — have a lot in common with fiction writing. Minimalist verbiage, good hooks in the setup, universal themes, punchy pacing, the importance of being unexpected. My hope is that my expertise in one area will transfer easily to the other.

Special thanks to my writing friends (Jonathan Wood (author of No Hero), Michelle Muenzler, William Ledbetter) and to my wife for supporting me on this crazy project. Especially to my wife; she has to put up with most of it.