Sunday, November 22, 2015


A terrific British expression captures the essence of good luck. If someone has remarkable luck, the Brits describe that person as “jammy.” It comes from the idea that good things stick to a lucky person as if they’re made of jam. I just finished reading John Cleese’s memoir So, Anyway, which relates the story of his early life before he became one of the “Pythons” of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame. As I read his account of his early career, I kept thinking that this man was about the jammiest comedy writer ever. The most astonishing opportunities dropped into his lap. I am jealous.

Cleese was a law student at Cambridge when he began acting and writing comedy sketches with the Cambridge Footlights, an annual revue put on by the Footlights Club at Cambridge University. He met Graham Chapman (another Python) at the Footlights, where they wrote comedy sketches together. Chapman was in medical school at the time. Shortly prior to his graduation from Cambridge, Cleese landed a job at a law firm, where he was supposed to start working after he graduated. But fate intervened for the jammy Cleese. Just before he started his new job, two executives from BBC radio appeared, took him to lunch, and offered him a job writing comedy at the BBC. They had seen his work with the Footlights and they headhunted him, offering him more than twice the salary he would have made at the law firm. How often does such a thing happen to a graduating law student let alone an aspiring comedy writer? It’s insane. Keep reading, he gets even jammier.

Early on, Cleese took a leave of absence from the BBC to go on tour in America with a production of the Footlights Revue (written during his last year at Cambridge), which was renamed Cambridge Circus. Days before the show closed, he received a call out of the blue from a producer putting together a Broadway musical called Half a Sixpence. He invited Cleese to audition for a role. Cleese found this hilarious since he could neither sing nor dance, and he went to the audition on a lark. At the audition, he informed them he could neither sing nor dance. They thought he was joking, but he reasserted, in all seriousness, that he was completely unmusical. They asked him to sing the British National Anthem and they stopped him several notes into his caterwauling because they couldn’t stand to listen to it. When he returned to his hotel room that night, he told Chapman he got the part, just to see his expression. The next day the producer called and offered him the part. He thought the producer had either had a nervous breakdown after hearing Cleese sing or was having him, on but he was sane and sincere. Jammy. The musical director assured him he could lip-sync the singing and that they wouldn’t put him in any dance numbers. (He was, in fact, expressly forbidden to actually sing during the production.) This leads me to ponder how excruciatingly hard real singers and dancers work to land a role in a Broadway musical while the tone-deaf, uncoordinated Cleese had a role handed to him on a silver platter.

Cleese’s jamminess continued through the chapters of his life. Approximately one day after Half a Sixpence closed, an editor at Newsweek Magazine invited him (yes, invited him) to take a job there as a journalist. They wanted to lighten up some of the articles and hoped he could turn his comic wit to the task. Soon afterward, David Frost (only the most successful comedian in Britain at the time) approached Cleese to invite him (yes, invite him) to work for him as a writer on The Frost Report. And not long after that, Peter Sellers, the funniest man in Britain, solicited Cleese’s comedic writing services. I mean, seriously? Cleese was a mere lad in his mid-twenties when all these invitations rolled in. Jammy, jammy, jammy.

Cleese certainly knows how to elicit a laugh, but a lot of excellent comedians who also have this ability have not had opportunities fall at their feet. The scandalously cheery Rhonda Byrne of Law of Attraction fame has made millions of dollars shaming us into thinking we aren’t trying hard enough to visualize success, to manifest good fortune, if we fall short of our aspirations. She is (pardon my French) so full of poo when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of achieving success. Success requires talent, hard work, and a touch of the jammy. The truth of the matter is that a lot of talented people never have the chance to fully utilize and reveal their talent. They may throw boulders of positive energy out into the universe and still not see any pathway to recognition, success, and the chance to use their talents to the max coming their way as a result. I think those who catch a lucky break often have no idea of the extent of their incredible good fortune, despite their efforts at summoning up sufficient gratitude. The universe is a mystery and randomness occurs.  

[Football reference alert.] At the risk of losing the interest of those readers who consider themselves above the plebeian allure of football, I wish to share one of life’s lessons inherent in this sport. As the season progresses (as it has at this particular point in time), and some of the hottest players go out injured, some of the replacements begin making their presence felt in a big way. This is how young men passionate about football, extraordinary athletes, who formerly remained hidden in the shadows, have the opportunity to step into the spotlight and shine. When a number-one player can’t play, and the coach sends in the backup, the fans wince collectively at the prospect of watching the backup get chewed up and spit out. But sometimes that backup defies all expectations and astonishingly takes our breath away with the outstanding ability he has within him, which has remained concealed from view merely for the lack of the opportunity to step up and show what he can do. I wonder how many tremendous athletes remain hidden in the shadows, kept from showing what they can do because the opportunity never presents itself.  

In one of his love poems, Kenneth Patchen compares his discovery of his beloved to “a boy finding a star in a haymow.” The more years I spend on this earth, the more I have found that nearly everyone is a star in a haymow. Some of us are jammy enough to get those lucky breaks that lead to recognition and opportunities to maximize the use of our talents. Others of us never get those chances. Some of us appear on a highly visible stage and achieve largescale success, like John Cleese and the football greats. Others of us forge our personal successes and count ourselves lucky to have the opportunity to do the things we love and the things at which we excel in our quieter lives in a small-scale way. Lately I find that I look for the passion in people like a heat-seeking missile honing in on a warm body (perhaps a bad metaphor since I don’t want to blow the person up, just hear them talk about what they love). If I can discover what a person feels passionate about, what gets them juiced, and then encourage them to talk about it then I feel like I have hit pay-dirt. I am dedicated to the narrative. Each of us has some time, some place, someone, something that was, is, or will be the great adventure of our lives. I yearn to hear the story of that great adventure. I search for that star in the haymow; and when I find one, I feel roaringly jammy.

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