John Cleese has spent the better part of five decades looking at what makes creative people so darn good at it. As one of the original founding members of the Monty Python comedy troupe and then alongside former wife Connie Booth being the creative force behind Fawlty Towers which just so happens to be, IMHO, the greatest British comedy series of all-time, Cleese does know a bit about creativity and being creative.
Following years of reading and research, including talking to academics, psychologists and creative types, the culmination of his 55 years of study comes in the form of a recently published book, “Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide“, which is not only an easy read but a very important one for anyone and everyone that finds themselves interested in taking that elusive first step to being creative in anything that comes your way.
Among an endless amount of topics, we had the opportunity to sit down with Cleese to talk about creativity, the importance of carving out personal space and discovering was to ‘just do things better’ through the practice of embracing chaos and not being afraid to make mistakes.
Tellyspotting: You’ve been talking about creativity for a long time what initially interested you in the creative process?
John Cleese: I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as being creative. At school, if you were ‘creative’, it meant you could paint. What I discovered was, when I got to Cambridge, I joined the Footlights Club because they were the nicest bunch of people, they weren’t the slightest bit stuck up because they had a sense of humor. Very relaxed and pleasant. I always knew I could make friends laugh in small groups informally but here I discovered I could make people laugh in a proper, professional sort of way. I began to get interested in certain things that happened when I was writing more so than when I was performing.
One of the things I noticed where I’d be working on a sketch, I’d go to bed without a good ending and when I’d wake up, I’d go to my desk and, suddenly, I’d see the solution which is something I’d failed to do the previous evening. And, this happened so often, and then I thought why can I do it in the morning if I can’t do it at night? I came to the realization that there was only one possible answer and that was that my mind was working on it while I was sleeping. I began to realize what a huge part the unconscious plays when you are trying to come up with something.
Tellyspotting: You talk about unconscious creativity a lot in the book. How do you sell this to an individual who’s trying to be creative. Is there a key to unlocking unconscious creativity?
John Cleese: Well, yes, there’s a key to unlocking it or giving it a chance to breathe. You can’t order it about, you can hit it with a stick if it doesn’t do what you want, you have to sort of trick it. It’s not clockwork, it’s not pure cause and effect, it’s getting in a playful mood. If we’re sad, we have sad thoughts. If we’re angry, we have angry thoughts. So, if we want to be playful, you need to be in a playful mood.
So, the ultimate question is, how do you get in a playful mood and, I think, the key is to look at children playing. Nobody has to show them how to play. It’s the most natural thing in the world. They can all do it. There isn’t a right way or a wrong way of doing it, you just do it. Whereas, the moment that you grow up, you start learning that ‘this was is right and that way is wrong’ and that you really mustn’t make a mistake because if you make a mistake, people will laugh at you so you spend all your time trying to be right.
The key to being in a playful mood is to be able to recreate what you were able to do as a child and play like that which means you have to cut yourself off from the world for a specific period of time. You have to prepare boundaries of space with no interruptions. Interruptions are death to creativity. Try to isolate yourself for an hour and 15 minutes given that the first 15 minutes your mind spends going over all the things you should be doing. Your mind then begins to think of a particular situation and how you ‘play’ and, ultimately, deal with it. In my case, it’s how you finish the sketch whereas for someone else it might be how am I going to manage a particular group of people at work.
The more playful you can be where you’re not racking your brains with a furrowed brow, the more playful you can be, the more original the ideas will be because any kind of pressure or tension pushes you back into stereotypical ways. I’ve been looking at this since I was 22 and now I’m 81 so 59 years of thinking about this. I’ve managed to boil it down to about five different things — play, get in a playful mood, learn how to do that, and then do it.
Then, the other thing I have to have is once you’ve had an idea and you’ve explored it for a bit you have to remember that, at that point, you don’t really know if it’s a good idea or not. You have to give it a chance because at the beginning of an idea, there’s no such thing as a mistake. You will find out after time if it’s going in the right direction or not. Give it time. For ‘A Fish Called Wanda’, I did 13 drafts!
Bill Young: You talk a lot about time in the book. Creativity is not something that just happens. And I think setting a timeframe or setting a parameter is a good idea because, as much as being creative takes time, it would seem like it could also be your worst nightmare that you don’t know when to say when.
John Cleese: I think that’s absolutely right. You must give yourself a time when the play stops and you go back to real life. That said, you mustn’t have real life interrupting you while you’re playing because kids can play because they don’t have to mind the shop.
Bill Young: You mentioned Graham Chapman earlier. I know you primarily wrote a lot together with Graham for Flying Circus and then you and Connie obviously wrote Fawlty Towers. Is there a difference in the creative process when you are writing with somebody as opposed to writing on your own?
John Cleese: I think the great advantage of writing with someone is that they can toss something into the mix that you haven’t thought of. Even it you misunderstood it, you tend to build on what you misunderstood and, suddenly, you’ve got a wonderful idea. As you are bouncing something backwards and forwards between people, it’s more likely you will get your mind out of the groove. When we have the same thought all the time, people talk about getting stuck in a rut. How do you get out of the rut? Well, you play, you see.
If you run into any sort of time pressure or you’re having to try to prove yourself or if you’re anxious because you think everyone’s going to think you’re a fool, then you tighten up and your thinking immediately becomes more stereotypical and not so creative where you fall back on things that worked ok before. With mistakes, you suddenly come up with a brand new idea.
Bill Young: I’ve always felt that one of the things that breeds creativity or is a main ingredient of creativity is curiosity. If an individual has a very high confidence level does that have an adverse effect on their creativity?
John Cleese: Yes, but it depends on what you mean by confidence. If you think you know everything without having any real basis for that belief, there are a lot of people going around, particularly older, who really think they know everything. I’m wise enough now to realize how little I really understand and that’s how Plato defined wisdom, realizing how little we know, and people like that are always open to learning because they don’t think they know it all.
That’s why some people get really good at their jobs and others just stick at the same level because repeating it again and again and again doesn’t teach you anything. If you believe you know everything already, then why would you need to know anything because you know it all. People who are always curious, always looking at get better and better at their jobs, whereas the people who decide early on that they really are frightfully good because they know it anyway, never get better and never get past by the people who are actually much more realistic about what they know, which is not a lot.
Bill Young: Does passion for a subject help foster creativity?
John Cleese: Yes, but passion is one of those words that marketing people love to give to you, you know, a passion for eating bananas. I think the more interested you are in something, the more interested you’ll be in it. I think the one disadvantage sometimes to being very focused on creative thinking over long periods of time is you become overly obsessive about it. I think that’s what you see in some of the greatest artists, people like Picasso. I mean, they didn’t go off at 3:00p and play tennis.
When I get obsessional, I’m very aware that I want to stay in contact with the world and not just become obsessed by something. That’s why film directors tend to be obsessed, because there’s so many decisions to make. And, unless they become obsessional, they’re going to get distracted and not make the right decisions. They have to be obsessed or else they couldn’t do the job, or what I’m saying, if you’re going to be obsessed by an idea, only be obsessed for an hour and a quarter and then go back to your life.
Bill Young: Looking at everyday life and how creativity can plays a part in what anybody does at any time. What do you say to somebody that would say, “…well I just do “X”, what do I need creativity for?‘
John Cleese: That’s a very interesting idea for me. For most people, it’s coming up with a very positive way of thinking about what they perceive as a boring job. It depends what you’re talking about. To be more creative with flower arranging and you don’t have done a lot of flower arranging first but if you’ve ever been creative and come up with something new in quantum physics and work incredibly hard for 20 years to know enough quantum physics to be able to improve on it. So, an enormous part of it is how much preparation you need to do.
Bill Young: Is there a difference between being creative and creativity?
John Cleese: I think it’s just being able to contemplate better ways of doing things. I don’t think it’s anything more than that. I think some creative artists learn because they play the piano more easily than most people because it just makes more sense to them. And then they develop.
Bill Young: Over the course of our conversation when I think of what you have to do as an individual and you talked about allowing yourself to be childlike, to not be afraid to make mistakes and how you have to be free of doubt. But then I look back at Monty Python and the fact that we’re 50 years on from when Monty Python first started and it’s still, like Yes Minister, is timely today is it was 50 years ago.
John Cleese: You’re quite right, it never seems to date. There is a certain kind of silliness involved.
Bill Young: I’m sure there was a formula but you seemed to always allow yourself just enough silliness to be illogical.
John Cleese: Yes, that’s it, exactly. There was a considerable amount of mutual respect and, therefore, people felt free to say very silly things because they knew that everyone had a very high regard for your abilities.
Bill Young: I would think that real life gives you the ability to not only create comedy but to be silly. And to be observational.
John Cleese: Well, I think it was Will Rogers that said, ‘I don’t make the jokes, I just point them out’.
Bill Young: Looking back I think the keys to creativity are it’s okay to be wrong, have the willingness to make mistakes and just empty your mind. Be childlike, be silly.
John Cleese: Just play. Do the first thing that comes in your mind is without editing it first.
And Now for Something Completely Different….
In October 1974, then KERA Program Director Ron Devillier and President/CEO Bob Wilson were, thankfully, not afraid to be silly, not afraid to potentially make a mistake and decided to ‘play’ when they made KERA the first television station in the United States to broadcast Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
On Sunday night at 10:00p, KERA will relive those early days of Python with a 1/2 hour special Monty Python and KERA: The Flying Circus That Could. Hear from John Cleese, Ron Devillier, Bob Ray Sanders, Bob Wilson and a number of other individuals about how British comedy began on KERA and set the stage for the most intelligent comedy anywhere to find a home on public television stations across America.
Monty Python and KERA: The Flying Circus That Could airs Sunday, June 6 at 10p on KERA.