John Cleese turns out to be a very serious scholar of the creative process.
He is known for being funny, of course, having helped create enduringly popular classic comedy such as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketches and the TV show “Fawlty Towers.”
Certainly, he is funny, too, and an audience at the University of St. Thomas’ Minneapolis campus last week got to laugh while hearing sensible advice on how to foster creativity.
But when he described how his thinking on creativity developed, over lunch the day of his talk, Cleese moved quickly from personal experience to book, professor and academic study, along the way touching on everything from brain physiology to behavioral economics.
More than anything else Cleese, now 76, comes across as eager to learn. As the waiter presented menus, he explained that he was currently puzzling over what to make of another serious subject, of why already wealthy people seem grimly determined to accumulate a lot more money. “I’d love to do a TV series on that,” he said. “I would love to talk to people, and say ‘Why do you need so much money?’ And why do people say it’s so admirable? I think the world has gone quite mad.”
Perhaps someday he’ll be invited to speak on income inequality, but for now his talks are about creativity. It’s been something he’s been thinking about “in stages” for decades, he said.
“My initial interest was that no one ever spotted that I had any creativity until I discovered it for myself,” he said. “I went from the age of 8 all the way through to the age of 22 without anyone ever suggesting to me that I had any creative ability at all.”
In fact, the very idea of creativity simply hadn’t come up in school, even though he had attended “good schools.” It’s one reason why he still regards much of his formal education as primarily a test of willpower.
One episode he remembered clearly from his school days was being assigned by a teacher to write an essay on time. He took all but the last sentence of 1,500 words to explain in detail how he had failed to get down to writing the essay on time, having procrastinated and wasted so much time that he didn’t really have time at the end to actually write it.
Decades later, Cleese said, he still thinks of this little school essay as clever. There clearly was some spark of imagination here, from a student who would later go on to help create sketches about a dead parrot and a clinic for arguments and bring to life a fictional hotel owner who would run a first-class place if only he could get rid of the guests.
No faculty member remarked on the inventiveness of his writing. No faculty member said a word.
Later on, after he’d abandoned the idea of a career in law to make his way as a comedy writer, the self-taught Cleese found parts of the creative process puzzling. He would work into the evening on a problem and finally go to sleep frustrated, only to find in the morning that a great solution quickly came to him.
He’d been asleep, not thinking about the sketch all night. What could have happened here?
He concluded that his brain had still been working on it, just off the edge of what he was capable of consciously thinking about. He has since studied extensively how the unconscious works in problem solving and invention.
“The unconscious does an enormous amount for you,” he said, “but we are just not told this.”
The power of unconscious thinking was part of his message at the St. Thomas business school, acknowledging all the while that it was countercultural. People rarely seem encouraged at work go into a room, quiet themselves and expect thoughts or feelings to bubble up that may spark an idea.
Instead we are taught to focus at work. Get things done, all the while multi-tasking with e-mail, meetings, social media posts and phone calls.
He found in his own writing career that he needed to shut himself in a quiet space. He learned that he could either write well or answer a ringing telephone. He sure couldn’t do both.
“I try to persuade people that they can’t be really creative until they make a space in their life,” Cleese said, and by space he means a place as well as a good chunk of time.
At no time did Cleese ever make anything about the art of creation sound easy. That’s likely one reason he advises young people just starting out, in his 2014 memoir “So, Anyway…,” to make the challenge a little easier. He tells them to steal.
As he explained to me last week, he wasn’t really encouraging people to launch their careers by ripping off others. He wanted people drawn to creative fields to realize they also had to learn the rules and techniques that lead to good work. One way to do that is by studying something — a comedy sketch or article or architectural design — that you already know and love. Then try your hand at producing something just like it.
Cleese described how early in his career he had listened repeatedly to audio recordings of his favorite sketches from comedian Dudley Moore. He recreated the scripts from memory and then listened to the records carefully again to check the accuracy of what he remembered.
What he was doing was becoming so familiar with these sketches that they lost their power to spark any laughter or emotional reaction. It was then that he could see clearly how the sketches were built, step-by-step, and appreciate the professional competence required to create something that funny.
“Then you get the point, perhaps when you get to the point I was with Monty Python, when I’d been writing sketches for seven years,” he said. “Then you can really take off and do some interesting stuff. It was still a risk. We never knew if it was going to work, you know.”
So that’s the kind of advice on creativity he traveled to Minneapolis to deliver, on a day when the temperature reached down to zero. He has many more speaking gigs on the same topic lined up for the rest of the year.
“So I think this is very important,” he said. “And I like sometimes saying things that I think are useful to people, as opposed to just making them laugh.”