During the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, the New York Times reported that Amy Klobuchar once ate a salad using a comb after berating an aide for forgetting to bring a fork. The incident was recounted as part of a story that asserted that the Minnesota senator and former presidential candidate was hard on her staff.

But to Barry Kudrowitz, the anecdote is a good example of MacGyver-style out-of-the-box thinking.

"This is divergent thinking and breaking functional fixedness in practice!" Kudrowitz wrote. "It should be a celebrated problem-solving ability (especially for a presidential candidate)."

Kudrowitz knows a bit about problem-solving innovation. He's an expert in creativity as a University of Minnesota product design professor and department head in the school's College of Design.

He's also fun.

He's designed toys for Hasbro, was a slam poetry competitor and his design for a "Catsup Crapper" (a condiment bottle on wheels that rolls to your plate and "poops" catsup) made an appearance on "The Martha Stewart Show." He also helped create the Oreo Separator Machine, a semi-automated device that separates the cookie from the creme and shoots the deconstructed parts of an Oreo into your mouth.

Now Kudrowitz has written a book that combines his interest in innovation and fun called "Sparking Creativity: How Play and Humor Fuel Innovation and Design."

In it, he explains why companies might want to send their employees to improv comedy classes and suggests that eating a certain type of cheese might make you more creative. It's an academically rigorous research-grounded book that mines insights from sources as varied as Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein to Jerry Seinfeld and Homer Simpson. This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did this book come to be?
A: I guess it started with my Ph.D. thesis at MIT I was doing toy design with my adviser, working on Nerf and Super Soaker projects with Hasbro. Then I studied in the Netherlands, and I did this project on surprise — what types of surprises and products people like and don't like. And I had to do all this research on humor theories.

When I came back to MIT, I was like, "I think there's a pretty strong sort of a link between humor and creativity." Throughout the last 10 years or so, I kept building on different studies related to humor, play and creativity and innovation.

Q: Some people just seem naturally more creative than others. What if you aren't one of those people?
A: You can be more creative. Actually, in my research, the people who are least creative at the beginning of my creativity course improve the most. If you are one of those people who are not that creative, you have the most to improve and you're probably the person to benefit most from this book or just creativity training or design training in general.

Q: You suggest that improv exercises are helpful in the workplace, especially for brainstorming sessions. How does improv help idea generation?
A: The skills that they teach in improv training and the skills that are needed for being a good, team-based idea generator are almost the same.

Look at the skills they're teaching you in improv: listening, coming up with lots of ideas, deferring judgment, building on ideas. That's all important for team-based idea generation. In my research, I found that improv comedians come up with more creative product ideas than product designers in a bunch of different categories.

Q: Why is humor so helpful in creative thinking?
A: There's a few reasons. One of them is that humor is about making non-obvious connections between seemingly unrelated things. That's also one definition of creativity. Finding the "Aha!" or the non-obvious connection can be funny and it can also be an innovative solution.

A lot of the things that we think are just silly or jokes at first might actually be innovative in the future. If you just look back, there's a whole bunch of examples of things from cartoons, like Rosie the Robot, which is essentially now the Roomba.

Q: And the selfie stick?
A: I was trying to find examples of "chindogu," a Japanese concept for "unuseless objects." The selfie stick actually went from being put on a list of the 100 most unuseless things to nine years later being named on a list of "Best Inventions" by Time magazine.

Q: You write about several disparate things that foster creativity — taking a shower, being in a blue-colored room, eating certain kinds of cheese. What's behind this?
A: Dopamine is a neurotransmitter chemical that increases your ability to make non-obvious connections. And non-obvious connection making is the heart of creativity. And so, if there's things that you can do to increase your dopamine, then in theory, you could be more creative.

Some of those things are watching a funny movie, watching a scary movie, laughing, exercise. And there's some foods also that increase dopamine: dark chocolate, bananas, avocados. There's also tyrosine, an amino acid, which is found in those crunchy crystals inside hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and the tyrosine crystals are like dopamine fuel.

The release party for "Sparking Creativity," on Sept. 15 , 5-8 p.m., at Leonardo's Basement, 2 Malcolm St. SE, Minneapolis, will feature an appearance by an improv group, The Theater of Public Policy.