“Creativity is like humour”

John Cleese, Monty Python screenwriter and actor, used to say that creativity cannot be deciphered as though it were a machine you can take apart and examine. “It’s like Mozart’s music or a Van Gogh painting”. Something more than a method.

In a conference given in 1991 by John Cleese, screenwriter and Monty Python actor, which can be seen in this recording by Video Arts, he said that for him it was ”easier to say what creativity is not rather than what it is”.

It is not a talent. It’s a method

“It’s not an ability you either have or you don’t. It’s not linked to your IQ. A creative person finds it easier to forget the crowd and that leaves more room for their creative abilities”. According to Cleese, individuals are also more creative when they adopt a childlike attitude and are prepared to play with ideas.
And “they don’t do it from a practical point of view. The only aim is to have fun”. For the British comedian, “creativity is not possible if you’re locked in a closet”. It appears when you’re outside. “Play helps bring out natural creativity”. And there is another important factor: curiosity. Asking questions about things has led to great discoveries, such as penicillin. “Attitudes have to be open when we’re trying to find a solution to a problem”, he said in his chat.

“But when we come up with a solution, we need to be firm and support the idea in order to implement it. We will only be effective if we really go for it and don’t get distracted with doubts as to whether or not it’s appropriate. Cleese insisted that he doesn’t believe there are specific formulas that guarantee original, different results.

There is no infallible formula, nor can you guarantee a result

But he recognised that he knows certain conditions that help a person to adopt a more open attitude, making it easier for creativity to emerge. The comedian listed five:

1. Space
2. Time
3. More time
4. Trust
5. Sense of humour

Space. “Create a place that is reserved only for you. A peaceful place where your daily stresses can’t follow you”, he recommended.

Time “You have to create that place as well as time dedicated to working there. It’s an oasis for you to establish barriers of space and time. Creativity has a lot to do with play and play is only possible when we move away from daily activities”, he continues.

“Make sure you won’t receive any calls. Shut the door. Sit in a comfortable place and forget your chores. We all know it is easier to do trivial things than important things. It’s also easier to do small things we already know how to do than starting big projects we don’t know how to finish. It takes time to calm the mind and get those day-to-day things off your mind. For that reason, it’s of no use if the oasis only lasts 40 minutes. It should be at least an hour and a half.

More time. “I used to work with a writer who was more talented than me, but my scripts, in the end, were more creative. Why? Because he found a solution to a problem and that was that. I dedicated more time. After thinking I had found what I was looking for, I kept working to see if it was really good or it could be improved. In a study they found that the most creative people were those who spent more time playing with the solution they had found than finding the solution in the first place”.

According to Cleese, more creative people are also “those who are prepared to confront the anxiety involved with not having solved a problem and who don’t think about removing the problem as soon as possible. Not having the solution to a problem creates anxiety. But if we are prepared to put up with it for longer, we can come up with more original solutions. Before making a decision you should ask yourself when you really have to make it. It means giving yourself the maximum amount of time to achieve something creative”.

Trust. “When you’re in your time-space oasis and your mind is open, nothing can stop you from being creative. Not even the fear of being wrong. You can’t have a playful attitude if you think some of your decisions might be wrong. When you’re in creative mode, nothing is bad, nothing is incorrect”.

Humour. “We all know that laughter is relaxing and helps us adopt a more playful attitude. A sense of humour is a basic component of play and spontaneity. It’s an essential part of the creativity we need to solve problems, no matter how serious they might be. The two best funerals I have been to in my life were full of humour. And they were so good because they were cathartic. Solemnity is useful for no one.

John Cleese also pointed out that a “certain amount of concentration” must be added. You need to gather your thoughts and work on ideas, and then maybe “a good idea will come to you in the shower or at breakfast the next day. A new thought will appear mysteriously”. All of this is on the inside. But the writer and film producer also spoke about how a person must behave with their team to foster a creative attitude. “Be positive with others. Don’t say no or tell them you don’t like what they’re doing. Try and create an atmosphere that is as free as possible. A large part of the creativity of the Japanese comes from their way of conducting meetings. The youngest speak first so they can express themselves freely. If they were to hear the opinions of their superiors first, they might censor themselves.

Ultimately, creativity is like humour. That’s how Cleese sees it. “A joke consists of bringing two situations together in an unexpected way. Creativity consists of uniting two ideas to form a new meaning, and those new connections only make sense if they generate a new meaning.

But watch out. “It’s not a case of anything goes”, he warned. “Use intuition to see what works and what makes sense for you. You’ll create ridiculous, absurd connections. And that is great. Those ideas go against logic and can be the springboard that will help you find much better thoughts”.