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John Cleese On Awakening Your Creative Instincts

John Cleese attends the 55th Rose d'Or Award at Axica-Kongress- und Tagungszentrum on Sept. 13, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. (Clemens Bilan/Getty Images)
John Cleese attends the 55th Rose d'Or Award at Axica-Kongress- und Tagungszentrum on Sept. 13, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. (Clemens Bilan/Getty Images)

John Cleese, one of the comic geniuses behind “Monty Python,” “A Fish Called Wanda,” and the classic television series “Fawlty Towers,” has become something of an expert on human behavior.

Teaming up with his psychiatrist, Robin Skynner, he’s written books like “Families and How to Survive Them.”

But in his new 95-page book, Cleese cuts to the chase. “Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide” is about how the brain is often operating on a subconscious level when it comes to being creative.

Fascinated by human behavior, Cleese’s book guides readers through ways to hone in on their creative thinking skills and contains tips from psychologists he admires.

He keeps it short, sweet and practical on purpose, he says. His ideal reader is someone who wants to learn the key ideas but “can’t be bothered with the rest of it.”

“I deliberately left out a lot of the stuff that you’ll find in books about creativity by psychologists, because it’s all very interesting that people who’ve traveled a lot in their youth are likely to be more creative,” he says. “But it’s not much use to you unless you can move backward in time.”

Interview Highlights

On keeping his book short

“I’ll tell you why. Because you know that lovely phrase, I think it was Mark Twain, ‘I’m sorry this is such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.’ Well, I have the time to write a shorter book.”

“It’s a very, very small book. There was a nice lady on Radio 4 in England, and when she told me she’d read it in just over an hour, I was very happy because I think in a lot of books that most of the interesting stuff is in the first 60 or 70 pages and then they pad out to 300.”

On how your mind works overnight and a sketch he rewrote on the Church of England

“Our parents would say, ‘Sleep on it.’ There’s a lot of wisdom there because your mind goes on working on it overnight. What I found often is that if I’d written a sketch, in particular, couldn’t think of a good ending and I’d sit there and then give up. The next morning, within 90 seconds, I had the solution and I couldn’t understand what the problems had been the previous night because it was quite clear what the solution was. And this happened a number of times. And I thought, ‘Well, this can only make sense if the mind’s been working on the problem.’

“I wrote a script with Graham Chapman, dear old Graham, and I lost it and he would get cross with me when I did that because I was vague and always losing scripts. So I wrote the thing from memory, rewrote it, and then I found the original. I compared them and the second one was better. It was neater and slightly clearer and slightly funnier than the first. And I thought, ‘But I wasn’t even trying to improve it.’ I was just trying to remember it. So my brain had improved it during this time it had been lost.”

“[The sketch] was to do with a sermon about Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt. And the pastor or the rector or whatever you would call it, was during the sermon, it suddenly struck him how extraordinary that was — you know, that Lot is suddenly looking at his wife, who’s become a pillar of salt. And it was about his astonishment at this unusual event.

“The joke was that he just read this in the Bible, like so many things. And people once they read it in the Bible, they figure, OK, fine. But if you actually think of the three wise kings following a star and then they stop at Bethlehem and they look up at and they say, ‘Yes, this is the stable that’s right underneath the star.’ I mean, have you ever tried to stand right under a star?”

On the German organic chemist, August Kekule von Stradonitz, who discovered the structure of benzene by staring at a wood fire

“One night he was sitting very tired, dozing in front of the fire and the fire was crackling away. And he started looking at the flames, which seemed to be leaping out further than they usually did. And he suddenly saw them as snakes. It just, you know, as a kind of almost a half dream. And then he thought that they were biting their own tails. And that, of course, formed a ring. And he realized that the structure of the carbon molecule was a ring. And it’s extraordinary.

“… [Thomas] Edison, who had more patents than anyone else in world history, he used to have his ideas sitting in a comfortable chair. In his right hand, he would have some little metal balls and he would sit with his hand just over the edge of the chair and a metal plate below it. And he would just start to get in this very dreamy mood where he felt that he was in his absolute most creative mood. And when he actually fell asleep, his hand would relax and the ball bearings would drop onto the plate, make a bit of a noise and wake him up. And he’d lean down, pick up the ball bearings in his hand and go on in that dreamy state until he fell asleep again. And that was the stage in which he thought he had his most creative ideas. So you see, everyone thinks this is a bit wooly and yet all the greatest scientists in the world confirm it’s not wooly, it’s the best way to be creative.”

On his comment in 2019 bemoaning that cities like London don’t seem English anymore, which some saw as an attack on multiculturalism

“Well I think differences to notice that there’s a complete difference between race and culture. Because you can choose your culture. You can’t choose your race.”

On whether he is still someone who skewers the uptight, white Englishman

“Yes, of course. I mean, you only have to see ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ to see the fun I was making in that. There was a lot wrong with the old English culture and a lot right with it. But that’s the case with most cultures.

“You now have people say, ‘Well, you can’t really make jokes.’ Well, the point of humor is that it’s about things going wrong and it’s about imperfect people. If you write a character who’s perfect, who’s kind, wise, generous, thoughtful, all those things, that’s great. But he’s not going to be funny. Basil Fawlty and W.C. Fields might be funny, but they’re deeply, deeply imperfect. And if you’re going to say, well, we can’t laugh at anything anymore because it’s been cruel to people who you’re laughing at. The answer is they don’t understand that some teasing is very mean and awful and we don’t do that — and a lot of teasing is just affection. It’s actually a bonding mechanism. But people who are paranoid and who think things can only be 100% good or 100% bad are poisoning the atmosphere.”


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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