Creativity: Seriously, It's A Funny Thing

Posted: October 18, 1990

We will never know how much Basil Fawlty, the hilariously misanthropic and inept innkeeper of Torquay, might have been helped by one of John Cleese's inspirational talks, and that's undoubtedly for the best.

Life at Fawlty Towers might have been less hellish if Basil had learned to loosen up and stop insulting those German tourists, but Cleese's legions of fans would have been the losers.

But, Cleese reflected yesterday, listening to a speech on creativity in business wouldn't have done Basil a bit of good anyway.

"I don't think Basil had any capacity for creativity at all," Cleese said, apparently overlooking what the man could do with a deceased guest's corpse. "He was such a guilty guy and so obsessed with trying to do the right thing that I don't think he would ever let go enough to be creative."

Cleese, the comedic genius of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda and other cinematic outings, is a man who takes his creativity seriously enough to joke about it.

For now, that is his job. Last night in Philadelphia, Cleese faced the World Affairs Council to tell its members what he had learned about fostering creativity.

Earlier, he sprawled on a couch in his Rittenhouse Hotel room and recounted lessons he had picked up intuitively while working with the ensemble that wrote Monty Python's mad scripts. He said he had found later that academics studying creativity often reached similar findings.

Creativity, he says, often springs from humor, an unchaining of the mental processes. Too many people, he says, confuse being serious with being solemn.

In any business, for creativity to blossom, people need to know each other and lose their fears of looking wrong or foolish, he says.

"There's got to be a real trust and confidence," said Cleese. "The moment you get somebody in the room who is very competitive or jealous or the kind of guy who wants to win debating points, then the creativity collapses. You can't be creative from a defensive posture."

Cleese has been dispensing business advice since 1972 through Video Arts, a highly profitable training-film company he founded with two partners. They have built a library of 115 films, many starring Cleese. Today, it is a business grossing $25 million a year.

Although the company was sold to its management last year - a deal he describes as "extremely satisfactory in every possible way" - Cleese is indentured to spend 75 days on the road over three years to support Video Arts' films with his speaking.

Except for an occasional commercial, that's pretty much it for Cleese's performances at the moment. From Philadelphia, he said, he was going to New York for a "long weekend" with Wanda co-star Kevin Kline.

He also is writing a second book with Robin Skynner, "my ex-shrink," to follow on his 1983 Families and How to Survive Them.

Last night's speech was sold out long beforehand, a testimonial to the store that audiences put in hearing a former Python talk about creativity.

"Creativity isn't a talent; it's an ability to get yourself into a mood," Cleese said. "It has to do with being able to play. . . . Playing is the most natural mode. It's the mode we're in most of the time when we're kids."

Creativity isn't the same thing as humor, he said, but to be creative does mean to be spontaneous, and "when you're spontaneous, you can't keep humor out."

"You get humor when two frameworks of reference not normally connected in your mind suddenly become connected. I think it's possible to get your mind kicking over in the right way by just making random connections between things that aren't usually associated - cheese and motorcycles," Cleese said.

The important thing, he said, is not to edit yourself or others involved.

"Although you can't tell anyone what to do, you can tell them to try to keep their mind gently around the subject. Although you have to have this very relaxed, 'open' mode of behavior, you can't just daydream about anything. If you start thinking about the World Series or lunch or sex, then you're not going to get anywhere," Cleese said.

The World Series, by the way, may be one of Cleese's next projects, by way of revenge.

His last trip to Philadelphia, he said, cost him an important part of the World Cup soccer finals.

"To my fury, I discovered that England had a crucial match in the World Cup, and I was not able to get it on any one of the 36 channels in Philadelphia," he said. Cleese is particularly appalled that this soccer- indifferent country is to host the World Cup in 1994, an honor nearly any other country on earth would pay dearly for.

In response, Cleese says he's heading a committee to have the World Series played in Brussels.

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