John Cleese Might Be My Creative Spirit Animal

My post a couple days ago didn’t feel like my usual form with this blog – I’m glad it wasn’t, since I needed to get that out, but I spent the last two days feeling like I should do something else. This blog isn’t meant to be political, so let’s get back to the madcap rambling of a guy trying to be a professional writer and amazed anytime he meets with success.

I mentioned earlier that209898 I was reading John Cleese’s autobiography, So, Anyway, which discusses how his path through life led him to collaborating on Monty Python. It’s a fascinating and entertaining read if you’re a fan of Cleese and like discussing creativity in general, which he comments on at length. To get my blog back on track, here are the lessons I took from So, Anyway – many of which I already agreed with, leading me to believe that this septuagenarian comedian might be, as my students say, my spirit animal.

  1. Creative disagreement in collaboration is critical – Cleese describes at length the borderline-violent rows between himself and the other Pythons, and that every argument was about things like “a dead sheep chandelier is funnier than a goat” and not about who was going to play each part in a skit. Personal disagreement with your collaborators is disaster, but debates about the craft itself lead to good product (I’ve already discovered this with my current collaborators, who are awesome).
  2. Take opportunity when it’s presented – Unlike myself, fully committed to a career in education, Cleese somehow managed to go from creative contract to creative contract, consistently busy with stage productions, writing for folks like the BBC, and appearing on television and film. Reading through this sequence of events shows that his early success came from a combination of talent, attitude and making connections with people who would later approach him with other work. Full-time freelancing scares the shit out of me, but the way my writing seems to be picking up, it’s important to keep this idea in mind so that I don’t miss out on things that will help me level up.
  3. Learn when to say “no” – Which might sound contrary to #2, but what I’ve learned in teaching and writing (and human-ing) is that saying yes to everything just makes you too busy to do anything well. One of my favorite department heads, Angie, told me after I said I couldn’t help with a project that she respected me more for refusing. And one of the mantras I’ve taken from my buddy Jay Odjick is to always ask, “Is this worth my time?”
  4. You don’t need to please everyone – I’m still working on this one, and Cleese describes how it took him a while to figure it out, too. Apparently we both have (or had, in his case) this compulsion to be liked by everyone, but trying to keep everyone happy just leads to stress. My particular issue is not speaking my mind because I’m worried about upsetting someone or losing an opportunity – but I’m working on it, Mr. Cleese, don’t worry.
  5. Political correctness can easily become stupidity – Shows like Monty Python existed when it was easier to get away with making fun of people, and everyone laughed. There’s a difference between inclusive humor and cruel humor, but I agree with Cleese that being politically correct today seems to promote the idea that certain groups of people can’t take a joke; for example, you can make fun of Americans or Brits, but not Mexicans or Muslims. Obviously there’s a fine line to walk, but true equality is making fun of everyone. (Cleese makes the case really well in an excerpt from Big Think and an interview with Bill Maher.)
  6. Have fun, poke fun and be silly – There’s something to be said for going through life not taking everything seriously. It’s a ridiculous world, and the best way to get through it is to recognize that ridiculousness and poke at it, while maybe trying to change things. Cleese and the entire Python crew are masters of that, which is why I think most of them have lived so long and why I hope they’re around for a while longer.

Like I said, Cleese and I seem to share a lot of beliefs about life and creativity. I consider myself blessed to have seen him live once, when he was touring a one-man show in Toronto, and I consider him a primary source of inspiration when it comes to my mindset as a creative person. If I can do the work I love and have fun with it for as long as he has (or longer), I’ll call that a damn good life.


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