John Cleese is an actor, comedian, screenwriter and producer. His comedy achievements are too numerous to list fully, but here are a few highlights: In the late 1960s, he co-founded Monty Python. Cleese’s business training films use comedy as a teaching tool, including the well known classic: “Meeting, Bloody Meetings.” Cleese wrote the script and played a character in the movie A Fish Called Wanda. He is also the co-creator of the Emmy Award winning sitcom Fawlty Towers.
1.“He who laughs most, learns best.” “People learn nothing when they’re asleep and very little when they’re bored.” “It’s absolutely no good just writing a straight script and then sticking half a dozen jokes in, because people would just remember the jokes and forget the teaching points.”
When the food network personality Alton Brown was making his television series Good Eats he had a sign over his studio door that said: ‘Laughing brains are more absorbent.’” Comedians are in their own way teachers since the core of comedy is truth. Warren Buffett is an example of someone who likes to tell jokes when making a point. To illustrate this point, Buffett tells this joke:
“A man says to a veterinarian: ‘Can you help me? Sometimes my horse walks just fine and sometimes he limps.’ The vet replies: ‘No problem. When he’s walking fine, sell him.”
In telling this story Buffett was trying to convey the point that buyers must be careful when someone is trying to sell them something. Just lecturing to someone about the importance of careful due diligence is not as memorable as a joke. Buffett is trying to convey the idea that it is always important to consider a seller’s motivation. For example, consider the example of an insurance company trying to wiggle out of variable annuity promises in an existing contract by offering “a buyout.” An actuary points out about this “limping horse” the insurance companies are trying to sell: “common sense would suggest that all things being equal, you wouldn’t want to take a buyout because there’s a reason a company wants to get you off the books.”
Some jokes are more successful than others, especially about financial topics. Even if most people get the point of a story, others may not. For example, Buffett tells this story that tries to teach people that being a contrarian is only valuable if you are right about that contrary view:
“A senior citizen receives a call from his wife while driving home. ‘Albert, be careful,’ she warns, ‘I just heard on the radio that there’s a car going the wrong way down the Interstate.’ ‘Mabel, they don’t know the half of it,’ replies Albert, ‘It’s not just one car, there are hundreds of them.'”
2. “There are two types of work. One is the work you do because you need money, and there’s another kind of work — a more enjoyable kind where money is absolutely not the key thing. When I’ve worked for money it’s been fine, but I don’t often feel anything like as involved as when I do things that were not for money. But after that very expensive divorce I mentioned earlier, I was basically forced to go and earn money. I had to earn $20 million, and you don’t get that sitting around drinking coffee and reading a good book. So I went off and I did all these one-man shows and I enjoyed it, but if I hadn’t needed the money I wouldn’t have done it. Instead I’d have gone off and written something that was more original. But I needed the money.” “We wrote the whole first draft for the script for the 1979 movie Life of Brian in 13 days. But it didn’t feel like work.”
Buffett is famous for saying that he “tap dances to work every day.” You do not need to be a genius to know that it is a good thing if you can discover a way to enjoy your work. But the results of that search for work that is fun is rarely binary. There is a reason why it is called “work” work and not “fun.” Life is full of trade-offs. Some work pays a lot and is mostly not fun. Some work is mostly fun and does not pay a lot. The mix for everyone is different. As an example, I would rather drop a very large rock on my foot every day than be a dentist. But that is just me. I have nothing against dentists or dentistry in general.
As an example, comedy work but it may be enjoyable work for some people like Cleese. A comic explains: “Great comics are great precisely because they appear to be making it up as they go, when actually it’s heavily crafted material. Skilled comedians spend a lot of time working out a piece, and trying different words to see which one fits best.
2. “When you defer decisions as long as possible, it’s giving your unconscious the maximum amount of time to come up with something.”
This point made by Cleese reminds me of a joke:
An man enters an office expecting to find his manager, but he discovers only a cluttered desk and an open window. Peering out the window, he sees the manager perched on the ledge of the building. “I can’t stand it anymore! I simply can’t make any more decisions!” “You’re not going to jump?” asks the man. “I might,” replies the manager. “On the other hand…”
The more serious way to look at what Cleese is saying is to think about optionality. My friend Craig McCaw likes to say: “Flexibility is heaven.” What he means by this is that having the option to make the best choice at a later point in time when you have more information is valuable. Craig McCaw often spends money to preserve his ability to have multiple options. You might say that someone adopting Craig McCaw’s “flexibility is heaven” approach is a “flaneur” who Nassim Taleb describes as: “Someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision opportunistically at every step to revise his schedule (or his destination) so he can imbibe things based on new information obtained. In research and entrepreneurship, being a flaneur is called ‘looking for optionality.’”
3. “You never know what’s going to catch on.”
Nothing is harder to predict than the outcome of word of mouth. What is easy to predict is that critics will get reviews wrong. As an example, these four sentences set the tone of a Vincent Canby review in The New York Times of a John Cleese movie:
“A Fish Called Wanda’ sounds great. Yet it plays like an extended lampshade joke. It’s not easy to describe the movie’s accumulating dimness or to understand what went wrong. Everyone knocks himself out to be funny. The worse the material becomes, the harder the actors work for increasingly less effect.”
Cleese explains about how others responded to the same film:
“This film then subsequently got three Oscar nominations and got a win for Kevin Kline. It was such a shock to me to read that, because I thought it was quite good. And of course, being The New York Times, it means a lot of people are going to be influenced by it. The word began to spread. You never know why people get so, what’s the word… nasty. … A sense of humor is so much more subjective than anyone believes. The Wall Street Journal thinks my book So Anyway is completely unfunny and The Washington Post thinks it’s brilliant. It’s fascinating; it’s completely the same book.”
Cleese quotes Brendan Behan to finish his tirade: “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”
4. “If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play” “Creativity doesn’t have to be taught; it has to be liberated.” “Psychologists write about it from the outside, like Martians trying to describe sex.” “There are a lot of highly intelligent people who are incapable of it. The people who don’t have creativity, don’t recognize it.” “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” “When you collaborate with someone else on something creative, you get to places that you would never get to on your own. The way an idea builds as it careens back and forth between good writers is so unpredictable. Sometimes it depends on people misunderstanding each other and that’s why I don’t think there’s any such thing as a mistake in the creative process. You never know where it might lead.”
Mistakes are often just unintentional experiments. Because even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, positive results can be produced by a mistake. The list of major discoveries that were produced by a mistake is very long. A list of just ten examples of mistakes that resulted in innovation helps reinforce this point:
- Corn Flakes
- Post-it notes
- Chocolate chip cookies
- Tea bags
Jeff Bezos puts it this way: “To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there.”
5. “The enemy of incubation is interruption.” “What you have to do is give yourself a place where you’re not going to be interrupted for about an hour, because it takes time for your thoughts to settle. You have to create boundaries of space and then you have to create boundaries of time. You need to give yourself the time to let these ideas come up because it deals in the confusion and images and very subtle things.”
I can’t help but think about the current movement of employers to assign open “offices” to employees when I read this quote from Cleese. The sorts of co-working space companies like WeWork provide is one example, but so are businesses doing things like not assigning a permanent desk at all to anyone below a certain job title (e.g., VP). Employees at these businesses instead receive a locker and are required to find an open spot to work each day at what are essentially very long tables. Space in these settings may be as little as 50 square feet per employee. If this new approach to assigning work space is going to be effective, it may be that employers will need to allow employees to work sometimes from places that allow them a greater degree solitude. This can include working at home but also outside or in other quieter places.
A NPR episode quotes a researcher from Cornell on the nature of distractions that can reduce productivity:
“In general, if it’s coming from another person, it’s much more disturbing than when it’s coming from a machine,” he says, because, as social beings, humans are attuned to man-made sounds. He says overheard conversations, as well as high-pitched and intermittent noises, also draw attention away from tasks at hand.
Why is someone talking loudly on a cell phone so annoying? Another research study concludes:
“our brains more or less ignore predictable things, while paying more attention to things that are unpredictable. When both sides of the conversation are audible, it flows predictably, but a cell phone conversation is quite unpredictable. “
6. “New ideas are like babies; it’s easy to strangle them at birth.” “Most of the time in our culture, we’re a little bit hurried, a little bit anxious, a little bit on watch. We’re worried about getting things done on time,” he said. “Hair-brained thinking has dominated Western thought for a very long time. We’re so used to it. The French have a saying: ‘Fish do not know the water they swim in.’ We grow up in this culture and we’re not aware it’s a left-brained culture.” This type of thinking can be efficient at getting tasks done, but it doesn’t produce anything creative or original, he said. “It pushes us into things that are familiar, predictable, stereotypical responses. We use heuristic thinking, rules of thumb, really just to get the decision done. A lot of the time, it’s fine.” “Getting out of that pathway, that intellectual rut, requires a departure from our old way of thinking and it requires a non-anxious, non-hurried special state – in other words, tortoise mind. You’ve got to create a tortoise enclosure. You need to create time and you have to create space. You’ve got to create a place where you can sit without being interrupted. If you’re a big cheese, you tell your peers you’re not to be interrupted unless the building is on fire so you can sit down and take it all in. If you’re down on the other end of the hierarchy, you maybe have to go sit in a pub or something.”
The comments of Cleese speak for themselves. His points do remind me of a story about a mistake turning into an opportunity:
A storekeeper had for some time displayed in his window a card inscribed “Fishing Tickle.” One day a customer saw the sign and walked inside to inform the proprietor about the incorrect spelling of the word “tackle.” The customer said: “Hasn’t anyone told you of it before?” The storekeeper responded placidly: “Many people have mentioned it. But whenever they come in to tell me, they always buy something.”
Fishing stories are a fertile source of jokes of course. For example, Charlie Munger tells the story about going into a store that sells fishing tackle. After looking around the store Charlie found the merchant and said to him: “My God, they’re purple and green. Do fish really take these lures?” The store keeper responded: “Mister, I don’t sell to fish.”
7. “It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking. And it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.”
It is the recognition of this tendency raised by Cleese that makes the drunk under the street light joke funny.
Late one night a police officer finds a drunk man crawling around on his hands and knees under a streetlight. The drunk tells the police officer that he is looking for his keys. When the police officer asks if he is sure this is where he dropped his keys, the drunk man replies that he believes he dropped his keys across the street. The police officer asks: “Then why are you looking over here?” The drunk explains: “Because the light’s better here.”
8. “Most of us are run by our unconscious and, unfortunately, most of us have no interest in getting in touch with our unconscious. So if the majority of people are run by something they don’t know anything about, how can we have a rational society?” “Put aside intellectually smart, the trouble is that most people aren’t even emotionally smart. They can’t deal with reality. If they’re not doing well, they’ll blame someone else. That’s why I have no hope of our ever having a proper, well-organized, fair, intelligent, kind society.” “Imagine if, before you came to exist on Earth, God said, ‘You can choose to stay up here with me, watching reruns and eating ice cream, or you can be born. But if you pick being born, at the end of your life you have to die — that’s nonnegotiable. So which do you pick?’ I think most people would say, ‘I’ll give living a whirl.’ It’s sad, but the whirl includes dying. That’s something I accept.”
I attended a lecture by Cleese recently and he argued that statistics show that only 10 to 15 percent of people are actually competent at their jobs. He also argued that competence and confidence are inversely correlated. He then suggested that ego when combined with the need to be right in arguments prevented people learn from learning anything new. The way he presented these arguments was supported by funny stores and anecdotes. Cleese is competent at his job. Some people may not find him funny, but enough people do that he will always be able to fill a theater.
9. “Even though the whole world is a complete madhouse, it’s never been more interesting to me, even if stupidity has become rampant. Once you realize that things are pretty hopeless, then you just have a laugh and you don’t waste time on things that you can’t change.” When you get to my age, and I’m 66 now, you realize that the world is a madhouse and that most people are operating in fantasy anyway. So once you realise that, it doesn’t bother you much.” “I am deeply pessimistic about the state of the world. I do this show called Why There is No Hope. I lay out all the reasons why there is no hope we will ever have an intelligent, fair, kind, well-organized society. There’s a chance. But we never had it. Occasionally something like that happens for a couple decades before it decays. You have to notice that. I think it was Bertrand Russell who said you have to accept what a very bad place the world is before you can enjoy yourself. Once you say, ‘Yes, it’s ridiculous, it’s insane, it’s a madhouse,’ then you don’t spend unnecessary energy trying to improve it. There are certain things you can improve. You can be nice to everyone you meet tomorrow.” “I love the fact that I’ve made people laugh, but the important thing, ultimately, I do believe, is a relatively small number of really close relationships.”
I believe that comedy can be weaponized to make the world a better place. For example, the potential for new comedy based on financial fraud and folly is almost limitless. My goal is to provide slightly more than my statistical share of comedy.
10. “This is the reason I went on Twitter. I don’t trust the British press. That’s across the board. I am not talking about the tabloid press. I am talking about The Mail, The Telegraph, The Times to a certain extent. I don’t trust them. But if I want to get my project mentioned in their papers, then I have to agree to do an interview with them. And then they will write a piece about what a charmless, curmudgeonly, rude, sour, bitter old man I am. With Twitter, all I have to do is say I am performing at such and such a time, and this is what I’ll be doing. I have five and three-quarters million followers.”
The ability of anyone to speak their mind without a filter on Twitter is a very good thing, even though there are some people who you would rather not hear from. That is why there are unfollow and mute buttons on Twitter, which are much more effective than the remote control that Chauncy Gardner unsuccessfully tries to use in the movie Being There by pointing at unpleasant people or situations and clicking on them.
11. “The Python attitude toward life is to suggest how absurd everything is. When people are younger they often look around and think it’s all a bit crazy. “Humor is fundamentally a sense of perspective, and as I’ve grown older I’ve just gone back to the position I had when I was 15 or 16, when I thought most of what was going on was absolutely ridiculous. I’ve now re-reached that position.” “If there’s distance, you can laugh at something. But if you’re in the middle of it, you can’t. You can laugh at world history. It raises the question: Is life a tragedy or is it a comedy? I think it was (playwright) Arthur Miller who decided that on balance it’s a comedy because it’s so ridiculous.” “Jesus is said to have never laughed in the Bible, and I think it’s because laughter contains an element of surprise — something about the human condition that you haven’t spotted yet — and Jesus was rarely surprised. I still laugh, but many of the things that would have made me laugh 30 years ago — paradoxes about human nature — wouldn’t make me laugh anymore because I just believe them to be true. They’re not revelations.” “The whole point about comedy is that all comedy is critical.” The best definition of humor I ever came across was from the philosopher Henri Bergson, who said it was ‘a social sanction against inflexible behavior.’” “People tend to laugh together at something they disapprove of, and it is far more subjective than most people realize. What will make one audience laugh will not necessarily make another one laugh, and that can be the difference between Wednesday night and Thursday night in the same town. What Bergson means is that if you behave appropriately for what is happening around you, you are not really funny. If there is a kind of psychological rigidity that forces you to behave in a particular way, and you behave absurdly, that will be funny.”
Chris Rock has said that comedy is unique in that it is being created and refined as it is being performed. Creating and performing comedy is tricky for many reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it is easy to make a mistake when you are trying to be funny. Jokes are a lot like startups since the best way to the successful ones to run a lot of experiments. Professor John McGraw writes: “It might not seem like it, but the best comedians hone their material scientifically, by experimenting bit by bit. And the only way to learn is through hard, repetitive, empirical work. You get up there on that stage night after night, gauge which lines work and which don’t, and adjust accordingly.” Comedy on Twitter is particularly hard because you can’t take the joke on the road first. You are live on a tightrope and there is no net.
There are a number of competing theories about comedy, each of which has advocates, including:
- Incongruity theorists believe humor is a response to, well, incongruity, but also ambiguity, logical impossibility, irrelevance, and inappropriateness.
- Superiority theory argues that humor is created when we feel “sudden glory” when we believe we have supremacy over others.
- Relief theorists believe humor is a way to release repressed feelings.
Professor McGraw adds yet another theory that he calls “benign violation”: “A joke can fail in one of two ways. It can be too benign, and therefore boring, or it can be too much of a violation, and therefore offensive.”
12. “I was in Miami and I had a massage in the hotel spa. Afterward they called me: ‘Mr. Cleese, you left your shoes in the spa. Can we send them up to your room?’ I said, ‘Oh, how nice of you.’ So, five minutes later, knock knock, someone opens the door. “Mr. Cleese, here’s your shoes.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘Could I see some form of identification?’ ‘Now, you know I’m Mr. Cleese because you just called me Mr. Cleese, and you know the room that Mr. Cleese was in because you came to my room number. So what are we doing asking for identification?’ And the guy said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I still need to see some form of identification.’ So I went over and I got a copy of my autobiography and I said, ‘That’s me there on the cover. And down there it says ‘John Cleese.’ You know what he said to me? He said, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not good enough.’ You couldn’t write something as wonderful as that.”
As Charlie Munger likes to say: “I have nothing to add.”