Writer’s Desk: Take Your Time

In 1991, comedic legend and sometime albatross vendor John Cleese gave a lecture on creativity, a topic he’s been somewhat obsessed with over the years (and in fact just published a short book about it). In that lecture, he gave examples of how to create what he called the “open mood” that allows ideas to come.

One example came from Alfred Hitchcock:

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s regular co-writers has described working with him on screenplays. He says, “When we came up against a block and our discussions became very heated and intense, Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the work at hand. At first, I was almost outraged, and then I discovered that he did this intentionally. He mistrusted working under pressure. He would say ‘We’re pressing, we’re pressing, we’re working too hard. Relax, it will come.’ And, says the writer, of course it finally always did.”

It’s a difficult balance. On the one hand, you have to keep to your writing schedule. Otherwise nothing gets done. On the other hand, pressing against a closed door rarely works.

When nothing is coming to you, sit back, take a breath, go for a walk, and think about something else. The muse is still there, you may just have to wait for her to circle back around to you.

Writer’s Desk: Cleese Says Steal It

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And now for something completely different…

John Cleese was one of the hardest working members of Monty Python. Outside the troupe, he had a brisk sideline in other writing gigs, not to mention advertisements, and his side business in business training films (weird, but true). Eric Idle said that Cleese used to say that he’d do anything for money, so Idle offered him a pound to stop talking. Cleese took it.

Given Cleese’s work ethic, it’s fair to assume he’s a good fellow to listen to about writing. Even when his advice is counter-intuitive:

I tell [young comedy writers] to steal, because comedy is extraordinarily difficult. It’s much, much harder than drama. You only have to think of the number of great dramatic films and then compare that with the number of great comic films … and realize that there’s very, very few great comedies and there are lots and lots of very great tragedies, or dramas. That tells you, really, which is the hard one to do. So at the very beginning, to try to master the whole thing is too difficult, so pinch other people’s ideas and then try to write them yourself, and that’ll get you started…

In other words, comedy is hard. Learn from those who went before you.

Screening Room: ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’

holygrail1Back in 1975, Monty Python was just starting to get a name for themselves outside of the UK. That was the year their first proper film landed in theaters, and comedy just wasn’t the same after that. Killer rabbits and all.

My review of the 40th anniversary DVD / Blu-ray release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is at PopMatters:

Shot by a ramshackle Dadaist comedy troupe over a chaotic and fairly drunken month in Scotland in 1974, right around the time that their Flying Circus TV show was coming to an end, and funded primarily by having some rock star friends of the troupe (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin) throw in a few thousand pounds each, the film should have been one of those debacles where everybody wishes they had just packed it up and retired instead. Among the extras on the anniversary edition—including outtakes and some newly unearthed animations by Terry Gilliam—is an on-the-set BBC piece where Gilliam seems more chuckle-headed college joker than co-director, John Cleese barely able to contain his irritation with being directed and all the last-minute rewrites, and set mechanics so primitive they could be out-done by an early Doctor Who episode…

Here’s the original trailer: