Dec 28, 2011

What can John Cleese teach you about writing?

“You don’t have to be the Dalai Lama to tell people that life’s about change.”

John Cleese (b. 1939) was over six feet tall by the age of twelve. His runty classmates mocked Cleese for his height. The English comedian, writer and producer was born to Muriel Evelyn and Reginald Francis -- an insurance salesman whose original surname was Cheese. John’s father changed the family name to Cleese when he joined the army in 1915.

Weston-super-Mare, the North Somerset oasis* where Cleese first saw the light of day, is often portrayed as a scum pit. There are people throughout Britain who don’t even believe it exists. No wonder the family moved to Bristol.
*It’s all about perspective. Could Weston be worse than Burkina Faso?

Weston-super-Mare's official website:
hacked together by colorblind raccoons.

John Cleese went to Cambridge to study law, but the stage, ah, the stage called to him. (On occasion, John would break down, pretend he didn't want to act anymore, and teach Latin at a prep school.) While at Cambridge, Mr. Cleese took up with the Footlights, an amateur theater troupe/club. John got his first taste of international success with them. Sacha Baron Cohen and Stephen Fry also earned their comedy wings with the Footlights Dramatic Club.

By the way, I wasn’t kidding about the Latin lessons. That happened, which is why we have this scene in Life of Brian:

Television beckoned. Thanks to The Frost Report (1966), At Last the 1948 Show (1967) and Marty (1968) Cleese met his future partners in the greatest of all crimes against boredom: Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The rest, as they say, is an ex-parrot.

So, what can John Cleese teach you about writing a novel, story or Hungarian phrasebook?

“I find it rather easy to portray a businessman. Being bland, rather cruel and incompetent comes naturally to me.”

When you start developing characters, it’s a real temptation to base them on you. Let me tell you straight away there’s nothing wrong with that. You only get in trouble when all your characters are based on you. That way, they end up sounding and acting the same.

Chances are, if you can’t keep track of your characters or keep them separate in your mind, neither can the reader.

“I think that sometimes you do something that makes a small group of people laugh, which is all we were trying to do; we were just trying to make each other laugh.”

Whether you like it or not, you are the first person to read your work. You’re not the beta but the alpha reader.

Right now, a lot of writers like you and me are toiling away at a novel or sweating .45 bullets trying to put together a coherent plot and many of them are plagued by one question – should I write for myself, or write for the market?

But you don’t have to stick to that dichotomy. It’s broken. There’s a third option that I don’t think gets mentioned often enough: write for people like you.

Readers like you, they are your market. Please yourself and you will please them.

I could also summon the ghost of Steve Jobs to help me out here; although I was never a fan, I’ll be the first to admit the man had chutzpah. (And the brains to back it up.) Steve famously said that consumers don’t know what they want until you give it to them.

This applies to books as well. A Confederacy of Dunces was rejected so many times that John Kennedy O’Toole lost faith in himself as a writer and a person and didn’t live to see his beloved book come out.

Writers have taken on the mantle of the tribal storyteller, of the enchanter that reveals unseen worlds as the clans gather ’round a leaping orange blaze. I’m sure there’s a tribe looking for what you – yes, you – have to offer. Do not be discouraged. If you persevere and give yourself time, you will find them.

It is through the quest that you hone your talents. The journey may at times appear hopeless, but even that is beneficial. You’ll find yourself looking for answers. How can you help but grow, then?

“If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge its truth.”

Laughter is a powerful weapon. Like all such weapons, it can be put to nefarious ends. Comedy is always subversive, because laughter has this dual meaning: I can laugh with you but I can also laugh at you, and it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

There may be no such thing as an openly didactic comedy. (Except, of course, for the kind of State-controlled, doctrinaire comedies that Soviet studios pumped out in the gilded age of communism.) Comedy thrives to this day because it allows people to feel superior to someone else. Yet our prevalent sense of justice tells us that we should all be equal and equally worthy. However, that’s just not funny.

Ask yourself: what makes you laugh? Take a movie like Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights – is it funny because it reinforces assumptions about NASCAR drivers, or because it makes fun of those very assumptions? Could it be both?

Eli Roth has claimed that the Hostel torture-porn films are about “Americans’ ignorance of the outside world,” or words to that effect. In that case… Hostel is a comedy. A jokeless comedy which means Roth is an evolved troll; he’s figured out how to make money from a rather empty, nihilistic concept.

Unlike torture porn, comedy is redemptive. Take a good look at your favorite funny movies: I bet many of them are about people who want to improve their lives. Maybe they’ll get a few things wrong, but… OK, I’m going to repeat myself here. The journey may at times appear hopeless, but even that is beneficial. You’ll find yourself looking for answers. How can you help but grow, then?

John Cleese knows this –
“The really good idea is always traceable back quite a long way, often to a not very good idea which sparked off another idea that was only slightly better, which somebody else misunderstood in such a way that they then said something which was really rather interesting.”

Happy New Year.


Here's 'Iron Face' Cleese playing straight man to Marty Feldman's annoying train passenger. (At Last the 1948 Show)

Cleese is uniquely gifted for dark comedy. Just look at the faces he makes during this job interview. (Monty Python's Flying Circus)

A comedian's body is an asset, never a hindrance -- John Cleese has ten-foot poles for legs, and he's willing to use them. In this sketch, he acts opposite Michael Palin, who "no longer is the funniest Palin" since the advent of Sarah Palin, says Cleese. (Monty Python's Flying Circus)

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

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