“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.”
– John Cleese to young writers trying to break into the comedy game
The Cover to John Cleese’s latest book, a comedy autobiography
1) John Cleese’s Advice
I picked up this wonderful nugget of encouragement from a recent NPR interview with John Cleese while he was promoting his latest book, So, Anyway…, a comedy autobiography. Although I may not be the biggest Monty Python aficionado, I’ve always had an affinity for John Cleese and the gravitas he brings to his writing while playing silly and nonsensical characters. His juxtaposition of the intelligent with the silly – think of the “Silly-Walks” sketch – is something I’ve always aspired to in my writing. For me, there is something funny about smart people (authority figures, experts, high status figures) acting stupid, or about idiots, neanderthals, and buffoons being closeted geniuses. I suppose a part of me can relate to that in some aspect, either being the silly smart person, or the intelligent dummy.
Beyond my admiration for him, comedy giant John Cleese is spreading some timeless wisdom here. When starting out, copy others and you’ll figure it out as you engage in that process – repetitively. I think that he’s also saying that starting out in comedy writing may be daunting if you don’t know where to or how to begin. Moreover, regardless of your unbridled enthusiasm for joining the guild of comedy artisans, getting started along a potentially infinite path can be perplexing. It can be so bewildering that you may never get started simply out of confusion of where to begin. So pick some comedy heroes, and start off by copying them, and at that will give you some momentum in developing your sketch writing talents.
And it could also be about tempering ambition to fit your ability and experience level. What comedy writer has not dreamed about writing for Saturday Night Live, his or her own original sitcom, or soon-to-be legendary screenplay? I know I have, and I’m truthful about it. However, before I can reach those heights of comedy writing, I must take the first initial steps into the forest of creativity. So despite my ambition being grandiose, I can’t execute my ideas if I lack the skills and tools of how to bring them about. My ambition will remain; I just have to bring my skills up to match it. In the meantime, I will experiment with John Cleese’s ideas.
2. Experimenting with his Ideas
John Cleese: juxtaposing the morbidly serious with the down-right silly
Aspiring Comedians everywhere should experiment – at least a few times – with John Cleese’s suggestion and encouragement of “pinching the ideas” of others. And no, I’m not talking about straight and unadulterated plagiarism here, but rather, look at a sketch, one you particularly enjoy, and try to break it down and reconstruct it in your own manner.
Dissect the sketch of your choice, and try to find out what makes it funny. Is it a wacky sketch with lots of silly characters positioned with a lone straight man who serves as a stark contrast to everybody else? Does the sketch have a reoccurring joke that the sketch is based on? Is the sketch straight comedy for a mainstream audience in the manner of SNL? Or is it absurdest and off-beat like a Tim and Eric sketch? Is the sketch making any type of social or political commentary? If the sketch was an essay, what is its thesis? What is the sketch arguing? By asking these questions, we can discover where the sketch derives its humor, how it makes people laugh at its core joke(s).
You might be saying to yourself, “Fernando! How absurd and dastardly of you! How dare you suggest that we should steal the ideas of others, find their inherent jokes, and try to rewrite them in different ways! I want to be unique! I want to be original!” A younger and more presumptuous Fernando would certainly agree with you, but after reading a wonderful book called How to Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon during my Brazilian sojourn, I’ve softened to the idea of borrowing heavily from those you admire the most. His pithy book expands on John Cleese’s suggestion in 10 easy-to-follow chapters that further develop and support the idea of stealing the ideas of others.
His thesis is this: “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.” Everything is building off of something else, and good artists recognize that and embrace that process of copying. Good artists do not try to create independent of influence; in fact, they seek it out and develop their ideas in symbiosis with those that inspired them in the first place. If you still need more convincing, even professional comedy writers still occasionally borrow from their predecessors.
3) A Real Life Case Study: Norm MacDonald’s “Celebrity Jeopardy” Sketch was a Remix of SCTV’s “Half-Wits”
The legendary “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch was actually a modern day version of the classic SCTV sketch, “Half-Wits”
Pinching the ideas of others may seem like an exercise for young guns writing knock-off SNL skits in college dorms and high school theater departments across the country, but even professional comedians working in the highest echelons of comedy still pinch the ideas of others.
In fact, as revealed by Norm MacDonald in his epic twitter post about the back stage preparations for SNL 40, one of Saturday Night Live’s most famous and enduring sketches, “Celebrity Jeopardy”, was just a remix of an earlier SCTV sketch called “Half-Wits.” And being the honored craftsman that he is, he openly admits it: ” I came up with the idea of Celebrity Jeopardy years ago by stealing it, note for note, from an SCTV classic, ‘Half-Wits’.” By admitting that “Celebrity Jeopardy” was a blatant copy of “Half-Wits,” Norm MacDonald sets up his sketch as a direct descendant of the SCTV classic; and like a modern band covering a pop classic – say like Van Halen’s hard rock cover of the Kink’s “You Really Got Me” – the music stays the same, but the interpretation of the hit by a new artists gives the song a new flavor and a contemporary feel in order to connect with a current audience. On top of that, the timelessness of the joke – one lone, sane, and intelligent man dealing with a series of varied idiots in a competition of wits – remains fresh, accessible to a new audience, and most importantly, alive.
Like Norm MacDonald copying Eugene Levy (the writer of “Half-Wits” and who gave his blessing to Norm to pinch the essence of the sketch), the greats of today mimic the greats of yesterday because they recognize that certain ideas have enduring value and resonance. Great ideas do not rust; their exteriors may seem dated and worn out, but their cores remain strong and resilient. Rock and Roll icons are aware of this truth.
4) Rock and Roll Icons Borrow From Their Heroes All the Time
Iconic Hard Rock and Heavy Metal guitarist Eddie Van Halen was greatly influenced by his personal guitar hero, Eric Clapton
Sketch comedy is hard. Even the great veteran comedians like Norm MacDonald occasionally pinch ideas here and there. Let’s face it: summoning a funny thought that can mutate into a humorous premise is incredibly difficult; and having that premise organically transform into a well-built sketch is even harder. So unless you are the Pablo Picasso of sketch comedy (meaning you’re an instant born savant*), you might not have the best of luck with your first try at trying to create a sketch from scratch. However, if you were to look at John Cleese’s proposition from a different perspective, you might be able to understand where he is coming from.
For example, how about learning guitar? Millions of people every year go out and buy guitars in order to become rock stars, jam with friends in garages and as weekend warrior cover bands, or just pick up an enduring past time. Few of these people will shred like Eddie Van Halen or Stevie Ray Vaughn on his or her first day, but maybe they want to eventually light up the neck like Eddie on his signature guitar solo, “Eruption,” or like SRV on his sensual instrumental “Riviera Paradise.” Consequently, these individuals will learn as many Van Halen and SRV tunes as possible, and eventually, once they make their own songs, without them knowing it, Van Halen and SRV’s influence will be present in their music although to an outside listener it may be hard to decipher the influence.
In fact, this is true even with Stevie Ray Vaughn and EVH. Stevie Ray Vaughn was inspired by and emulated Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton’s influence is prevalent in Eddie Van Halen’s music even though it may be hard to pin-point. And like Norm MacDonald, Eddie Van Halen openly admits it: “Eric Clapton is basically the only guitar player who influenced me – even though I don’t sound like him. There was a basic simplicity to his playing, his style, his vibe and his sound.” One great learns from another, and a musical kinship is established. Be like Van Halen: learn and emulate the style of a respected hero for a while, and you will then be able to find your voice.
5) Embrace John Cleese’s Advice and Steal Like an Artist
This wonderful book by Austin Kleon is an expanded thesis of John Cleese’s advice to young comedy writers, or any novice artists for that fact
Stealing the ideas of others may seem like a taboo to some, especially to any novices or individuals who want to find their own unique voice independent of any type of influence. However, I think at the very least, John Cleese is suggesting that we should study the greats in order to learn how they do it. We study the masters and legends of our chosen field, mimic their products, and hopefully we can learn something about their thinking, perspective, and approach during the process. And Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist develops this thought further:
“The reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds. That’s what you really want – to internalize their way of looking at the world.”
You copy your heroes to learn how they perceive and understand the world, and by discovering their approach to their craft, you can replicate that outlook when it comes to producing your own artwork. Moreover, in that experience you’ll be able to decipher how their unique perspective allows them to create the things they create.
Original thoughts are so hard to come by, especially when you’re new to something, so why assume the burden of an expert when you’re still only an amateur? Expertise should not be a barrier to trying something, but lack of it can certainly scare one away before a person can really make an attempt at it. Acknowledge that important people have come before you and have excelled in your chosen artistic field, but remind yourself that they also had to pick up the guitar or writer’s pen for the first time at some point. And they probably did what I suggest you do – learn you craft by copying your heroes, borrowing their ideas, and discovering the secrets of creativity by mimicking their process and adopting their outlook. Best of luck with the suggestion; hope it reaps some deep insights for you.
Til Next Time,
“It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.”
– Mark Twain on pinching the ideas of others
John Cleese’s interview on NPR (condensed version) – http://www.npr.org/2014/11/01/360427820/comedy-is-extraordinarily-difficult-john-cleese-on-being-funny
Austin Kleon’s Book, How to Steal Like an Artist – http://austinkleon.com/2011/03/30/how-to-steal-like-an-artist-and-9-other-things-nobody-told-me/
Norm MacDonald’s epic SNL40 Tweet – http://splitsider.com/2015/02/read-norm-macdonalds-fascinating-recap-of-celebrity-jeopardy-and-snl40/
SCTV’s Half-Wits – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTDsJd1l7Aw
Celebrity Jeopardy at SNL40 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImaYMoTi2g8
* A New Yorker piece by Malcom Gladwell that talks about instant born savants (like Picasso) and geniuses that have to labor a lifetime to cultivate their genius (like Cezanne) – http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/10/20/late-bloomers-2
Eddie Van Halen on being inspired by Eric Clapton – http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-guitarists-20111123/jimi-hendrix-20120705