John Cleese may be best known for his writing and acting in cult classics like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and A Fish Called Wanda, yet Cleese has had a diverse and prolific creative career. He wrote and acted in two classic television series, more than a dozen other recognized film titles, and even co-founded a production company that creates hilariously unexpected business training videos on topics like customer service and leadership.

After five decades in the entertainment business, Cleese has spent long hours thinking about the roots of creativity – and how to protect it from the vagaries of everyday life. He has spent years studying – and wrestling with – how to nurture and protect quiet, creative thinking in a world that emphasizes doing.

CCO: When and how did you embark on this journey of studying creativity?

JC: In school no one ever thought I had any creative abilities at all. I don’t know to what extent it was because I didn’t show them or because the teachers tended not to have any creative abilities themselves. I don’t think you can recognize it in people if you don’t have some idea yourself of what it’s about. When I discovered at Cambridge – I was maybe 22 – that I could write stuff that would make people laugh, I was a little surprised. I came to Cambridge as a scientist and then switched to law, neither of which stimulated my creativity. From then on, I began to notice things. If I was sitting and writing a sketch, and couldn’t think how to finish it … eventually I would go to bed and when I got up in the morning, wandered over to my desk with my cup of coffee to look at it, I suddenly would think, “Why don’t I just do that?” It became obvious to me that thinking was going on when I wasn’t consciously thinking about it.

John Cleese speaking at Content Marketing World 2015 from Content Marketing Institute

You speak a lot about the importance of quiet space for creativity. What does your quiet space look like? What habits or rituals do you cultivate?

Creating a creative space means creating boundaries of space and boundaries of time. Boundaries of space mean you don’t have people walking in, because one of the most completely destructive things to any type of creativity is interruptions. I remember when I was 15 somebody told me a story about Michael Faraday, the physicist; his wife used to leave his food on the tray outside the room. Faraday discovered interruptions were deadly. You have to have boundaries of space.

“Creating a creative space means creating boundaries of space and boundaries of time,” says @JohnCleese, via @CMIContent. Share on X

Then you set up boundaries of time. I don’t think there is much point in trying to do anything difficult if you put out less than an hour. You see it’s just like meditation. People who meditate know that when you first sit down, all that happens is your mind buzzes with all the things you should be doing. You have to wait a bit.

Do you become better at quieting the mind over time?

I think you do. You become better because you realize this process works. So, when I need to get something done, the very first thing I do is to start thinking about it. When I start early, I know my mind will work on it even if I’m not actively writing.

Children don’t seem to have the luxury of quiet anymore.

Someone said to me the other day, which is very sweet. He said, “In my youth, the parent’s problem was getting the kids in. Now it’s getting them out.”

More than anything, it’s undermining our mental health. In the old days it was OK to sit around whittling sticks, fishing, or taking the dog for a walk. Nobody has any space now; that means they don’t have time gently to process the emotions that come up during the course of the day.

People have not had a chance to find quiet. Every sacred major tradition has a meditative side to it, in which the cultivation of attention is really considered the most important thing you can do.

Creativity is “putting two different things together and coming out with something new,” says @JohnCleese, via @CMIContent. Share on X

Is humor an essential part of creativity?

I think so. If you are relaxed, you see the funny side of things much more than if you are focused on the goal. This grasshopper hops into a bar and hops up onto a stool. The bar man says, “We got a drink named after you.” And the grasshopper says, “What? Brian?”

Took me a moment … Telling good jokes is a vanishing art.

If you look at what jokes are, it’s normally to do with putting two different frameworks together. When the barman says he has a drink named after the grasshopper, the grasshopper thinks, “My name is Brian.” He doesn’t think the drink’s called a grasshopper. It’s two frameworks coming together.

I think that’s essential in creativity: putting two different things together and coming out with something new. Sometimes I do jokes and it takes people a very long time to get them. But they are often more amused when they have to make a less obvious connection. If you make a joke too obvious, it’s not as funny.

“Creativity is all about play,” says @JohnCleese. Creative people are more playful in their approach. #Creativity #ContentMarketing Share on X

Creativity is all about play. Early research about creativity found that people who are creative are people who are more playful in their approach. When something doesn’t work, they never think, “Oh darn, the thing isn’t working.” They always think, “Interesting … wonder why it isn’t working?” There’s that childlike focus.

The other thing is that most creative people take more time over their decisions, which always astounds people. Most people’s problem is anxiety. People are always trying to get rid of anxiety by making decisions and doing things before they need to.

So, if you have a decision to make, just ask “when does this decision have to be made?” Then wait until it has to be made. You don’t take it before because you might get new ideas or new information. People think you’ve got to take a decision like that [snapping fingers]. Why would you hurry it? The answer is most people want to get rid of the anxiety, whatever the result.