Social media is a creative disaster: John Cleese

Award-winning actor, comedian and writer is in Dubai for a show


Ambica Sachin

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Published: Mon 13 Mar 2023, 6:12 PM

Last updated: Thu 16 Mar 2023, 6:17 PM

The advent of AI, some may argue, has made creativity redundant. When you can have a spectacularly scripted verbose piece on just about any subject under the sun, at the click of a button, why waste time lamenting over writer’s block and hitting your head against the proverbial brick wall in search of inspiration?

But John Cleese begs to differ. The 83-year old legendary comedian, actor and writer of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and the Oscar nominated A Fish Called Wanda, has been scripting thought-provoking and laughter inducing material his entire life.

On March 14, the master story-teller conducted a session on 'Creativity: A Short & Cheerful Guide by John Cleese' at Dubai Lynx. Following on from that he will be hosting 'An Evening with the late John Cleese' on March 18 at Dubai Opera, where 'the world's funniest man' is set to share hilarious and silly highlights from his life and career.

Having made his mark as a member of the legendary Monty Python Troupe in the 1960s, the comedian was in the news recently for his plans to revive the popular 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers alongside his daughter Camilla Cleese. Often referred to as one of the greatest British sitcoms ever, Fawlty Towers, was sadly off bounds during our recent interview with the intrepid British comedian.

You are tagged as the ‘world’s funniest person’. Is it a burden to walk into a room full of people who expect you to be funny from the word go or do you just roll with it now?

The nice thing about doing stage shows is that people don’t buy tickets if they don’t like you, so you are guaranteed a warm reception which always helps to relax a performer.

In your book, Creativity: A short and cheerful guide, you say it is a learnable, improvable skill. In your professional life, when you feel like you’ve hit a brick wall, what is the one practice that helps you?

I am not sure that creativity itself is learnable, but we can learn how to create the relaxed circumstances in which we will become more creative. I have found that when my humorous writing is not flowing well and I become upset about it, it makes things worse. You must learn to accept the arid periods as part of the process. Somebody once said ‘You can’t have a new idea until you have got rid of an old one’.

You excelled in sports like cricket and boxing and even academics we are told. Have you ever wondered how your life would have panned out if you, say, focused on boxing?

I did not excel in boxing because I am a coward and no fan of pain. If I had not gone into comedy, I think I would have enjoyed any work with animals or a career in Academic psychology. And I would have liked to have worked in a huge superstore like Harrods.

Not many are perhaps aware that you also boast a law degree from Cambridge. You could have been a lawyer regaling an entire court with your anecdotes. A missed chance?

I think I would have found a legal career too constraining, always worrying what trick the other side are up to. But I think the precise language required is a good training for comedy.

Never have we as a human race needed humour more and never has it been under such strain what with rampant cancel culture and social media trolling. How do we preserve humour amidst such deadly distractions?

I agree entirely. I think it’s astonishingly important that people with a sense of humour do not have the material that they like controlled by people without a sense of humour. And we have to stand our ground. There is a great deal of cowardice amongst corporations and academia.

Recently old school comedies by BBC and other channels have come under scrutiny. There is the huge controversy over rewriting Roald Dahl’s works. In our quest to portray a perfect world where diversity and inclusivity are the key ingredients, are we at risk of glossing over human frailties and foibles and portraying everything as ideal?

The answer is Yes! It is very important to understand that all humour is critical. You can’t be funny about perfect human beings. Teasing is absolutely fine provided it’s done with affection. Nasty teasing is not an attempt at humour, it’s an attempt to hurt people and we should discourage it as strongly as we can.

Has social media made your job easier or difficult when you are inundated 24 hours with ideas and opinions and inspiration and comments?

I think social media has made most things worse. The key to creativity is to avoid interruptions, so social media is a creative disaster.

With the looming threat of AI tools taking over our job, including Chat GPT, do you believe there is an urgent need to focus on individual creativity?

I am sceptical about AI. Science is based on measurement, and you can’t properly measure what goes on inside peoples minds so AI can’t properly replace a human brain in the most important ways. The moment that our humanity enters the equation, robots can’t help. Of course, if you believe that efficiency is all important, we can replace you with a robot.

You are quite active on social media - On Twitter you describe yourself as ‘Trainee hermit, & keen Amateur Squirrel Trainer’. We can’t quite picture you sitting in silence though.

This description of myself applied to the Covid period when I was on my own with a squirrel “the only visitor”. I should update it. But I do like to write things for Twitter - just try to create a little clarity in a very crazy world, and to get a laugh now and again.

Catch An Evening With The Late John Cleese on March 18 at Dubai Opera.

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