The mind is much more creative when it’s relaxed.
At the beginning of the year, England’s best-known comedian, John Cleese, posed in a London studio for Bavarian weissbier “König Ludwig.” The shoot was initiated by Hamburg-based ad agency Scholz & Friends in cooperation with Hermann Vaske’s Emo-tional Network. Hermann Vaske, who worked as producer and director together with Cleese on the feature-length documentary “The Art of Football,” spoke with the Monty Python legend about advertising, creativity, and how to kill bats with an egg spoon.
L.A.: John, people might want to know how you, as an Englishman, could promote a Bavarian beer?
John Cleese: Erm, well … There are two or three reasons. One of them is that I think Bavaria is one of the most beautiful regions in Europe. I was astounded how beautiful it is. And, aside from that, I spent quite a lot of time over the years in Munich in particular. And, secondly, have you ever tried an English beer? It is very dreadful. When I was young, I couldn’t understand why I was English. And I did not like English beer at all. I didn’t like scotch and I didn’t like English tea. So I really wondered if I was English at all. But our beer is just dreadful, I think. And it has become less and less popular. People in England now drink what I would call a lager, very much more than they drink traditional English beer. And I got a taste for German beer in particular when I was spending time in Munich. We made two programs for das Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen in the early 70s. Which was actually in German. I’m talking about the Monty Python series. I should have said so. We shot two Monty Python shows in Munich.
L.A.: So did German beer help to spark off Monty Python?
John Cleese: I’d like to believe that. Alfred Biolek, who I hear has become quite a big figure in German television, he was the producer who brought us over to make the programs for the ZDF. And it was some of the best fun I ever had filming. Particularly when we had to do it all in German: “Liebe Zuschauer, falls Sie Ihre Fernsehapparate eingeschaltet haben, um die Sendung “Al-brecht Dürer: Sein Leben und seine Zeit” zu sehen, muss ich sie leider enttäuschen. Es wurden zwar zwei Versuche gemacht diese Sendung zu zeigen, aber sie mussten leider aufgegeben werden.” (“Dear Viewers, If you happen to have turned on your TV sets to watch the program ‘Albrecht Dürer: His Life and Times,’ I regret to have to dis-appoint you. Two attempts were made to air this program but they unfortunately had to be abandoned.”) How was that, Hermann?
L.A.: It was good. I’m impressed …
Robyn (John’s assistant): Wow! You speak German?
John Cleese: No, I don’t. I did at school but it is not great. I could order food. I have some very useful phrases like “Ich kann mit einem Eierlöffel Fledermäuse töten.”
Robyn: What does that mean?
John Cleese: It means “I can kill bats with an egg spoon.” That’s the drama if you learn dialogue from Monty Python shows in Germany. The phrases that you tend to remember aren’t very useful in everyday conversation.
L.A.: Did you know that the King of Bavaria is involved in this beer and the brewery?
John Cleese: Yes, I know. Tell me the story. I didn’t quite understand it.
L.A.: Er … Well they, the Wittelsbach dynasty, kind of got involved with the Reinheits-gebot (German beer purity law), with König Ludwig. Weissbier … I’d better read it to you from the brochure: As early as 1290, the royal house of Wittelsbach founded its first brewery at the castle of Schloss Kaltenberg. It is assumed that the beer has been brewed at this location ever since. After a long history, it returned to Wittelsbach in 1955. The family shaped the art of Bavarian brewing through the Bavarian purity law and the monopoly that lasted for over 200 years. So it has quite a tradition and goes back, like, to medieval times.
John Cleese: Would that mean the beer tastes pretty much the same as it did 700 years ago? Same ingredients?
L.A.: Yeah, it’s always been the same. For a long time.
John Cleese: And they haven’t changed the ingredients?
L.A.: No. Tastes like the old time.
John Cleese: Oh, marvelous. Well, I have always seriously loved German beer. And in America, where I’ve spent a lot of my time, that was the beer that everyone drank. You know, the Germans, they used to drink French wines and German beer. That was it. The French were best for wine, which I would have to disagree with. I loved German wine, especially Mosel wines but …
L.A.: The Riesling?
John Cleese: The Riesling, yeah. The wines from the Mosel area are, I think, my favorite white wines. Apart from the white burgundy from France. But when I was young, I almost didn’t have a choice in beer. You know, you go to a British pub: there might be four or five types of beer, maybe one foreign beer. And now, of course, there are millions of these microbreweries and so forth. I like lighter beers myself.
L.A.: I think your performance in the König Ludwig beer commercial reflects all the dignity that the client was looking for in representing his beer.
John Cleese: Yeah. Dignity. Is that right, yes? Well, I’m a very dignified fellow, yes. I can play dignified, yes. Let’s put it like this. I went to an English school and I can look like an English gentleman. Or I can be very vain. (John pulls funny faces.)
L.A.: Did you like getting pissed when you went to public school?
John Cleese: You know, a lot of my friends spent a lot of time getting very drunk and I never quite saw the point of it. For me, the drinking was always about the taste. You know what I mean? Not the quantity. So I think I was a little unusual in that way when I was a student.
L.A.: In moderation …
John Cleese: Yeah, I mean just, if I start feeling a little bit woozy, I back off.
L.A.: Did you hear about the phenomenon? It’s a mystery of the crop circles?
John Cleese: Oh yeah, I’ve heard about those … Why are you asking me about that?
L.A.: Because I just found it peculiar. Some people say that beer is made by aliens. King Ludwig, freshly brewed by aliens …
John Cleese: Ha ha ha. (Speaking German again.) Liebe Zuschauer, falls Sie Ihre Fernsehapparate in der Hoffnung eingeschaltet haben, diese Sendung zu zeigen, aber sie musste leider aufgegeben werden. (“Dear Viewers, If you happen to have turned on your TV sets hoping to show <sic> this program, it unfortunately had to be abandoned.”) It’s funny. I don’t know how that particular speech stayed in my mind. Maybe because it was a longer one. I don’t want to keep the photographer waiting.
L.A.: Just one sentence before you start.
John Cleese: Now listen, you guys, you go out and SELL SELL SELL this fucking beer, so I can get paid properly! (Twenty-five minutes later. John is back in the trailer.)
L.A.: How is it going so far?
John Cleese: It’s very interesting and quite fun. Because they ask for a lot of different MOVES and expressions and faces because they are not exactly sure what they want, so when they see one they say: “Ah, that’s right, that’s what we want,” and that guides me towards what they want. It is a slow process at the beginning because you can never totally visualize what you want until you actually look at it.
L.A.: But that’s the beauty of the creative process.
John Cleese: That’s right. And it’s very much backwards and forwards. And I keep saying to them, “Which ones do you like? Which ones are those six?” And the moment they say, “We like that one” … “Ok, ok, I know the mood.” I know the emotions that they want and I can reproduce them.
L.A.: Talking of creativity, what drives you? Why are you creative?
John Cleese: I am not sure. I wrote a couple of books with a psychiatrist about the mind in general. And what we felt about creativity was that people who had, in their youth, to put together two different frameworks tended to be very, very creative. And that sometimes meant if they had travelled a lot they had to put together where they, like, live this year, live that year … and you have two different frameworks, or more, that you have to try to integrate and make sense of it. And if you have two identical parents with a very, very similar “AHH,” you know what I mean, then you are not likely to be so creative. And if you live in a community that is very, very conformist, then you don’t have different frameworks that you have to put together. If you have just one framework, then people tend to be less creative.
L.A.: So Eisenstein’s definition of creativity – to put together different things in order to form a third – is right?
John Cleese: That’s right. That’s exactly what it is. You put two frameworks of reference together to form something that meets them.
L.A.: What are your creative influences?
John Cleese: I think, from the very beginning, I was always drawn to comedy. And I can go back to radio and television, when I was maybe nine, ten, eleven years old, and I can still remember things. I can also still remember examples that made a very, very good point. If I discuss something that I am interested in, I can usually pull out of my memory bank one or two examples that make the point very much more clearly.
L.A.: You still remember those words?
John Cleese: It’s more phrases or ideas. Somebody gives me an idea. I remember seeing a television program when I was fifteen and it was a program on a hypnotist who hypnotized a fellow and said, “I’m gonna go out of the room and when I come back in, you’re gonna take those flowers out of that vase and then you pour the water on the carpet.” And then he came back in. And that’s what the guy did: he poured the water on the carpet. But what interested me was that the psychiatrist then said to him: “Why did you do that?” And, clearly, he didn’t know. And then he said, “I thought I saw a cigarette butt down there and I thought I better put it out with the water.” In other words, he rationalized it. Now, that moment, when I was fifteen, stuck up here all my life; I realized how much of the time we rationalize. We try to come up with a reason why we did something, and we often don’t really know.
L.A.: Yes, we all have problems. We all want to solve those problems. That’s why we all have ideas. How good is creativity as a problem-solver?
John Cleese: Life is changing all the time. Life is constantly in flux. And that means that one has to be inventive to stay with the change.
L.A.: How important is a stimulus – like beer – to get the creative process going?
John Cleese: I never believed that alcohol or something, cannabis, anything, makes you more creative. I do know one philosopher who literally used to have two (Cleese imitates sucking a joint twice.) inhales of a spliff to review his work. He felt that, under that influence, he sometimes was able to put ideas together better than if he would not have smoked this. People often said regarding Monty Python, “What were you on?” The answer was: “No, no, it was much more a matter of precision and technique.” You get the crazy ideas but then you use your technique to get your crazy idea up there on the screen in its right form. So you have to have the crazy idea but you have to have the technique, too.
L.A.: Are there also some certain places? Like Jesus went to the desert, Mohammed went to the mountain … Are there certain places that work better than others to have ideas?
John Cleese: I think on the whole that we are much more creative when we are in a slightly more spacious, slightly more meditative state. I think when we are at a desk answering the telephone, taking text messages, firing off emails … we’re never gonna be creative in that state. It’s later in the evening, when we are going for a walk or in the bath having a shower, when you say, “Aha!”
L.A.: How can we be better creatives?
John Cleese: We have to learn to handle this modern world, where there is so little time and everybody is driven and looking at the matches and text messages. We have to learn to create a space, a sort of boundary space, where you are not interrupted, and a fixed set of time within which you can play with ideas and then go back to ordinary life. It’s hard to be creative in the middle of ordinary life; you have to learn to create a separate space before you get your mind in a more relaxed mode.
L.A.: You are the King of Comedy. What are the crown jewels of your career?
John Cleese: I think with Monty Python we did some good television shows. But I think that “Life of Brian” was our best film. I like “Holy Grail” but I think that “Life of Brian” was much better. And I’m very proud of “Fawlty Towers.” And “A Fish Called Wanda.” – I think I have to go back and do some more!
L.A.: What does beer mean for you?
John Cleese: Well, beer is a fun product and, now and again, an alternative to wine. If I’m having a meal, I’ll probably have wine. But sometimes, particularly if you have a curry, you’d be much better off with beer. And if you are out in the open and you want to drink, I think beer is the best.
L.A.: Yeah, you remember those Bavarian beer gardens with the oompah-oompah music?
John Cleese: Yes, I do.
L.A.: Can you sing?
John Cleese: You know, I’m completely amusical. But what I like about Bavaria is … there is that beer culture with songs and the slapping of the leg. It’s just tremendous fun, Oktoberfest, wonderful! I love all those dirndls with the cleavage. I love all that stuff, the lederhosen … I’m very fond of it. I don’t know why but there’s something about it. It’s just plain fun.
L.A.: A famous politician from Germany just created a “dirndlgate” for himself by saying something sexist to a journalist.
John Cleese: With these flirtatious remarks, there is a very fine line between what is acceptable and what is sort of disrespectful. When you’re saying, “You are very pretty,” or “I am attracted to you,” if you can say it in a subtle way, then it’s okay and it is very nice. I think most people like to be told that they look pretty, or that they are attractive, but when it’s done in that slightly heavy obvious way, then there’s something about it that is not quite right.
L.A.: Do you think that dirndls and folk music would work in an English pub?
John Cleese: No, I don’t think so. It’s a different kind of atmosphere. A little more introverted, I would say.
L.A.: Within the creative process: How do you work with agency people?
John Cleese: I’ve always enjoyed making commercials. Yes, I’ve been doing commercials for a very, very, very long time. And I enjoy them. I mean, it’s not like doing a play or a film or anything. But it’s like do-ing a very interesting crossword puzzle, you know. You just have a very short amount of time and, first of all, certain key information that you have to get across. So you always say to the client: What’s the minimum? Because when I know what the minimum is, then I can have fun with the time that’s left. If they want too much selling, then you just have to say the words and it is almost impossible to add anything creative or funny. And I think selling works best when you … you kind of expect people to rush out and buy something. I mean, that’s stupid. But if you create a feeling of goodwill towards a product … and if people laugh at you, if people think you’re funny, then that creates goodwill. So if I can get in front of a camera, with a product, and say something about the product that is interesting and truthful, and then add something to make it funny, first of all the viewer knows what it is that I am selling and, secondly, he or she will have a vague feeling of goodwill towards it if I can make them laugh.
L.A.: What are you looking for in a good script?
John Cleese: Well, what makes a good commercial script is a minimal amount of information. I mean, I think when you start a campaign for a product, so it’s a new product, the only thing that matters is to get the name up there. I remember once doing a commercial, which everyone loved, for an insurance company. But everyone thought it was another insurance company. Yet it was actually for the General Accident insurance company. And everyone thought it was for another one. I don’t know why, but they all loved the commercial. Yet that doesn’t work. And I actually said to them: “You know, the next commercial you make, you should have a general from the army having an accident. ‘General’ accident …” And they kind of pooh-poohed that and thought it was silly. And then, five years later, I saw they were doing it. You’ve got to get the name across at the beginning. But the other thing is, as I say, the client always wants the name said about 33 times. That’s not the way to make it. I did a radio commercial once … where there was ten seconds of silence at the beginning. The reason being … the radio was on the whole time, but if there is ten seconds of silence, the driver in the car thinks: Oh, why has it gone quiet? And then you’ve got his attention when you talk to him. You see what I mean? So you have to be subtle about what you do.
L.A.: Yes, totally. You really have to surprise people.
John Cleese: You have to surprise people. Because, otherwise, why should they pay attention? There is so much stuff going on, you know. You have to do something striking and unusual to surprise people.
L.A.: Yeah, I meant the example that you gave with the radio commercial and the silence … just total surprise, you know. Grab people’s attention.
John Cleese: Yes, and I did a number of commercials some time ago, where I started just talking straight to camera and saying: “There are very nice people at Schweppes willing to pay me lots of money to tell you that.” And people liked the honesty of it. They just thought it was refreshing. So you are just talking about what the actual situation is, that you are being paid to tell them this. And they liked that. It wasn’t enormously funny, but it amused them.
L.A.: I remember I talked to Alan Parker about this. Is it sometimes a pain in the butt when some 23-year-old spotty art director, like he put it, tells you what to do?
John Cleese: Well, it depends. I think you always have to work and listen to what the client, or the advertisement agency, wants. They are the people who know what they want. But they may not know exactly how to get it. And you are gonna help them to get what they want.
L.A.: So, basically, it’s about the art of collaboration?
John Cleese: Yeah. It’s a total collaboration when there are some people who know what they are trying to achieve in the sense of a sort of strategy or a basic idea that they want to get across, but at that point they’ll need to give it to the creative people, so that the idea is got across in an interesting, creative way. Because, otherwise, it will come across in a way that isn’t very interesting and no one will even notice it now, ‘cause it’s such a noise.
L.A.: You really are an impressive expert on communication, John. I remember you even won some highly regarded D&AD awards.
John Cleese: At one stage, in the seventies and eighties, I was winning awards all the time. You know, in the advertising world. Which is what happens when you get older, they don’t … most of the time, they want a younger person presenting it. So the opportunities get fewer.
L.A.: But you are still winning awards …
John Cleese: Play. That’s the key.
L.A.: Yes, why do children play? Tell us about your creative seminars.
John Cleese: I do very good seminars about creativity. It’s on the internet. I would love to speak about that.
L.A.: What are your seminars about?
John Cleese: Oh, I don’t create a presen-tation in various versions. I can do a 45-minute speech, which would tell people about it, but I think it’s better if it’s expe-riential. People actually have the experience of becoming more creative. And so I do a kind of two-hour version. And I also do one that takes the whole morning. But that actually gives people a real feeling about what it’s like. And my theory is that you have to feel a particular mood, a particular creative mood, before the mind loosens up and becomes more creative. It needs to be very relaxed. I was visiting the Dalai Lama once. And he said he loved laughter. Because, he said, when people laugh then their minds can have new ideas.
L.A.: Yeah, that’s interesting. I also had an interview with him. And he is always so very cheerful, you know.
John Cleese: And hard to interrupt.
L.A.: How important is humor?
John Cleese: The key to it is play. Being creative is play. And when people play, they are being spontaneous. And when people are spontaneous, there will always be fun. There might be laughter, there might be just fun. But that’s the mood you have to create, and in that mood you have far more creative ideas than you would if you were working under pressure. And this is why, with most people who are working under pressure most of the time … they have to learn how to create this space where they can begin to play.
L.A.: Do you give them exercises?
John Cleese: Yeah, I just get them to sit there and they get a pen, pencil, a piece of paper, and I give them a new experience. And most of them love it. And a very small proportion, who are rather uptight, don’t like it because it’s so relaxed. It’s very hard for them to relax.
L.A.: It’s basically interactive?
John Cleese: Yes. It’s very much interactive and I give them the experience of dealing with things. Basically, it’s learning how to use your unconscious in a very positive way.
L.A.: Now back to the beer. How would you advise König Ludwig to use their unconscious in advertising?
John Cleese: I don’t know. No, it just depends on … I’d have to know much more conversation and know what kind of beer commercials they do in Bavaria, and I could not possibly do that. Have a long conversation first.
L.A.: So one last question, one last comment. Did you know that they are not able to pay you the full fee?
John Cleese: Oh! Ok … thank you (Cleese grabs a case of beer and walks off the set.)