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The Organic Creativity of John Cleese
And why AI can’t replicate it. Plus, a brief sidebar with the X-Men.
John Cleese has some ideas on creativity. He wrote them in a book called Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide.
It is indeed short and cheerful—more of a pamphlet, really. The book is essentially a keynote address on creativity, and Cleese qualifies as an expert in the subject. You should read it.
Creativity came out in 2020, and recent discussions about artificial intelligence add an extra layer of interest now. True creativity, as described by Cleese, seems utterly impossible for existing programs like ChatGPT. Creativity relies on the unconscious, which, you may have noticed, computers don’t have. But we do.
Cleese writes (italics in the original):
“And that’s the problem with unconscious. It is unconscious. You can’t order it about or hit it with a stick. You have to coax it out in all sorts of strange and crafty ways. And be clever about interpreting what it tells you.”
He continues, and this part seems particularly relevant to AI discussions:
“Put simply, you can’t ask your unconscious a question, and expect a direct answer — a neat, tidy little verbal message. This is because your unconscious communicates its knowledge to you solely through the language of the unconscious.”
This language, he notes, is not verbal.
“It’s like the language of dreams. It shows you images, it gives you feelings, it nudges you around without you immediately knowing what it’s getting at.”
I experimented with ChatGPT recently. Curiosity got to me, and whenever possible, I prefer to see things for myself rather than rely on what others are saying. (I also wrote about my ChatGPT experiments here, with more of a history focus.)
ChatGPT is what the unconscious is not. You ask it a question, and you do get “a neat, tidy little verbal message.” The grammar will be precise, and the message won’t even have any typos in it—it’s that tidy.
Bear in mind that I’m no expert on artificial intelligence. As I understand it, ChatGPT recognizes patterns, repackages information, and refines its answers based on feedback. That’s all impressive, especially considering how quickly it compiles and spits out the requested information. You can generate paragraphs in seconds. But they’ll be soulless paragraphs.
Actual creativity requires time. In his book, Cleese explains how the unconscious continues to wrestle with a problem even when we’re not actively thinking about it. He describes getting stuck while writing a sketch, racking his brain for a while, then eventually giving up for the evening … and experiencing a breakthrough soon the next morning.
It was never a spontaneous epiphany or divine inspiration. He put the work in, and his unconscious persevered, bringing him closer to the solution.
Later, Cleese shares the relatable observation “that some days the stuff flows, and some days it doesn’t.” He and Graham Chapman would occasionally hit a dry spell while writing, sometimes producing nothing worthwhile after a full day of work.
“But then we noticed that, despite this, we had a consistent average: every week we wrote about fifteen to eighteen minutes of good stuff. All we had to do was sit there, whether it flowed or it didn’t, and by Friday evening we would have enough. We came to understand that the blockages weren’t an interruption in the process, they were part of it.”
AI experiences no blockages, barring a power outage. But nothing would be percolating while it’s turned off.
If we go back in time far enough, even writing was once a new technology. And it, too, faced some skepticism—from Plato himself.
The above link shares the following quote from Plato’s Phaedrus:
If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.
What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only the semblance of wisdom, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much while for the most part they know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom they will be a burden to their fellows.
Writing allows us to offload our memory so we can refer to information later when we need it. There are obviously benefits to having a written record, and more so as time goes on. Nobody can possibly memorize the totality of human knowledge and millennia of history. Eventually, as individuals, we need to pick and choose the subjects we want to dive deeper into. And then we need to communicate that information to others, potentially many others.
While we can’t learn everything, the more information we can memorize, the better. Once the information is lodged inside our brains—rather than just passing through—it can enter the unconscious and interact with other knowledge we’ve learned, allowing us to form unorthodox connections and launch into creative leaps.
Writing reinforces learning. It helps us think things through and sharpen those thoughts.
But ChatGPT allows us to offload the writing too, which means outsourcing our thinking. We need only come up with a prompt, and the program will generate text. And it’s nothing more than text.
Let’s look at Monty Python’s Flying Circus, clearly a creative show and the product of multiple creative minds, including Cleese’s.
I’ve got a soft spot for the “Bicycle Repairman” sketch, which seems tailor-made for me. It shows a city where everyone is dressed as Superman as they go about their daily routines. But then, when a bicycle breaks down, it’s a job for … Bicycle Repairman! One mild-mannered Superman rushes off to change into his dynamic secret identity of Bicycle Repairman, and he dashes onto the scene and uses his special repairman skills to fix the bike. The ordinary Supermen gape in awe at this remarkable feat of bicycle-repair prowess.
It’s a delightfully absurd concept, but it’s not a single absurd idea.
It’s not just a bunch of guys dressed as Superman going about their mundane routines. It’s not just an over-the-top dramatization of repairing a bicycle. It’s not just a typical superhero announcer descending into an unhinged rant about those evil Commies. The pieces form a greater whole, and it’s all infused with the proper rhythm and sense of fun. It’s a brief series of clever connections building on each other.
Next up, “The Ministry of Silly Walks”:
This, too, builds on itself in an organic, well-timed manner: What if we combined something stuffy with something silly? Okay, a man in business attire walks sillily down the street. But where would he go to work? The Ministry of Silly Walks, of course. What does one do in the Ministry of Silly Walks? Reviews requests for funding to develop new silly walks, obviously. What would a failed pitch look like? How might one critique this failed pitch?
Even the most ridiculous concepts need to be thought through. The initial idea is never enough.
Now let’s contrast that with ChatGPT’s attempt to write a Monty Python skit.
Write a typical skit that could have appeared on Monty Python's Flying Circus.
ChatGPT immediately produced:
Title: "The Ministry of Silly Walks"
[Scene: The Ministry of Silly Walks. A grandiose office with a sign that reads "Ministry of Silly Walks" hanging crookedly on the door. Mr. Pompous, a serious-looking bureaucrat, is seated at a desk, dressed in a suit and tie. Mr. Silly, an eccentric man in a bowler hat, enters the office.]
Mr. Silly: (walking in a ridiculously exaggerated manner) Good morning, sir! I'm here to apply for a grant for my new silly walk!
Mr. Pompous: (sternly) Ah, yes. Another one. Please have a seat.
[Mr. Silly tries to sit in a normal chair but ends up falling comically.]
Mr. Pompous: (dryly) I see you've already mastered the art of falling over.
Mr. Silly: (laughs) Thank you, sir! It's part of my charm. Now, let me demonstrate my latest silly walk.
[Mr. Silly proceeds to demonstrate a series of ridiculously convoluted and exaggerated movements, including high kicks, hopping on one leg, and spinning in circles.]
Mr. Pompous: (trying to maintain composure) Very... interesting. But what practical purpose does it serve?
Mr. Silly: (with exaggerated enthusiasm) Well, imagine a world where everyone walks like this! We'll be the happiest, fittest nation on Earth! It'll revolutionize the way people commute, exercise, and even dance!
Mr. Pompous: (skeptical) I fail to see how these absurd movements could have any real-life applications.
[As they continue to discuss, various other characters from different departments of the Ministry start entering the office, each showcasing their own unique silly walks.]
Enter Miss Wobbly, a woman with wobbly legs who stumbles around gracefully.
Miss Wobbly: (apologetically) I'm so sorry, gentlemen, I couldn't help but overhear about the silly walks. I believe my wobbly legs could be a perfect addition to the collection!
Mr. Silly: (enthusiastically) Brilliant! The more, the merrier!
[Enter Mr. Zigzag, a man who walks in zigzag patterns, and Mr. Tiptoe, a man who tiptoes on his toes with exaggerated caution.]
Mr. Pompous: (exasperated) This is getting out of hand! Silly walks, wobbly legs, zigzag patterns... what has become of this ministry?
[As the chaos escalates, characters start colliding into each other, creating a hilarious display of clumsiness and absurdity.]
[Scene: The office is now in complete disarray, with papers flying and characters falling over each other. The chaos eventually comes to a halt when a senior official, Mr. Serious, walks in.]
Mr. Serious: (deadpan) What on Earth is going on here?
[Everyone freezes, trying to regain composure.]
Mr. Pompous: (nervously) Uh, well, we were just discussing the... um, practical applications of silly walks, sir.
Mr. Serious: (deadpan) Practical applications? I see. Well, let's just say this discussion is over. Now, get back to work!
[Everyone scurries away, trying to look serious while suppressing laughter. The scene ends with Mr. Silly attempting to exit the office but getting tangled in a coat rack.]
[End of skit]
The program pulled in some familiar elements, but it demonstrates no understanding of why the original skit worked. It’s just Look, silly walks, ha ha. You like that, right? But it’s missing any sense of progression or timing. It overcooked some leftovers in the microwave and nuked all the flavor right out.
It’s like a small child who had recently stumbled into saying something genuinely funny and gotten a big laugh and is now attempting to be funny again. But the child has no idea why people were laughing the first time, and thus offers up a self-conscious remix of that original happy accident. Instead of originality, there’s awkward replication. The child, of course, will learn and grow over time. Generative AI can incorporate some feedback and attempt another remix.
I then asked ChatGPT:
Can you make it funnier?
Title: "The Ministry of Utterly Absurd Walks"
[Scene: The Ministry of Utterly Absurd Walks. A chaotic office with mismatched furniture, upside-down paintings, and a sign that reads "Ministry of Utterly Absurd Walks" hanging crookedly on the door. Mr. Clumsy, a bumbling bureaucrat with a perpetually confused expression, is seated at a desk, surrounded by stacks of papers. Mr. Silly, an eccentric man in a bowler hat, bursts into the office, knocking over a potted plant.]
Mr. Silly: (tripping over his own feet) Golly gosh, good day, sir! I'm here to inquire about the preposterous walks grant!
Mr. Clumsy: (startled) Oh, my! You nearly gave me a heart attack! But, uh, yes, yes, please have a seat... if you can find one.
[Mr. Silly attempts to sit on a wobbly chair, but it collapses, causing him to fall onto the floor.]
Mr. Clumsy: (trying to contain his laughter) Oh, sorry about that. Occupational hazard, you know?
Mr. Silly: (grinning) No worries! It's all part of the silliness. Now, brace yourself, good sir, for the most utterly absurd walk you've ever seen!
[Mr. Silly proceeds to demonstrate a series of outrageously ludicrous walks. He hops on one foot while juggling invisible oranges, dances a tango with an imaginary partner, and even attempts a moonwalk while wearing flippers.]
Mr. Clumsy: (chuckling) Well, that was... unexpected. But what's the purpose behind these, uh, preposterous walks?
Mr. Silly: (excitedly) Oh, imagine a world where everyone walks like this! We'll confuse the pigeons, outwit the speed cameras, and have a jolly good time! It's a surefire way to bring smiles to people's faces.
Mr. Clumsy: (scratching his head) I'm not quite sure about the logistics, but it does sound rather amusing.
[As they continue their conversation, a parade of absurd characters from different departments of the Ministry starts parading into the office, each showcasing their own outrageous walks.]
Enter Miss Topsy-Turvy, a woman who walks upside-down, defying gravity with her topsy-turvy antics.
Miss Topsy-Turvy: (cheerfully) Oh, pardon me, but I couldn't resist joining the absurdity! Upside-down walking is the latest trend, you know?
Mr. Silly: (with glee) Marvellous! The more the merrier! The world needs more topsy-turvy walkers!
[Enter Mr. Backwards, a man who walks backward with perfect precision, and Lady Stiltwalker, a woman towering on impossibly long stilts.]
Mr. Clumsy: (utterly bewildered) This is madness! Utter madness!
[The chaos escalates as characters collide, tumble, and intertwine their utterly absurd walks, creating a sidesplitting spectacle of collisions and missteps.]
[Scene: The office is now a complete pandemonium, with papers flying, characters spinning in circles, and general hilarity ensuing. The chaos comes to a halt when a stern senior official, Mr. Seriouspants, barges into the office.]
Mr. Seriouspants: (deadpan) What in the name of sanity is happening here?
[Everyone freezes, attempting to regain their composure.]
Mr. Clumsy: (stammering) We were just, um, discussing the strategic
(Yes, it cut the scene off in mid-sentence. It does that sometimes.)
So, when asked to make a scene funnier, ChatGPT basically just tells me that this new scene is funnier. It’s right there in the title: “The Ministry of Silly Walks” has become “The Ministry of Utterly Absurd Walks.” We’re told that these absurd walks create “sidesplitting spectacles.”
The technology, at this stage, is akin to a dog in a play. No matter how much we train the dog, there’s no guarantee it will play by human rules during the live show. That uncertainty allows it to steal any scene it’s in. What’s the dog going to do? It might do something amusing in the moment, but it won’t create any art. We’re not at sentient AI yet. (And I’ve read and watched enough sci-fi to hope we never arrive there. Unless we get Data from Star Trek. I’d be fine with Data.)
ChatGPT is obviously a lifeless writer. I could see it used to facilitate writing exercises. A creative writing class could all enter the same writing prompt into the program, and then they take turns with the AI to write the story, with the student always having to adapt to whatever the program writes. Similarly, a working writer could use it for warm-up exercises—but not as part of any actual project. If AI-assisted warm-ups happen to spark an interesting idea, the writer can explore the idea outside the program, without any further assistance from it, but I’m skeptical of using ChatGPT even as a brainstorming tool.
Cleese writes, in bold, “The greatest killer of creativity is interruption.”
ChatGPT interrupts our unconscious creative processes. Instead of summoning our own thoughts, we can ask a machine to regurgitate artificial thoughts it had swallowed from a bunch of unknown sources. It invites us to outsource our creativity, which might be a tempting shortcut to someone going through a dry spell. But shortcuts come with a cost.
Turns out, an X-Men story is relevant here …
I recently reread the 1985 miniseries X-Men and Alpha Flight by Chris Claremont and Paul Smith. In this story, Loki offers humanity an opportunity for a global paradise of sorts. He grants several humans powers based on their talents and interests. Together, they could potentially feed, shelter, and heal the entire world. But anyone who accepts this power loses the ability to dream.
One man, for example, was a talented artist who could imagine and draw vivid buildings and fortresses. With Loki’s gift, he can bring all of those magnificent designs to life. But he can only reproduce his previous ideas; he can no longer create anything new.
If we’re not careful, that could be the price of attempting to mix artificial intelligence with any creative endeavors. When faced with the allure of fast results, let’s remember to savor the pleasure of slowly thinking things through and imagining numerous possibilities.
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