John Cleese’s Advice to Young Artists: “Steal Anything You Think Is Really Good”

So you want to be a rock and roll star? Or a writer, or a film­mak­er, or a come­di­an, or what-have-you…. And yet, you don’t know where to start. You’ve heard you need to find your own voice, but it’s dif­fi­cult to know what that is when you’re just begin­ning. You have too lit­tle expe­ri­ence to know what works for you and what doesn’t. So? “Steal,” as the great John Cleese advis­es above, “or bor­row or, as the artists would say, ‘be influ­enced by’ any­thing that you think is real­ly good and real­ly fun­ny and appeals to you. If you study that and try to repro­duce it in some way, then it’ll have your own stamp on it. But you have a chance of get­ting off the ground with some­thing like that.”

Cleese goes on to sen­si­bly explain why it’s near­ly impos­si­ble to start with some­thing com­plete­ly new and orig­i­nal; it’s like “try­ing to fly a plane with­out any lessons.” We all learn the rudi­ments of every­thing we know by imi­tat­ing oth­ers at first, so this advice to the bud­ding writer and artist shouldn’t sound too rad­i­cal. But if you need more val­i­da­tion for it, con­sid­er William Faulkner’s exhor­ta­tion to take what­ev­er you need from oth­er writ­ers. The begin­ning writer, Faulkn­er told a class at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia, “takes what­ev­er he needs, wher­ev­er he needs, and he does that open­ly and hon­est­ly.” There’s no shame in it, unless you fail to ever make it your own. Or, says Faulkn­er, to make some­thing so good that oth­ers will steal from you.

One the­o­ry of how this works in lit­er­a­ture comes from crit­ic Harold Bloom, who argued in The Anx­i­ety of Influ­ence that every major poet more or less stole from pre­vi­ous major poets; yet they so mis­read or mis­in­ter­pret­ed their influ­ences that they couldn’t help but pro­duce orig­i­nal work. T.S. Eliot advanced a more con­ser­v­a­tive ver­sion of the claim in his essay “Tra­di­tion and the Indi­vid­ual Tal­ent.” We have a “ten­den­cy to insist,” wrote Eliot, on “those aspects or parts of [a poet’s] work in which he least resem­bles any­one else.” (Both Eliot and Faulkn­er used the mas­cu­line as a uni­ver­sal pro­noun; what­ev­er their bias­es, no gen­der exclu­sion is implied here.) On the con­trary, “if we approach a poet with­out this prej­u­dice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most indi­vid­ual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ances­tors, assert their immor­tal­i­ty most vig­or­ous­ly.”

It may have been a require­ment for Eliot that his lit­er­ary pre­de­ces­sors be long deceased, but John Cleese sug­gests no such thing. In fact, he worked close­ly with many of his favorite com­e­dy writ­ers. The point he makes is that one should “copy some­one who’s real­ly good” in order to “get off the ground.” In time—whether through becom­ing bet­ter than your influ­ences, or mis­read­ing them, or com­bin­ing their parts into a new whole—you will, Cleese and many oth­er wise writ­ers sug­gest, devel­op your own style.

Cleese has lib­er­al­ly dis­cussed his influ­ences, in his recent auto­bi­og­ra­phy and else­where, and one can clear­ly see in his work the impres­sion comedic for­bears like Lau­rel and Hardy and the writer/actors of The Goon Show had on him. But what­ev­er he stole or bor­rowed from those come­di­ans he also made entire­ly his own through prac­tice and per­se­ver­ance. Just above, see a tele­vi­sion spe­cial on Cleese’s com­e­dy heroes, with inter­views from Cleese, leg­ends who fol­lowed him, like Rik May­all and Steve Mar­tin, and those who worked side-by-side with him on Mon­ty Python and oth­er clas­sic shows.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Cleese Explores the Health Ben­e­fits of Laugh­ter

John Cleese’s Eulo­gy for Gra­ham Chap­man: ‘Good Rid­dance, the Free-Load­ing Bas­tard, I Hope He Fries’

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

John Cleese, Ringo Starr and Peter Sell­ers Trash Price­less Art (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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