Test: Can You Laugh at His Advice? John Cleese, former Python and maker of the world's best-selling business videos, on confidence vs. fear, where creativity comes from, and more.
By Anne Fisher; John Cleese

(FORTUNE Magazine) – And now for something completely different. Fans of the 1970s British comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus will of course recognize that as a John Cleese catch phrase--although Cleese is known in the U.S. more recently as hapless hotelier Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers on PBS and for hit movies such as A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures. Cleese's more serious side is less familiar: a Cambridge graduate who trained for a law career before being sidetracked into amateur comedy and professional teaching. Cleese is co-author of two books, Families and How to Survive Them and Life and How to Survive It. And three decades ago he founded Chicago- and London-based Video Arts, for which he has been writing, producing, and starring in training videos and CD-ROMs aimed at business people. These have titles like Who Sold You This, Then? (on how not to alienate customers) and The Dreaded Appraisal (speaks for itself). On the theory that anybody who could invent Monty Python characters like the Piranha brothers ("cruel men, but fair") might have a few insights for people who work in corporations, FORTUNE's Anne Fisher chatted with Cleese to see what's on his mind these days.

Has your career as an actor and comedian made people take you less seriously as a teacher of business communication skills?

Oh, yes. Not so much anymore, but at the beginning people would say to me, "How can you use humor in these films? Don't you consider training to be a serious thing?" It took me a long time to answer that one, but the answer is, there is all the difference in the world between being serious and being solemn. You and I could be discussing something very serious, such as our children's education, and still be laughing. That doesn't take away from the seriousness. I suppose I don't see the point of solemnity, really, except maybe on great occasions of public mourning.

How did you overcome that resistance?

I had the great good fortune to be asked to interview the Dalai Lama. And I asked him why it is that, in Tibetan Buddhism, they all laugh so much. It's the most delightful thing to be around them, because they are constantly in fits of giggles. And he said to me, very seriously, that laughter is very helpful to him in teaching and indeed in political negotiations, because when people laugh, it is easier for them to admit new ideas to their minds.

And I think it is partly physiological. As we laugh, we go from the tight little circles that our minds usually move around in into slightly more wide-ranging circles where we take in new possibilities. This is especially important when you have highly motivated, hard-working people who've got lots of business school types of knowledge and use masses of computers all the time. It is very hard for them to get out of that rather driven kind of thinking, what I call "hare thinking," into the kind of ruminative "tortoise thinking" that gives rise to real creativity.

And you think laughter leads to creativity?

Absolutely. This is the subject of [Video Arts'] next film, in fact--making the point that we need both types of thinking, hare and tortoise, the latter being the kind of free-flowing thought that allows you to sleep on a problem and wake up with a solution the next morning without ever quite knowing where it came from. The whole point about creativity is that you cannot guarantee that it is going to happen, which is why the most creative people have a strange humility about it. After Kevin Kline played Hamlet on Broadway--and it was the best Hamlet I had ever seen--I asked him how he felt, and he said, "I think I got away with it." And that's what all creative people do. They really are not sure where it comes from. So the point is to learn how to switch into a kind of thinking that allows that mystery to happen. Laughter helps.

Another thing that laughter does in organizations, and it is a tremendously healthy thing, is create and reinforce a feeling of confidence. Strong organizations are run with a sense of confidence coming from the top. Dysfunctional ones run on fear. When people ask me to do speaking engagements at corporations, my agent and I now reckon we can tell within three phone calls whether a company is running on confidence or on fear--and if it's the latter, I almost always find a polite excuse and walk away.


Because there is no such thing as an easy transaction with a fear-based organization. Nothing happens easily, and you can never quite figure out who is making the decisions or why. In a company that's running on confidence, people are very open.

Can a fear-based organization become a confidence-based one?

It's hard for me to imagine that you could do it with the same people at the top.

You've had several different, simultaneous careers, all highly successful. Any thoughts on how to change careers, or how to combine a new career with an existing one?

Oh, yes. Portfolio careers, I believe they're called nowadays, aren't they? Charles Handy writes a lot about that, doesn't he, and it's very exciting. Peter Ustinov said that his life began to take off when he started to do things that really interested him. And as things genuinely intrigued me--and you do sometimes wonder afterward how it all came about, whether it was luck or fate or what--I got drawn into them. I think you should let yourself do that. If somebody had said to me in 1966, "You're going to spend 30 years of your life with a management- and sales-training company," I would have said, "What are you talking about?" Yet here we are.

One of the hardest things in life is to know what you want out of life--as opposed to what you feel you ought to want, what your parents and your siblings and society and your spouse and whoever else may expect of you. If you can allow yourself to trust those little movements round your gut that tell you when something is interesting or exciting, they will tell you where to go.