If You Work in a Creative Industry, You Should Steal Other People's Ideas
Just as Shakespeare lifted plots from his predecessors, young performers today ought to focus on emulating those artists they like most.
John Marwood Cleese is an English actor, comedian, writer and film producer. He achieved success at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and as a scriptwriter and performer on The Frost Report. In the late 1960s, he co-founded Monty Python, the comedy troupe responsible for the sketch show Monty Python's Flying Circus and the four Monty Python films: And Now for Something Completely Different, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.
In the mid-1970s, Cleese and his first wife, Connie Booth, co-wrote and starred in the British sitcom Fawlty Towers. Later, he co-starred with Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and former Python colleague Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures, both of which he also wrote. He also starred in Clockwise, and has appeared in many other films, including two James Bond films as Q, two Harry Potter films, and the last three Shrek films.
With Yes Minister writer Antony Jay he co-founded Video Arts, a production company making entertaining training films. In 1976, Cleese co-founded The Secret Policeman's Ball benefit shows to raise funds for the human rights organisation Amnesty International.
John Cleese: I think if any young writer or someone who wants to become a writer or a performer is listening, then what I would say is it is so difficult at the beginning, particularly as a writer, to do good written comedy, that I suggest at the start that you steal or borrow or, as the artist would say, "are influenced by" anything that you think that is really good and really funny and which appeals to you. And if you study that and try to reproduce it in someway, then it will have your own stamp on it, but you have a chance of getting off the ground with something like that. But if you sit down one day never having written before with a pencil or a computer — but I write with a pencil — and you say, "I'm going to write something completely new and original and very funny," you can't do it. It's like trying to fly a plane without having any lessons. You've got to start somewhere and the best way to start is by copying something that is really good.
But people seem to think I was advocating stealing in general. No. Once you've got off the ground, you develop your own style; you don't need to steal. Better if you don't. But at the beginning, as I say, find something. And a wonderful lesson my friend William Goldman, a wonderful screenwriter, and I both teach the same thing — we discovered independently — and that is we say to someone find an actor or a scene that you absolutely love and just watch that actor in a movie, say, or watch that scene again and again and again so that it no longer has an emotional impact on you; you no longer find it dramatic or funny; you just watch it. And in a sense, emotionally speaking, you're bored with it. At that the point when you're not affected emotionally anymore you can begin to see how it's done and how it's constructed. So that's the advice I would give at the beginning: Model yourself on someone you really like.
Just as Shakespeare lifted plots from his predecessors, young performers today ought to focus on emulating those artists they like most. That's not to say plagiarism is excusable; it's not. It just means that artists who are just getting started should seek to model themselves after those who have gone before.
Take it from John Cleese of Monty Python fame: "You say, 'I'm going to write something completely new and original and very funny.' You can't do it. It's like trying to fly a plane without having any lessons. You've got to start somewhere and the best way to start is by copying something that is really good."
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