What stand-up comedy can teach us about creativity

Stand-up comedians have to be vulnerable, open to failure and somehow learn to ignore their inner critic. Sound familiar?

Image: CSA Archive/iStock

Whenever I watch live comedy I love witnessing the creative process play out in real time. It’s pure self-expression, with the performer creating there and then in the moment, gauging feedback and responding on the fly. They have to be vulnerable, open to failure and somehow learn to ignore their inner critic. Arianna Huffington describes that unhelpful voice in our heads as the “obnoxious roommate living in your head,” who chips away at your confidence and sabotages your progress.

I’ve seen big names like Michael McIntyre and Russell Howard in my local 400-seater theatre putting in the graft for their arena shows. At the 02 they make their act look effortlessly spontaneous. But in reality those perfomances are the result of up to a year refining and iterating their work. This way of working has been described as a series of ‘rapid, low risk experiments’ by writer Peter Sims who calls these forays ‘little bets’.

One of the most frequent questions in our workshops is: how do I get into a great mental state for creativity? I think there’s a lot we can learn from improv and other creative performers about living with imperfection and developing ideas.

Research from neuroscience has shown how when improvising an eight-bar beat, rappers taught themselves to silence their inner critic and gave free reign to their stream of consciousness. They are able to mentally separate out the generation of ideas from the critical analysis of the work, which follows later, but it takes practice. In trying to develop our best ideas, this is something we can all aspire to.

When I worked with immersive theatre giants Punchdrunk one of their performers told me how actors use exercises, as she explained it “to get out of their heads and get into their bodies” in order to tap into their creativity and into performance mode.

An exercise I really like to play with that can help get over fear of judgement and aid working collaboratively is called Yes, and.  Working in pairs you cannot use the word ‘no’ but must instead in improv-speak ‘accept the offer’ (whatever the other person says) and run with it. Starting the sentence, “Yes, and…” you have to build on what the other person has said, no matter how ridiculous or banal.

You can do whatever you like here. Invent a new product, come up with an advertising campaign for your product or start with a completely abstract ‘offer’ like ‘I know it’s your birthday today…’

The antithesis to “Yes, and…” is “Yes, but…” because when you say this you’re effectively blocking the other person.

OK so at the outset you might feel like you’re in an episode of The Office but, in pairs, try brainstorming something, anything you like, using this response. It doesn’t mean in your next meeting or workshop that you have to abide by the “yes, and…” rules the whole time. Just try it as a warm-up exercise for 10 minutes or have a five-minute moratorium on ‘no’.

This is a fun way to suspend your judgment, even for a short while, and to build on ideas you might otherwise reject. Also, maybe you’ll notice how often you say ‘no’ or ‘but’ in a creative session, or quickly squash someone else’s ideas.

CR is launching its first online training programme, Mastering Creativity, presented by Claire Bridges. The six-part series will help unlock your creative potential, whether you are a professional creative, designer or commissioner of creative work. You can find full details on CR’s Mastering Creativity training programme at creativereview.co.uk/mastering-creativity

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