What You Can Learn from Charlie Chaplin About Creativity

This story (from 100 years ago) shows the value of seeking expert advice. The point is not to develop your creative idea alone — you need to seek an expert to hear your creative idea and make it even better.

A movie director asked, “Mr. Chaplin, what’s the best way to get a laugh? Do I first show the banana peel, then the lady approaching and she slips? Or do I first show the lady, then the banana peel and she slips?”

Chaplin said without hesitation. “You first show the lady approaching, then the banana peel, and finally she steps over the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.”

Send in the Clowns!

I teach creativity, and the next step is to turn this concept of seeking “expert” on its head, reverse it, and think about seeking “non-expert” advice.

During the Middle Ages, Kings and rulers made a practice of flipping the expert idea by hiring a “non-expert” also known as a court jester or fool whose job was to say, “the emperor has no clothes.”

The court jester was considered one of their most important advisers, and was someone who could present the cold-hard facts (in a funny way).

Creative Picture of Court Jester

When the King of England was considering invading France, his court jester said, “Why do that, you have plenty of fine wine in your basement,” and the King called off his invasion plans.

The surgeon who invented the balloon catheter for clearing heart arteries, Dr. Thomas Fogarty, believed in the value of bringing in the “fool.”  When his team was meeting to discuss a complicated problem, he made sure to bring in someone with no knowledge of the problem.

Thomas Fogarty catheter surgeon

Who is the court jester on your team, and if you don’t have one, then it’s time to call your executive search firm. There is no shortage of court jesters — they are our comics and comedians, and they fill a vital role in challenging the actions of government and business, and pointing out folly in our daily lives.

Our famous court jesters include the likes of Stephen Colbert, Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman, George Carlin, Robin Williams, Steve Martin,  Ellen DeGeneres, Trevor Noah and many others.

Stephen Colbert comedian court jester

“Comedians pull back the curtain to reveal the truth to those in power — to show the decision makers what is really happening. They provide observational skills second to none because the “funny” is in seeing the anomaly, the thing that doesn’t fit. Comedians are society’s experts at seeing the “what’s wrong with this picture.” — Frank King, Comedian and Former Writer Tonight Show with Jay Leno

If you don’t want to hire a court jester, then here are the things that you can do:

“As a leader and a decision maker, you have to be constantly asking yourself, how do I know what I don’t know? How do I know when the advice from those around me is absolutely sincere.” — Curtis Panasuk, Creativity Instructor

If you get bad news, never “shoot the messenger”. Instead, thank the person for the information and acknowledge how much you appreciate that they took the effort to tell you.

At the end of a meeting with an individual or your staff, ask the question, “Is there anything else that we need to hear or talk about.” This is where you can “open the spigot” of things that may be on their mind, smouldering under the surface.

When you get bad news or someone challenges you, then your first reaction should be to immediately smile because body language speaks volumes, and this sends a big OK message to the individual and your team that you want to hear this type of information.

Finally, you can simply ask people and your team, “please tell me what I don’t want to hear.” Then, receive that information in a friendly manner (again, smile), and realize that a friend is a person who stabs you in the front (not in the back).

A court jester in the Amazon corporate headquarters might have said to Jeff Bezos, so the new name will be “Whole Fools Market”, and for $13.7 billion couldn’t we have just gotten takeout and ordered up a dish of hubris?

Whole Foods


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