Episode 311: John Cleese, Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz, Rebecca Roanhorse

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Talking Heads (left to right): Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, David Byrne, Jerry Harrison
Courtesy of Chris Frantz

Legendary comedian/writer/actor John Cleese tells us how we can tap into our creativity. And Talking Heads’ drummer Chris Frantz talks about his life in music. Also, Rebecca Roanhorse on her epic fantasy novel, “Black Sun.”

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  • John Cleese Tells Us How We Can Be More Creative

    Who would be better than John Cleese to help us learn to be more creative?

    No, we couldn’t think of anyone either. The writer, actor and comedian has been using his fertile imagination to make us laugh for more than 50 years through his work as a co-founder of the silly and surreal comedy troupe Monty Python, and as the writer and star behind the hilarious BBC sitcom “Fawlty Towers” and movies like “A Fish Called Wanda” and “Fierce Creatures.”

    Now, he’s written “Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide.”

    Cleese defines creativity as “the ability to come up with a better way to do anything.”

    “You could be more creative with your flower-arranging — you start thinking, well, why do I always use the same colors? It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you can get better at it if you have good ideas. And that means just learning how to be creative,” Cleese told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Cleese said that for him, creativity had been “bubbling up” inside of him for a long time.

    While attending the University of Cambridge, he joined the Cambridge University Footlights Drama Club, an amateur theatrical society run by students. It was while writing sketches for the “Footlights”club that he realized he had the ability to be creative.

    “I discovered to my surprise in 1962 that I could write humorous stuff that would make people laugh. I’d never thought of myself as being creative,” he said.

    When describing how he thinks about creativity, Cleese highlighted the work of psychologist Donald W. MacKinnon, who discovered that “play” is an important part of being creative. Cleese also read the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book, “Homo Ludens,” in which Huizinga argued that play has to be separate from ordinary life.

    “So you have to recreate circumstances like when you were a kid,” Cleese explained. “That is to say, you have to get yourself in a space where you won’t be interrupted and where you can get away from all sorts of pressures, especially time pressures. And where you can sit for at least an hour because the first 15 minutes, all you can do is think of all the things you ought to be doing. Like meditation, ever so slowly, the mind settles and you can start having new ideas which at a later stage, a much later stage, of course, you have to evaluate with the critical mind.”

    About 20 years ago, Cleese also read a book called “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less” by the cognitive scientist Guy Claxton. This book taught Cleese that some things, like being creative, need to be done at their own pace, he said.

    “He quoted this hilarious Polish proverb, which is, ‘Sleep faster, we need the pillows.’ I think that’s enormously funny. You can’t sleep faster,” Cleese said.

    “We’ve got to realize that our culture absolutely worships clarity. And that if you try to be creative, by definition, you’re going somewhere you haven’t been before. So how can you be very clear about where you are or where you’re going if you’ve never been there before? Nothing is familiar, you’re in new territory, so you just have to say, ‘Well, I don’t really know what’s going on. I’m just handing it over to my own unconscious and not trying to clarify it too soon,’” he said.

    Cleese discovered the power of the unconscious in creativity while working on a sketch with fellow Monty Python member Graham Chapman. It was a parody of a Church of England sermon. Cleese lost the initial script. After looking all over for it and not being able to find it, Cleese rewrote the entire sketch from memory.

    “And when I’d done that, I discovered the original and I compared them,” Cleese recalled. “And the second one was surprisingly better than the first. It was crisper and funnier. And, you know, brevity’s the soul of wit. And it was just a little bit more brief and a little bit more punchy. And I thought, well, I wasn’t trying to improve it. I was just trying to remember it.”

    Cleese frequently collaborated with Chapman on writing sketches for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.’

    “It was much more about just being silly,” Cleese said. “We would sometimes become a little bit too logical. Chapman would sit there puffing on his pipe, staring out the window and suddenly say something wonderfully mad, which would get us out of the rut that I was getting us stuck in. I was pushing the thing forward and Graham was sitting there puffing away.

    “He was never a hundred percent present. Michael Palin send a wonderful thing at his funeral and talked about him always being late. He said at the memorial service that ‘I like to feel that Graham is with us here at this moment.’ And then he paused and said, ‘Or at least he will be in another 45 minutes.’”

    When Cleese collaborated with Connie Booth on their hilarious BBC sitcom, “Fawlty Towers,” during the 1970s, Cleese learned that they both had different strengths as creators.

    “I was better on plot and she was better on character. She’s a wonderful actress. And because she was such a good actress, she would certainly say when I’d written something, she said, ‘No, I wouldn’t believe that. I don’t think the person would say that.’ And then I’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right.’ And then we’d go back and slightly tweak the plot so that we made the emotions work. So I looked after the plot and the emotions.”

    “And when I did ‘A Fish Called Wanda,’ what I discovered was that once or twice I just did a draft that was all about plot. And then I’d come back and do a draft that was all about character. And it was almost easier to do it alternately than try and do them at the same time. But that’s because I’m not as accomplished a writer as I would like to be.”

    Cleese has one piece of advice to offer for those of us who would like to be more creative, drawing on the ideas of “play” he described learning from Huizinga:

    “You have to create the conditions for play. And that means you have to find the space in your life, which is quite separate from your ordinary life. So you need a place where you’re not going to be interrupted. And then you just need to give yourself a very specific moment when you start and when you finish.”

  • Drummer Chris Frantz Talks Talking Heads

    Talking Heads were a huge part of the New York punk scene during the late 1970s. The band stood out with its distinctive, frenetic brand of art pop. As they continued into the 1980s, the band’s sound evolved into expansive funk and propulsive, polyrhythmic worldbeat.

    Chris Frantz was there from the beginning. He was the drummer and his wife, Tina Weymouth, was the bass player. Frantz chronicles what it was like to be part of this iconic, influential, and creatively restless band in a memoir called “Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina.”

    Frantz met Weymouth in an art class at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early ’70s. “It was one of those love-at-first-sight things,” he told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Frantz was in a band called The Artistics along with David Byrne. They performed covers of garage band songs at dances and parties. One day, Frantz and Byrne decided that they would try to write an original song together.

    “Next thing I knew, there was a knock on the door of our painting studio that Tina and I shared. It was David and he said, ‘I’ve got the beginnings of the song I’ve written, which is loosely based or inspired by an Alice Cooper song.’ He had the first verse and the chorus and he played this: ‘I can’t seem to face up to the facts/I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax.’ And I thought, oh, that’s really good. And then he sang the chorus: ‘Psycho killer/Qu’est-ce que c’est/Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa.”

    Byrne asked Frantz and Weymouth to help him finish the song. Frantz thought that the lyrics for the bridge of the song should be in a foreign language. He pointed out that Weymouth’s mother was French and Weymouth was fluent in French so why not have her write French lyrics for the middle eight? Byrne liked the idea since he already had the French words “Qu’est-ce que c’est” in the lyrics.

    Weymouth sat down and wrote the French lyrics for the bridge of the song. The English translation is: “What I did that night/What she said that night/Realizing my hopes/I launched myself toward glory.’

    “So, that’s a very formal kind of psychotic statement,” Frantz said. “I think she kind of nailed it. And then I wrote second and third verse, and Tina and I were brainstorming and we came up with the ‘We are vain and we are blind’ and ‘I hate people when they’re not polite.’ And David liked that. And he wrote it down in his little notebook. So in the course of a period of about three hours, I think it was, we had written our first song and I thought, this is very promising. We should do more of this.”

    Talking Heads formed in New York City in 1975 with Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth joined by Milwaukee’s Jerry Harrison on keyboards and guitar. “Psycho Killer” was the debut single from their debut album, “Talking Heads: 77.”

    In 1980, Talking Heads released their fourth studio album, “Remain in Light”. It was produced by Brian Eno and marked a radical reinvention of the band’s sound, filled with African polyrhythms, funk, and electronics. The band improvised together to create the songs, which presented special challenges for the rhythm section of Frantz and Weymouth.

    “Our challenge was to create rhythm parts, drum and bass,” Frantz recalled. “We didn’t know where the choruses or verses or bridge sections were or anything like that. So we had to basically be like human loops. We would work out a part. We would practice and improvise until it reached our standards of excellence. And then we would record like eight minutes of that. And then David and Jerry would come out and build on that with guitars and keyboards. So the challenge was to have something that was rhythmically compelling and propel the songs forward.”

    A few years later, Byrne decided that he wanted to record a solo album. And Harrison said that if Byrne was making a solo album, he wanted to make one, too. Frantz and Weymouth figured that they would put together their own side project, which became Tom Tom Club. They recorded a song called “Genius of Love” which became a big hit on their self-titled debut album, released in 1981. It was a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Disco Top 80 chart.

    “Our source of inspiration was a song called ‘More Bounce to the Ounce’ by Zapp & Roger, which had been produced by Bootsy Collins, from James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic. And we loved it. It had a slow tempo, so it was more funky. We didn’t know it at the time that it was really good for rappers. We hadn’t thought of that, but they figured it out. We started with bass and drums, as we had with ‘Remain in Light’. And then we added the little keyboard part. Our keyboard skills were very rudimentary, but it worked.”

    Talking Heads broke up in 1991. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

    “My proudest accomplishment is the fact that when I walk into the Stop & Shop supermarket and I hear ‘Genius of Love’ coming over the PA system, it still sounds hip. It sounds good. And I’m so glad it like makes people want to buy stuff,” Frantz said. “It’s not just ‘Genius of Love.’ It’s also songs like ‘Road to Nowhere’ and even ‘Psycho Killer.’ Our legacy is a good one. We have a lot of good records and the fact that they still sound relevant and interesting, it’s just a big bonus.”

  • Author Rebecca Roanhorse Builds New Worlds Out Of Our Forgotten Ones

    In 2018, Indigenous fantasy writer Rebecca Roanhorse published the first short story she had ever written in Apex Magazine. Narrated in the rare second person, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” used that structure intentionally after Roanhorse said the third-person version of the story fell flat of her intent.

    “I felt like it didn’t really come off the page the way I wanted it to,” Roanhorse told WPR’s “BETA”. “I really wanted to indict the reader. I really wanted to bring them along and for people to see their role in the main character’s fate.”

    The piece really resonated with readers and garnered critical acclaim as well. It went on to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for short fiction and was optioned by Amazon Studios.

    Roanhorse said she wanted to use the fantasy space to explore complex, real-world issues facing Indigenous people.

    “There’s a fine line between what I’m writing in science fiction and virtual reality and what actually happens day-to-day in our world.”

    Now, she is continuing to do that with the release of “Black Sun,” the first novel in the “Between Earth and Sky” trilogy.

    The fantasy series is inspired by the pre-Columbus Americas and the Indigenous people who lived here during that time. Roanhorse is building rich new worlds by showing readers our forgotten ones.

    “I think people are looking, when they read epic fantasy, they’re often looking for grandeur and escapism and unfortunately a lot of people still don’t see the Americas as a place where all of that existed,” Roanhorse said. “These incredible societies, who had sophisticated architecture and city planning and art and poetry thrived. We still sort of get labeled with the primitive or the savage sort of label. And that’s unfortunate because there’s an incredible history of civilization here on these continents.”

    Roanhorse admits she may not go about world building similar to other writers.

    “The way that I world build is maybe a little bit different from other people, but I often start with character. So I know I have a character, for example. I know I have a sailor. And then what do I need to fill her out? Well, she needs to have a ship. So what will that ship look like? Let’s research the maritime Maya,” explained Roanhorse. “So, I actually build character out instead of building the world inward and then putting characters on top of it.”

    The character in “Black Sun” that Roanhorse builds around is Serapio. Weighted down with the historical trauma of a genocide to his people, Serapio’s destiny is set on a quest for vengeance.

    “It’s a destiny he would not have chosen, I think, if he’d had other options. He just doesn’t know that he has other options,” says Roanhorse. “This story is about his journey and his inevitable choice that he has to make whether or not to enact this vengeance.”

    Serapio is also blind and highlights another inspiration from Mesoamerican culture that Roanhorse uses to great effect in her world.

    “Often in Mesoamerican cultures, my understanding is that they looked at people with disabilities as, ‘God touched.’ That this was actually a gift from the gods that marked you, that made you special and you were treated accordingly,” she said. “They were to be valued, not sort of cast aside the way that we do in our culture.”

    While inspired by ancient views on disabilities, Roanhorse worked hard to tether Serapio’s blindness to reality. She consulted with several blind colleagues and friends to share their experiences and to help avoid assumptions as much as possible.

    “If you look at Serapio, he has crows that he uses to see. And that’s sort of like seeing eye dogs. And he has a staff, which is a fighting staff. But he also uses as an instrument to help him see,” says Roanhorse. “So I really tried to make his blindness really centered in reality and tried to stay away from some of the tropes that you might see in ‘Daredevil’ or some of these popular undertakings that blind people tend to say did not get it right.”

    As an adoptee and a woman of color, Roanhorse relates to her characters and their status as outsiders. She has likened her writing to an act of survival and of discovery and builds these worlds for people like her.

    “It’s allowed me to spend a lot of time cultivating my creativity, creating these worlds and these characters and these people,” says Roanhorse. “Growing up, being a woman of color, being a Black and Native kid in Texas, I never saw science fiction and fantasy writers that looked like me. And certainly there were no characters that look like me unless they were like orcs or something and inherently evil.”

    Roanhorse was very moved by the theory of fellow Native fantasy/horror author Stephen Graham Jones that posits that the hero’s journey in Indigenous adventure stories is flipped. Where instead of trying to make it back to home, the hero begins on the outside and needs to find that community.

    “That does reflect my journey as an adoptee,” said Roanhorse. “That’s why I think you see the characters in ‘Black Sun’ and actually in all my works are often outsiders. They’re trying to find community. They’re trying to sort of embrace who they are or their destiny with mixed results. But that is definitely the journey that I keep coming back to and that I’m interested in writing.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • John Cleese Guest
  • Chris Frantz Guest
  • Rebecca Roanhorse Guest

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