Why So Serious? Monty Python Mastermind Dishes on Humor and Creativity

It’s not every day that a master comedian can give a lecture that rings true for marketers. But in this short clip from a larger lecture on creativity, Monty Pythons’ John Cleese does just that.


For Cleese, there’s no such thing as a bad time for humor. In fact, it’s in our most pressing time that we need it.

“How many times have important discussions been held when really original and creative ideas were desperately needed to solve important problems but where humor was taboo because the subject being discussed was so serious,” Cleese asks the audience. “This attitude seems to be to stem from a very basic misunderstanding of the difference between serious and solemn.” He continues:

Now I suggest to you that a group of us could be sitting around after dinner discussing matters that were extremely serious like the education of our children, or our marriages, or the meaning of life – and I’m not talking about the film – and we could be laughing and that would not make what we were discussing one bit less serious.

He goes on to say:

Solemnity, on the other hand, I don’t know what it’s for…The two most beautiful memorial services that I’ve ever attended both had a lot of humor and it somehow freed us all and made the services inspiring and cathartic. But solemnity, it serves pomposity. And the self important always know at some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor.

At this point, Cleese interrupts his serious talk with a not-so-serious sound effect.

Cleese is not making a call to abandon social decency in tragic situations. Rather, he’s suggesting that we need to remember that humor is one of humanity’s many coping mechanisms. Mark Twain once noted that “the secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow.”

There is not much difference between the serious issues that Cleese identifies and the job of a marketer. As marketers, we are often concerned with selling products that solve real world problems. Family, education, marriage – to name a few. There are tactful, and not so tactful ways to do this.

Addressing these issues with a sense of humor is often the right approach. It not only keeps the creative juices flowing, but is an essential component of any good story. And good stories make good advertising.

Humor can drive home a point, create a personal connection with a consumer, or brighten someone’s day. And that is what consumers crave. But all this funny business shouldn’t be confined to a 30-second spot. Cleese is on to something bigger, that we as people need to drop the business of “solemnity” and open ourselves up to a joke or two. It’ll make us better people, better thinkers and better marketers.

Take for instance, the life insurance industry. The mortality of your loved ones isn’t exactly something we like to joke about. But this State Farm commercial manages to add a dose of humor into an otherwise somber conversation.

Cleese’s concluding words are powerful. “Humor is an essential part of spontaneity, an essential part of playfulness, an essential part of the creativity we need to solve problems. No matter how serious they may.”