You may have seen fastcompany.com's 2011 output of the 100 Most Creative People in Business back in May. That ridiculous photo of the many Conan's sure caught my attention. Though Conan O'Brien came in 8th place, the focus on his creative process is worth reiterating. Plus, he wrote a guide to creativity. Who doesn't like guides?
The man is a true professional who rides on the success of effective preparation. But key to his real success is the pressure-induced, improv decision-making that follows his good prep. "Prepare like crazy," says Conan. "But then just as you're heading out, half an hour beforehand, forget all of it. It's in your reptile brain. Go out but feel loose enough to grab opportunities as they come up."
Conan draws analogies between horse-racing, diamond-formation, cooking and surfing to the business of creative comedy. Somehow these topics have a few things in common: they are greatly impacted by the chance occurrence of the perfect elements, the presence of a ton of pressure, and the flexibility to go off course should the opportunity arise. Conan puts a lot of weight in the fun factor and maintaining a loose work environment to allow full freedom for mistakes and mishaps that may turn into the next best idea. Also, knowing what he can and cannot control has allowed Conan to tap further into his improvisation. His job is to set the tone, not to micro-manage his writers. Therefore, his tone is light and he considers the best and the worst to be on equally footing for funny material. The best material from Conan happens when he draws outside of the lines and the audience can tell that something organic is happening. Conan tells his colleagues that "the only way we can screw up is by not being bold enough."
So what can we learn from Mr. O'Brien's guide about creativity in the business of comedy?
1. "Creating a show is like playing the horses… No, wait-it's really like the making of a jewel." (i.e. The build up of pressure fosters a great production).
2. "Prepare like crazy so you can wing it." (i.e. Trust your 'reptile brain').
3. "Improvising is like surfing." (i.e. Be open to the whim of the current and ride out the opportunity to improvise).
4. "Creativity should be fun. Seriously." (i.e. Seriously fun).
5. " Fostering a collective comic sensibility is like cooking." (i.e. Get a rough idea, but don't overcook things with intense rehearsals because you need room to seize the moment for improv).
6. Learn from other creative CEO's, and pep-talk your staff (i.e. Only try to control what you actually can, and create an environment where people are encouraged to be bold).