Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Lesson Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters Taught Us

The recent death of Robin Williams has me thinking about one thing: the joy of improvisation. Robin Williams made a career out of ad-libbed comedy, and it was a wonderful thing to behold. He was known for his manic, wild, improvisational routines, and you can see it on display in dozens of YouTube clips. 
Improvisation is a good thing to celebrate these days, because it’s unfettered creativity. The improviser uses anything at his disposal to create comedy, and the results can be hilarious. 
Or not. When you make things up on the spot they can fall flat. You’re performing without a safety net, and you can crash and burn just as easily as soar to the clouds. The number one rule is that you can’t be afraid to make a mistake.
What a good lesson that is for the uptight world we live in. Nobody wants to take a chance on making a mistake anymore, it seems to me. Why? Because the all-seeing media captures every false move and broadcasts it to the world. When an actor who’s had one too many drinks at a party spouts an obscenity it appears on a YouTube video before the day is out. When a football player drops a pass it’s analyzed on sports talk radio for hours. The “news” that a politician fixed a traffic ticket 25 years ago gets broadcast all over the Internet, and that person’s career is ruined. 
The result is that people are afraid to take chances these days. Students take easy courses in college so they can maintain a good grade point average. Companies are afraid to innovate, for fear that their profits might go down if the new product fails. Creative people in every field use well-tested templates rather than breaking new ground. 
Robin Williams made a career out of breaking new ground, and he wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. If he told a joke that bombed, he just moved on to the next one. He said he learned a lot from Jonathan Winters, a master of comedy improvisation himself. In the YouTube clip below, Robin says the most important thing Jonathan Winters taught him was that “the world is open for play”. That’s a great philosophy, and one I wish we could all follow more. Play is something children do, and they don’t worry about making mistakes. They simply follow the creative impulse wherever it takes them, and they don’t care about who’s watching or what they think. They let the ideas flow. You can’t create something without making mistakes, lots of them, so we should never be afraid to make a mistake. 

Watch how joyful Robin and Jonathan are in this video clip, and how they follow the creative ideas wherever they lead.