Anyone watching the Flying Circus for the first time in 2014 and expecting non-stop hilarity will be rather confused and perhaps a little disappointed. Sketches fail on a regular basis, sometimes quite spectacularly; extraordinarily long periods can pass without anything funny happening (the studio audience tittering nervously from time to time, to compound the embarrassment). Once considered dizzyingly fast, bits of Python now seem painfully slow.
But that doesn’t matter much. Python isn’t meant to be a procession of quickfire gags – rather, it calls to mind the words of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid: “My job, as I see it, has never been to lay a tit’s egg, but to erupt like a volcano, emitting not only flame but a load of rubbish.” The aim is to create a flow of unnerving and bewildering ideas, an unstable atmosphere which may produce hysterical laughter, or merely dumbfound. Those longeurs are part of the deal. Python is not about wisecracks and pithy one-liners – it’s all about the swirl.”
There is, or was, another side to Monty Python. Back in the day, that celebrated silliness was only part of the picture; this was adversarial humour, part of the counterculture (in effect, if not necessarily by intention). Very rarely was Python political, but it was a protest all right – a protest against bullshit and bullying, sloppy thinking and humbug, a gleeful assault on philistinism and pseudery. What’s more, it was weird. Not “wacky”, not “delightfully loopy” – really, really weird. At its best, Python could be a disturbing experience, disquieting, disordered, disruptive… something close to Dada. It was not just absurd, but absurdist: cosmic satire, a mockery of meaning.
And yet, like all popular avant-garde art, its appeal was beautifully basic. This was comedy stripped to its root: two incompatible ideas colliding, noisily and painfully. Comedy returned to its primary purpose: to inform the powerful, the headstrong and the vainglorious that everything is bullshit – life is a joke, your finery is meaningless and worms will be feasting on you sooner than you think. Partly out of devilment, partly in the hope that once we’ve got that straight, we can all move on from there. That was the funniest thing of all: deep down, under the warm embrace of bad taste and the cold contempt, Monty Python cared.”
I was disappointed by Venkatesh Rao’s book Tempo, because I expected so much of it. Covering business, time perception and improvisation? Here’s me with a PhD in the psychology of time/memory, experience in the kinds of business environments discussed, and a practitioner of improvisational theatre. But the parts of the book didn’t add up to a whole for me, and I didn’t find much that was useful. But one thing I found very useful: cheap tricks.
Fig1. - Cheap Trick.
In Rao’s words:
'[A cheap trick is] a key organizing insight that motivates the action in the rest of the deep story. Every such insight is flawed, since it is based on excluding some part of reality as noise. This will eventually catch up with you, so the insight merely buys you a certain amount of time.
If your wrong answer happens also to be elegant, it will compactly explain the part of reality that you do include, and provide leverage. If this leverage can bring you rewards within the time you’ve bought, you’ve cheated nature: earned real rewards from fake truths, and fled with your ill-gotten gains before nature takes her revenge through unintended consequences. The cheap trick is the insight that allows you to locally and temporarily trick nature into bestowing disproportionate rewards on you.’
The idea squares our desire to model reality with the fact that reality can’t be perfectly modelled: too much chaos, too much agency, too much complexity. Despite this we can still discover angles that squeeze reality down to a few fruitful variables that seem particularly true within this historical moment, context or whatever, and exploit that until we decide to discard it, or reality gets the better of us.
I think Rao is particularly interested in targeting investors, entrepreneurs, and possibly life hackers, by giving them a piece of cognitive architecture to think about when to get in and out of commodities/making free-to-play apps/pick up artist techniques. But I find it a helpful way to think with a bit of groundedness and humility about just about any model, maxims, insight, technique, or tool. Reality is infinite, so any one true way is going to break down. Working for you? Rockin. You’re currently operating within the groove of the cheap trick.
Obligatory improvisation reference - see what Rachel is talking about here.
I was also talking about it on Rob Grundel’s old blog (on this post about Mick Napier’s excellent Improvise)
Obligatory Jung reference pending - lost my book.
If you’re interested in my critique of the book, a little more here, but it’s a bit unstructured; if you haven’t read the book it won’t make a lot of sense. I had planned a comprehensive review but the book didn’t hold my attention and I felt a bit like a nitpicker.
Issues I had:
In a sense, I feel like he is hoist by his own petard. He doesn’t consider that his warfare research may be examples of conceptual cheap tricks - that emotion is driven by tempo, but only in the local conditions of the battlefield.
It would have been better to have dropped the unifying theme of Tempo and been cut up into three or four semi-related topics, as a kind of blog-book; or it could have been really finely edited and developed to have a tighter, credible theme. The tempo ideas are interesting food for thought, but as it stood it didn’t naturally unify the content, so it tempted Rao to bend things to fit it into place.
Since then I read Refactor your Wetware by Andy Hunt. It had fewer things that were wholly new to me (mix of GTD, neuroscience, and social psychology findings) but was integrated really well, I’d much rather go for Hunt. I left that book with half a dozen things to-do, and a bunch of snippets of interesting facts to plug in to things.