2 Comedy Legends, 1 Great Lesson on Creative Process

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Harold: Having Second City as my first professional experience was great. Second City is so different from stand-up. In the world of stand-up you really talk about killing, not just killing the audience but killing the other comedian. It’s a competition. It’s a competition every night. You want to be better than anyone else. But the whole thrust of Second City is to focus on making everyone else look good because in that process we all look good. It’s more than collaborative. Your life onstage depends on other people and on developing techniques for creating cooperative work. We have rules, guidelines, games, and techniques that teach that. It fosters a spirit that exists to this day. Anyone who’s ever worked at Second City can run into any other generation of Second City players, and they instantly share a language and an approach to their work.

My lovely wife gave me Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy last year. I finally found time to dive into it. I love it. It’s brilliant, funny, interesting, and serious. All the things a great book should be.

While I’m only a third of the way through, this quote about the process used at Second City from comedy legend Harold Ramis jumped off the page. Ramis encapsulates one of the main thoughts I attempt to express in So You’re a Client—only he is much more succinct and eloquent.

There are two basic approaches to agency creative work—the Competitive Approach and the Collaborative Approach. The Competitive Approach is exactly what happens at Chop Shops and Churn-and-Burn-type agencies that focus on billable hours. Those agencies enlist the dominating attitude Ramis outlines seeing in comedy. The Collaborative Approach, like the one Ramis describes of Second City, is based on building an idea up—as a team—with a focus on making the work great. This is the exact purpose of the standard creative agency process (once) found at traditional advertising shops. Today, you can still find the elements of this standard process scattered about the descendents of the Big 4 shops. They have rules, guidelines, and techniques, if not games. Certainly, anyone who’s ever spent a chunk of time at one of those shops instantly shares a language and an approach to their work with others of like experience.

I am not claiming to know a thing about the Second City process. All I know, from reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants (I like funny people and their books), is that the Second City process is about saying, “Yes, and…” to whatever gets thrown your way. Agencies aren’t teaching improve. There are many times when it’s proper (and necessary) to respond with “No, because…” There are also times when fostering competitiveness between creative teams can be a good thing.

Yet, the overall process should encourage collaboration and the critical construction of big ideas. Doing so leads to better results, better morale, a saner work experience, and safeguards budgets.

If that’s not enough to convince you, just remember—one of your favorite stars probably approaches their creative work this way, too. For good reason.

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