Bumping Into Coconuts

I had coconuts on the brain yesterday. I think it was because I saw this image on Zite

Yes, it’s Groucho in a digital rendering. And Groucho of course, starred of that great 1929 comedy, “The Cocoanuts“. BTW, it is worth watching the film or at least listening to music from the film to get a sense of how different the 1920’s were. There was a certain kookiness there. Like in this photo

I ended up making chicken coconut curry with garlic, zucchini and eggplant which was very nice. And while I sauted away, I kept thinking about how funny Groucho was in his prime. Indeed, how funny all of the Marx Brothers were. Their humor was so infectious! What was at the root of it?

This video gives some of the flavor. First, their parents were theater people (though they were not successful). That gave them a focus for their creativity. Second, they grew up so poor that they had nothing to lose by trying anything. They were free to create. Third, they had an extremely supportive mentor in their mother. She loved and believed in them. Fourth, they had the chance to hone their comic skills in vaudeville. They did not start out the way they ended up. Finally, they built on their individuality.

So a lot went into the “create the Marx Bros.” recipe. This supports Gladwell’s position in Outliers that genius is in part a matter of luck. It is not the norm to have all of the elements in place for us to evolve into geniuses. Though, knowing what goes into the mix helps us build better community. But there is more here. And I see that “more” in the last point — building on individuality. I think it is the single most interesting aspect of the Marx Brox genius and the most accessible. Check out the video to see how their characters emerged from their personalities.

Now we move to technique. The single most incredible thing about the Marx Bros. was how they evolved by getting better and better at anchoring attention to just a few aspects of their individual natures. Chico as the huckster. Groucho as the wise guy. Harpo as the friendly loon. With the audience anchored on these characteristics, they set themselves free to create mayhem around them.

And what amazing creativity you get when you anchor yourself as a character and just go ahead and bump into stuff! It takes courage to do this. But as we see from these masters of the genre, it pays off. The character need not be perfect, but he or she must be sharply defined and limited. The more limited, the better. That was Jack Benny’s insight. And I am reminded of many other comedic geniuses including Fanny Brice, who Barbara Streisand cleaned up and portrayed in the 1968 film, Funny Girl.

Hmmm … so how do we use this? This is a follow up piece on multi-dimensionality. There I made the point that the above is a comedic technique that the masters understand and use. And we do well to understand it and use it too.  But there is something new here. On screen or stage, the Marx Bros. knew instinctively how to make their partners more funny during a routine because they understood what their partners were doing.  This way, they were able to create and use an “ecology”. A whole that was much bigger than the individual parts. This is what Yves Morieaux was trying to bring out in his first principle of work organization – that you need to understand what the people around you are doing.

And … we might re-introduce here the much less funny Lafley & Martin who talk about “playing to win”. These fine, upstanding gents argue that the first and most important strategic question in business is to ask “what is winning?” What is your strategic aspiration? All other strategic questions “cascade” from the answer to the first question.

I like the cascading idea and I like the “what is winning?” question. It is a critical focus point for making great choices. But I am not so sure if it is the first question. Perhaps there is an even more basic question. It may be even more important to ask and answer what is your anchoring personae? Who are you in relation to others? When you fix that, you open the door to spontaneous interactions and multi-dimensional exchanges. And it allows the opportunity to build an ecology. At that point, it is easier to ask and answer Lafley & Martin’s more difficult questions and with a lot more creativity.

Just a thought! Enjoy!

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