Production 512: Creativity is Something You’re Born With?

This column is going to make some wild turns, but please trust that I’ll tie it all together…mostly. Hah! Herewith is the setup: Two buzzards are sitting on a tree branch, watching and waiting, with their stomachs grumbling because it’s been a long time between roadkill buffets. Unable to deal any longer, one says, “To hell with this. I’m gonna kill something!”

Prod512 Logo 400pxOver the 30+ years I spent doing commercial and imaging work, I had a rather large number of people wander through my life who aspired to produce for the big bucks. My first or second question always was how long they had been working at it. The answers ranged from a few months to 5 years. I’m sure that some of you grizzled veterans know where this is going. Let’s change gears.

A few weeks ago, for the first time, I saw Jeff Dunham perform live at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. I can honestly report that I have never before laughed so hard, for so long. I literally had tears running down my face for most of the almost two-hour long show, and I was stone-cold sober. He’s actually very funny on his TV shows, but those are edited quite a bit for content and time. Live, he is simply amazing. He’s coming to Austin this February and I’ve already booked tickets.

If you don’t know already, Jeff is a ventriloquist…an extremely funny ventriloquist. His characters, Walter, Ahmed the Dead Terrorist, Bubba J, Peanut, Jalapeño on a Stick and his newest friend, Larry, a White House staffer working for President Trump are all rude, opinionated, often a bit raunchy, but always funny. I only discovered Jeff for myself a few years ago when I stumbled across one of his specials on Netflix, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

There are other ventriloquists out there. I’ve seen a few of them over the years, but I couldn’t even begin to remember their names. Darci Lynne Farmer won America’s Got Talent last year with some incredible performances. That’s a vanishingly small number of people who make us laugh with their stylized dummies. All of which makes Jeff, and perhaps one day, 12-year old Darci, pretty much the only people in the world, successfully doing what they do. Change gears again.

I got to thinking about what we do and how few of us there really are. There are a handful of famous imaging producers in the world like John Frost, Eric Chase, and Kelly Doherty. (I know there are a lot of important names I haven’t listed, but roll with me.) To be sure, there is a large number of individuals who are extremely talented but don’t have that kind of notoriety. There’s an even larger group of producers who have an absolute TON of potential, but haven’t broken out yet. It might seem like there are quite a few of us, until you weigh it against how many people there are in the business, then it becomes vanishingly small. OK…shift into 3rd gear now.

Once I got back to Texas, I saw a write-up for an upcoming conference that said something that I found jaw-dropping. The writer actually was stupid enough to say that “Creativity is something you’re born with. You either have it or you don’t.” Yes, I said stupid. I can assure all of you, especially those who’ve only been in the business a couple of years, that the exact opposite is true.

When I read it aloud, I said, “Then why in the hell should anyone attend your stupid conference?” The whole point of attending summits, conferences and confabs is to learn how to be creative. You can learn the mechanics of what we do in dozens of different places, none of which require dropping a grand or two for travel, hotel and admission fees, plus you can do it rather quickly. On the creative end, there are hundreds of seminars, classes and private individuals who purport to teach a person how to be creative, or more creative in writing, acting, dancing, art, singing and yes, producing. Time to shift into overdrive.

Several years ago, I had an intern who had emigrated from Russia, had a difficult time with English, knew next to nothing about radio production, but otherwise seemed very bright and eager to learn. I’ve told her story before, but I repeat it here because it perfectly demonstrates “nature vs. nurture” when it comes to creativity.

All of my interns were required to write, direct and produce one full promo and six sweepers that would be accepted by our Program Director to air on Z100. The first couple of weeks were used to teach the mechanics of the process, but the last several weeks were all about bringing it all together and getting their assignment done. Honestly, I was really struggling with this lovely young lady. As anxious as she was to get it done, I thought it really wasn’t going to happen. For two weeks (it was a three days per week situation), I would tell her to bring in six written sweepers that she could then direct and produce. Her efforts were truly sad. I felt like a total failure.

On the day that I had decided that she only had one more chance, she asked me, “What IS creativity?” I went into a rather long-winded speech about connecting ideas and some other prime BS. We spoke for a couple of hours, but nothing either of us said made me think that her situation would change. The next day she brought in six scripts that were perfectly balanced, flowed with precision to the calls and really hit the mark.

When I asked her about what had changed, she said that it was the whole “connecting ideas” part of my speechifying. She said everything clicked into place and she instinctively knew exactly what I had been trying to show her for the previous weeks. Then, I gave her bullet points for a promo (much like I would get from the PD) and she executed a perfect script the next day.

Ultimately, she not only delivered on her assignment, she did it with flying colors. When I told my PD that it was her promo, he was shocked. Then he asked me why he should keep me on at the station. Thankfully, after a few seconds, he laughed.

Let’s pull over now and let me (hopefully) tie it all together.

To all you folks who’ve been plying your trade for something between a few months and 5 years, think about this. Jeff Dunham made his television debut on a local station in Dallas, Texas in 1976. His skills as a ventriloquist were razor sharp, but his comedy fell flat…a lot. 12 years after his first TV appearance with Bill O’Reilly (figure THAT one out) he got the call to do the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. His comedy timing and creativity were developed over the course of years in comedy clubs in the LA area. Today, some 42 years later, he is selling out arenas at $100 to $800 per seat. He is at the absolute pinnacle of comedy greatness.

John Frost hit the bigs in 1987 on KROQ/Los Angeles. Of course, that was after he started way back in 1978. Kelly Doherty got things going at KRQQ/Tucson in 1994. Eric Chase studied advertising at University of Missouri in 1979. My first commercial radio gig was at KOVO/KFMC in Provo, Utah in 1974. We have all been marinating in our own ‘creative baths’ for a long, long time, often long before we tried our hand at radio production. It’s NOT the technical skills that set each of us apart…it’s the creativity. Learning how to BE creative has taken decades, and the learning isn’t over yet, and probably never will be.

When you’re sitting on that branch, waiting for your gig to come along, like a buzzard waiting for a road-kill feast, relax. Keep stirring that creative stew in the back of your brain. People who begin their careers with a good grasp of creativity were fed all the right ingredients growing up. For me, it was music, stage and art training. Even if you were not given that kind of upbringing, it’s never too late to start the process. You CAN learn to be creative. You CAN learn to be more creative. There’s an entire industry out there that is dedicated to just that.

When someone tells you that it’s something you’re born with and you either have it or you don’t…DON’T buy into it. It’s a big, fat lie. You want the big gig in a major market? It CAN be yours. You want to have a big name in the radio business, it CAN happen. Just be patient grasshopper. Keep fighting the good fight. Seek out your own creative power. Grow it every day.

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Forever keeping these words with me, as I pursue my career. Love this.

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