Midafternoon. A windowless basement. One hundred sixty solid minutes of classroom time. With all these strikes against us, is it any wonder my humor-writing students and I sometimes feel as sharp and creative as a drawerful of socks? Good thing I always smuggle in my favorite stimulant.
I’m speaking, of course, about goofiness. This isn’t quite the same as humor, though the two naturally go together, and both should be mainlined daily. By goofiness I mean off-the-cuff, rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness kidding around. It can be a powerful key to creativity. And creativity, as we all know, is no small boon to nearly every area of life, from family to work to love.
What are the best ways to get a hit of goofiness? After plundering my course syllabus and polling some of my favorite goofballs, I’ve got a solid but by no means exhaustive list: playing charades. Playing free-association games (someone says a word, the next person immediately says the first word that word brings to mind, and so on). Making up “How many [name a group of people] does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” jokes. Playing Fictionary, Taboo and other games where you invent new words or quickly substitute one word for another. Coming up with entries for cartoon-caption contests, such as the weekly one in The New Yorker. Playing comedy-improvisation games like those on Whose Line Is It Anyway? (You might, for instance, try “Props,” where you gather household objects, then act out short scenes in which you pretend, say, that a potato masher is a space alien’s antenna, or a bath towel is Aladdin’s magic carpet.) And last but hardly least, engaging in that time-honored classic, spitballing with friends and family who don’t take themselves too seriously.
How can fast-paced, goofy pursuits spark creativity in the rest of your life? In part, many of us goofballs believe, it’s because such pursuits often are creative: They prime your pump for more of the same. And it’s hard to think of a better pump-primer than The Washington Post Style Invitational, my favorite weekly humor contest, which solicits everything from puns to limericks to fake Amazon reviews. Those kinds of challenges are bound to promote “mental agility, flexible thinking, and [a knack for finding] humor or irony in various situations,” says the Invitational’s “Empress,” Pat Myers. “The ability to come up with funny ways of seeing the world and to play with language, especially, has to be very beneficial for less-fun pursuits during the workday.”
Another way goofiness may promote creativity is by muting your inner, creativity-squelching critic. When you get used to rapidly generating one-liners or scenes, it becomes easier to ignore (or maybe not even hear) the voice in your head that tells you your ideas stink. So says my friend Carol Roberts, a comic and comedy-improv teacher who has opened for the likes of Robin Williams; she finds speedy improv games “freeing.” A 2008 Johns Hopkins study on jazz improvisation seems to support her notion: When a piano improviser’s hands are flying over the keyboard, parts of his brain linked to self-monitoring and inhibition quiet down. For Carol (as for many masters of goofiness), lowered inhibition goes hand in hand with a drop in fear. “The key thing with improv is I’m not afraid to fail,” she says. “And if you’re not afraid, you’re more willing to try something new”—both during improv games and afterward.
Speaking of afterward, I’ve heard from all kinds of people who swear their goofy hobbies have bred creative triumphs, personal and professional. A police officer, for instance, told me he has started making jokes that ease tension during traffic stops. A minister said he writes better Sunday sermons. Teachers have devised more interesting lesson plans; salespeople have cooked up more persuasive pitches; parents have found (eureka!) ways to get their kids to talk openly and eat their brussels sprouts.
Offstage, Carol credits her improv experience with helping to spur all sorts of creativity. When she recently missed a plane connection, for instance, she successfully gabbed her way into a hotel voucher. With family, Carol has learned to criticize in a way that “softens the blow.” (She might remark to her husband, “I hope they repeal the law that says men can’t empty the dishwasher.”)
This year, as usual, I invited Carol to campus to play Props, Pass the Story and other games with my writing students. She left them in one of their most inventive moods of the semester. Working together afterward on shape and size comparisons, they likened pens to pretzel rods, a bottle cap to jewelry, and my sunglasses to a sadly unprintable part of a kangaroo. Hardly anyone was yawning or checking her iPhone. Even my shyest student spoke up.
And in my head, I began planning our next goofy fix.
This article appears in the June 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.