Keep your distance

I’m interested in how other people get things done, because I often think there’s something slightly troubling about the way I work.

A few things happened recently. I read The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson in preparation for interviewing him for the podcast I co-make with Roo ReynoldsShift Run Stop. Then I read about gender generaliser Simon Baron Cohen’s latest book Zero Degrees of Empathy, in which he describes empathy as a characteristic of the ‘extreme female brain’. I did a radio interview about extreme altruism for Monocle 24, because of Extreme Acts of Kindness.

Then I read an article about Penn and Teller in Las Vegas Weekly. It’s mainly about Teller, the silent half, the mysterious genius with his special creative ‘process’. But it’s about their relationship, too.

The partnership always comes first between the two men, who are sort of famously not close friends offstage. Penn describes the early days of their relationship this way:

“My relationship with Teller was 100 percent intellectual as opposed to emotional. That was the basis for the next 30-whatever number of years. It wasn’t planned; I would never have said to you, find a business partner that you don’t feel affection for but just respect. That is the advice I give now. Teller is one of the first people that I really respected and was very interested in and didn’t have any affection for. There was no cuddly feeling. It was like an Internet friend.”

But this story, while accurate, sometimes leaves the impression that in the absences of a positive there is a negative. The idea being that offstage they don’t get along or don’t speak. Not true. They work constantly, which means they speak constantly. Of course, crucially, they have a lot in common, too, aesthetically and politically (they’re both essentially libertarian); both are atheists. Penn and Teller use the word “respect” in a way that many would consider consistent with friendship.

Yet, the fact remains that outside of work the two don’t have much contact. As a result, Teller says, “We will always do some version of Penn & Teller.”

In the forthcoming Christmas Shift Run Stop, I joke with Jon Ronson about the possibility that I’m a psychopath. He politely reassures me otherwise. But the fact is, when I’m trying to get something made, I’ve noticed I see people for what they can do for me. It’s sort of an extreme version of resourcefulness, where everything becomes potentially useful, and it’s a great trait to have when you’re working for companies without much money, or trying to make up jokes, or thinking about hacking, for example. But apply it to people and it’s a bit more socially questionable. Pathological resourcefulness.

There is a female performer who is universally loved. If I explain I’m not interested in her, I’m met with gasps of disapproval – people are genuinely shocked and confused. “But she’s so lovely!” That’s how women are described, or that’s what gets them there. That’s what people approve of.

Affection is more palatable than admiration. Lovely people, like Stephen Fry do even better on their loveliness than their impressiveness, and are uninteresting until they remind me they can impress in other ways. If everyone’s a potential collaborator, for me, then everyone will be interrogated for respect. It worries and slightly sickens me that we live in an age where loveliness is enough to draw a crowd.

I’m not trying to argue you round. These are, I’m only too aware, just the things I think. They don’t seem to be supported by anyone I ever meet. So I suspect I really do have a heart of stone. (What bothers me slightly more is that I don’t really mind.)

I make a lot of things, and most of them tend to involve me puppeteering a cast of people to get something new into the world. But I also like working one-to-one on projects with a few really amazing collaborators. The creative partnerships I’ve found most effective have been about personalities and respect, and having a focus of interest far enough outside both of us. We’re equally motivated to beam our attention onto something bigger than ourselves, like two tributary lasers being focussed by the Death Star crystal into one devastating superbeam. And just like the Death Star destroying Alderaan, both of us want and don’t want to do it enough to keep the crackling, furious momentum up. Affection is an immovable object, it says everything’s OK with you, and it says “I agree”. I don’t think “I agree” leads to interesting work.

With performing and writing, I find it’s best not to know one other too well. That way, you get a sort of default respectfulness, and you also have more to say. The better you know someone, the harder it is to surprise them and the more unspoken understanding there is, and while unspoken understanding is a wonderful thing to have with someone, it does make for extremely poor radio. You have to fight the urge to become too comfortable, or you have to team up with people you don’t especially want to hang around with all the time.

But there’s something else, too. For me, the best partnerships have generated more fun in the moment of work than in the downtime. It’s just more fun being together when you’re making that thing, than when you’re just sitting there having a chat. You slightly lose interest in each other when the project is over, and there’s no pressure to send Christmas cards or have daily phone calls.

If you really wanted to, you could say it was about giving the making process a higher priority than human feelings. It’s not an intentional snub, it’s just a bit psychopathic – somewhat brutally utilitarian in this world of cuddles. Protecting the mutual respect by holding something back. Making something out of nothing – as we must, when there’s just enough common ground to make you both want to reach further and work harder. What comes out of these partnerships is great writing, a great show, a funny kind of audience empathy. And it all arises from that pathological resourcefulness.

The trick, of course, is to find someone as dysfunctional as you are. Then no one gets hurt.

2 thoughts on “Keep your distance

  1. Anjali Ramachandran

    Really interesting post. I’d like to know if Roo and Duncan, for example, feel the same way :-) Is it a female thing, largely? But yes, an overdose of niceness is never enough to gauge whether a speaker or event will be *interesting*. I think we should be honest about the reasons for going to see something. A show of support is a completely valid reason, and it doesn’t need to be cloaked behind the excuse that it will be interesting.

    1. leila Post author

      Thanks Anjali. I think loveliness is a scourge of society and compromising my respect for people of both genders. I think everyone would get a lot more cool stuff done if they didn’t need to like or be liked.

      I suspect the people I have my most successful collaborations with like to work this way as well… Roo and I often talk about how our entire friendship happily takes place in front of a microphone. And that doesn’t seem strange or bad. Having said that, though, I don’t want to work with other psychos, and tend to come up with better stuff by working with people who are naturally more empathetic than I am, and have other complementary skills and personality traits.

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