6 Days to Air: How Creativity goes Professional

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You’re in a staring contest with a cursor.  Yes, a cursor.  

The little black line flickering on that plain white background is winning.  You hesitate and look down to your right.  Your smartphone lies dormant - yet full of possibility.  You’ve placed it face-down of course, because you’re writing.  Are you though?  That cursor is still winning.  The blank page stares back at you, mockingly.  Your fingers hover over the keyboard but your mind isn’t with them.  Your mind is wondering whether Instagram might hold some inspiration?  Or at least some dopamine?  Maybe that’s what you need - inspiration.  Of course!  How can you write without inspiration?  That’s the juice that you need.  That’s what makes creativity what it is, right?  Pulling inspiration from the ether and transforming it into a piece of art.  So you reach for your phone.  The cursor wins again.

This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way.  So many of the narratives that surround creativity, well-meaning as they are, focus on the transformation of inspiration into a completed work.  The focus seems to be on taking something ethereal and transcribing it into a form that humans can marvel at.  While romantic as a notion, this focus also stands in the way of creative people and gives ample excuse for procrastination.  If you look at any prolific artist - they can deliver works of art regardless of whether they are inspired or not.  This is what separates the amateurs from the professionals.

This stark contrast in outlook was masterfully illustrated in the documentary ‘6 Days to Air’ which follows the creation and production of an episode of the Comedy Central animated show: ‘South Park’.  

For those who are not aware, 'South Park' is an animated sitcom for adults which uses basic cutout animation to tell the story.  It was created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone and has (at the time of writing) shipped 287 episodes over the show’s 21 seasons.  From a comedy perspective, it is a giant success and has redefined the boundaries of what kinds of comedy could be shown on television - by being wildly offensive, politically incorrect and quite frankly - ridiculous.  It truly is a one of a kind show where you laugh until you cry just from it’s pure absurdity.

What makes the documentary special is that it shows how an episode of 'South Park' is written, recorded, animated, edited and published in 6 days flat.

6 days is nothing for an animated show.  It is hard to explain what a monumental task this is to anyone who has never tried to animate something before.  To try and put it into perspective, animating one episode of ‘The Simpsons’ can often take between 6-8 months.  6 days is mind-boggling.  This kind of speed is the precise reason that 'South Park' can be that show that makes the topical joke quicker than any other show.  They are always on top of what is happening in the real world because they are writing their material in real time.  The animation is shoddy and aesthetically below-par.  But that’s not the game they are playing.  They win on speed, not on the quality of the animation.  The animation just needs to be at a minimum level in order to advance the story and the stop-motion style animation gives the show a unique character - it’s not trying to take itself too seriously.  

The documentary shows Trey Parker, Matt Stone (the show’s creators) and a few others, sitting in a boardroom on a Monday morning trying to find ways to take the current obsessions of the world and make it into comedy.  Over the next 6 days, we watch them write a 22 minute tv show, draw everything out, animate it, record all the voices, edit the final product and finally run it over to Comedy Central with just minutes to spare before it is broadcast.  It is truly incredible.  For an animated TV show to be run like this is absolutely bizarre.  But those constraints mean that you get a show that literally no one else could make.  It’s a pace that simply can’t be matched.

What I took away from this prolific ability to deliver comedy is the fact that 'South Park' doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to arrive.  Instead, they lock themselves into a boardroom for hours at a time and they do the work.  By sitting in the room and not allowing for other distractions - they get it done.  There is no talk of writer’s block, instead - they bang their heads up against the wall until something good comes out.  They will run through plenty of terrible ideas in order to find the gem of an idea that becomes the focus for that week’s show.

It’s not glamorous, but that’s exactly the point.  They are comedic professionals and this is the kind of hard work that has led to the show’s incredible success.  This is what creativity looks like in the real world.

I think it’s a challenge to us amateur creatives - to take our work a little more seriously and not rely merely on inspiration for us to create.  What could you create if you knew that it was to be shown to the world in 6 days time?  How would you operate?  By putting a bit of pressure on yourself and leveraging the power of creative constraints, you might just surprise yourself.

Sit down in the chair and do the work.

Don’t let the cursor win.