The Language Of Creative Pairs

In an excerpt from his new book, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Creation in Creative Pairs, Joshua Wolf Shenk describes the ways individuals in creative partnerships communicate:

When the writer David Zax visited The Daily Show to profile Steve Bodow, Jon Stewart’s head writer (and now the show’s executive producer), Zax could understand only a small fraction of their exchanges, given the dominance of “workplace argot and quasi-telepathy.” “If you work with Jon for any length of time, you learn to interpret the shorthand,” Bodow said. For example, Stewart might say: “Cut the thing and bring the thing around and do the thing.” “ ‘Cut the thing’: You know what thing needs to be cut,” Bodow explained. “ ‘Bring the thing around’: There’s a thing that works, but it needs to move up in order to set up the ‘do the thing’ thing, which is probably the ‘blow,’ the big joke at the end. It takes time and repetition and patience and frustration, and suddenly you know how to bring the thing around and do the thing.”

I’ve interviewed many pairs and seen a variety of styles. Some talk over each other wildly, like seals flopping together on a pier, and some behave with an almost severe respect, like two monks side by side. (Watch a video of Merce Cunningham and John Cage for an illustration.) But regardless of a pair’s style, I usually came away feeling like I had just met two people who were, while inimitable and distinct, also a single organism.