The Liberty of the Ad Lib

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Did you see what I did there?


“Ad Lib”…

Get it?

OK. I have to admit. It is a bit of a stretch. At least from a literal standpoint. The “lib” of “ad lib” doesn’t stand for “liberty.” It’s actually the short form of the Latin phrase ad libitum.

Ad libitum literally translates to “at one’s pleasure.” There’s no “liberty” in it at all. Our word “liberty” derives from the Latin word liber. In Latin, liber and libitum mean two different, albeit not wholly unrelated, things.

The Latin liber means “free” or “unrestricted.” You can easily see how we get “liberty” from this word. Just to confuse you – as if all the different decinations aren’t enough, the Latin liber (from the genitive of libri), also means “book” or – get this – “the inner bark of a tree,” from which we get the word “library.” But we’ll skip this branch of the Latin tree.

The Latin libitum, (the perfect passive participle of libet, which means “it is pleasing”), on the other hand, translates to “pleased” or “one’s pleasure.”

I know what you’re thinking: “Won’t you derive pleasure from being free and unrestricted? So, aren’t liber and libitum really the same thing?”

Believe me, this is the kind of question that has vexed libertarians from before our country’s founding. Indeed, the libertarian philosophy seems to have two competing heads.

The first can be traced back to 17th century England and the writings of John Locke, who has been called the Father of Liberalism. Locke’s work (primarily his Natural Rights philosophy of “life, liberty, and property”) attracted the attention of America’s Founding Fathers. You may recognize Thomas Jefferson’s adulation of Locke in the phrasing he used within the body of the Declaration of Independence (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). (For Founding Father aficionados, Jefferson’s change of the third item represents an homage to Aristotle.) Let’s call this the liber part of libertarianism.

The second head of libertarianism – perhaps you might refer to it as “The Dark Side” – seems to have its roots in the French Revolution. (For those with a scorecard, Thomas Paine represents a key link between the American and French Revolutions.) Many cite Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts on the intersection of morality and freedom and the springboard to the part of libertarianism that speaks to anarchism. Let’s call this the libitum part of libertarianism.

But we don’t want to judge the word libitum too harshly. After all, it’s a critical part of the phrase ad libitum, which, in turn, gave us the term “ad lib.”

And “ad lib” is a good thing.

Ad lib gives us the personal freedom that defines liberty.

But that might represent too great a leap for the casual reader. Let’s start where many of us experience ad lib to our great delight: the arts.

If you like jazz (or the Grateful Dead), then you’ve experienced the joys of ad lib. These musical journeys often allow free ranging instrumentation. While at least a single band member is tasked with keeping the tempo, one or more of the musicians have the freedom to play at their pleasure. (There you go, again. A combination of liber and libitum.)

Still, with skilled players, the average concert-goer might not recognize when the music veers from the score. There’s another stage, however, where the audience knows for sure they’re experiencing a purely unscripted event: improv theatre.

Here, comedians will ask the audience to throw out a few random nouns and verbs. The troupe then makes a coherent (and hopefully humorous) story out of those words and phrases. In this case, the audience derives pleasure (libitum) from the comic’s unrestricted use of the elements presented them (liber).

The beauty of ad lib is often captured for all to see in major cinematic releases. This requires very talented actors who are well-versed in improvisational comedy. In fact, when you place several qualified actors like this in the same movie, you have the recipe for a comedy classic… or a complete dud.

You don’t remember the duds, but you do remember the classics. I had the pleasure (libitum)to attend “An Evening with Chevy Chase” at the Kodak Center last Friday. They brought the 75-year-old comedian on the stage for an hour of, well, an old Chevy Chase. There were snippets of his wit, but, when the audience had to finish his sentences for him, well, you know, you’re free (liber) to interpret that any way you’d like.

Except for one thing. Before ol’ Chevy sauntered onto the stage, attendees laughed through a full presentation of the uncut version of the movie Caddyshack.

The comedy, an acclaimed classic, started as a completely scripted coming-of-age movie. Most of that script, however, ended up on the cutting room floor. (After filming, the first edit of the movie clocked in at 4½ hours long.) When the editors finished, what was left was mostly a series of ad lib performances by Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield. These were just too good to cut. Audiences agreed.

The final cut (a run time of only 98 minutes) features a story that was created in post-production. In a sense, these ad lib comedians represented such a powerful force that only an ad lib final edit could do it justice.

And it did.

But at a cost.

While Caddyshack boosted the careers of its well-known stars, it soured the career aspirations of its younger actors. Quite a few quit the business as a result of the anarchy that ruled the set. In fact, the movie was filmed in Florida just to avoid the watchful eyes of its Hollywood overseers. (It was pitched to the studio as Animal House on the golf course. Little did they know…)

The production set was less about making a movie and more about having a party – for some. When the set broke, half the crew didn’t want to leave while the other half couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

It’s been said freedom isn’t free. The actors who created such an iconic movie had the freedom to do so. Our cinematic canon is all the more valuable for their efforts. While not originally scripted, some of the lines have found their way into our language, etched into the culture of (at least) the generation that grew up with Caddyshack.

Yet, there was collateral damage. Most of us will never see it, and it does take a certain amount of energy to dig up evidence of this damage. And why should we? The trade-off we derive as a society for this masterpiece – how it has enriched our lives (it morphed from a coming of age story to a Marx Brothers morality tale) – makes it worthwhile.

After all, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Wow. That doesn’t sound very liberating at all. How about this:

After all, without the ad lib, you’d never be able to realize your own Cinderella Story.

This is What Public Speakers Can Learn from Aristotle’s Greatest Mistake

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Spoiler Alert: I can only reveal once you fully appreciate the useful parts of Aristotle’s idea.

Have you ever had to – or will you ever have to – speak in front of an audience? It could have been (or be) an audience of one hundred or an audience of one. In either case, you may have noticed what happens when you’re in the audience watching other people speak. Sometimes you enjoy the presentation, sometimes you’re bored to tears. And it’s not based on the nature of the subject.

Here’s why.

Most speakers employ some variation of Aristotle’s Model of Communication. While roughly based on his Treatise on Rhetoric, it does not directly incorporate the persuasive tools Aristotle outlines in that classic volume. Indeed, neither does it involve the five canons of rhetoric, although this makes more sense since Cicero identified them centuries after Aristotle’s death.

Still, despite the lack of these important communication components, there’s another, more important, reason why Aristotle’s Model of Communication often fails. To best grasp the reason for this failure – and how to either avoid it or take advantage of it – you need to understand why this model has been both popular and effective.Continue Reading “This is What Public Speakers Can Learn from Aristotle’s Greatest Mistake”

Are You an Instigator, a Skeptic, or Merely Somebody Else’s Tool?

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They say the world is made up of two types of people. They’re wrong. The world consists of three types of people, but two of those types get all the press.

Journalists like to frame issues in a binary fashion – one side against another. That’s simple. It’s black and white. It’s A versus B. Reporters don’t do this because they can’t handle the complexity of multiple opposing points of view. They structure their stories as a duel between competing interests because readers find those stories easiest to digest. The audience finds such pairings quite familiar. Literature is replete with examples: Ahab vs. Moby Dick, Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty, and Bambi vs. Godzilla, to name a few.

It’s not just drama. Philosophy often has an attraction to complimentary combinations. We see this most markedly in the Taoist notion of “dualistic-monism” as expressed in the Continue Reading “Are You an Instigator, a Skeptic, or Merely Somebody Else’s Tool?”

Deeds, Not Words

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you think that title might sound heretical coming from a wordsmith, just wait ‘til you read the rest of this column.

Say what you will about former Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone (I never thought he was cut out for the job), but he did leave one indelible mark in my brain: “Don’t confuse effort with results.” This was one of the bromides that he posted on the walls of the Ralph Wilson Fieldhouse for all his players (and Bills fans) to stare at. In a nutshell, it’s what Yoda told Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back: “Do or do not, there is no try.”

We’re all told to try our best. That’s fine. But we need to accept that it’s not good enough. When you try something, the result is you either succeed or fail. That’s all there is to it. There is Continue Reading “Deeds, Not Words”

Summertime Stargazing

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the July 5, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]


CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259I love the summer. Longer daylight hours means we can do a lot more. It also means, after a good day’s work, we can still spend some relaxing time with our family and neighbors.

Sitting on the porch gently taking in the sights and sounds of nature and our community, we savor the twilight of the day. The last lick of sunlight long since set, we slowly mellow with the sky. Our light conversation goes as smoothly as the transition from dusk to dark.

It is this time of day I enjoy the best. Surrounded by close comrades and all the chores done, I can now look heavenward. For some reason, I still get a kick out of finding the Continue Reading “Summertime Stargazing”

3 Critical Points Every Great Speaker Must Address

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Every speaker wants to know the answer to this question: How do I make my presentation more effective, more memorable and more exciting for the audience. Aristotle said it best in his book The Art of Rhetoric (ca 350BC):


Pathos – A passion for the subject.

Logos – A thorough knowledge of the subject.

Ethos – The acknowledged credibility to comment on the subject (requires Pathos and Logos).

Every aspect of speaking must address at least one (if not all three) of these areas. I hope to tell stories of how I used these in the many successful presentations I have offered to appreciative audiences.