Holland's best innovator? Dutch comedian Theo Maassen!

Theo Maassen is praised for hosting Zomergasten, a Dutch prestigious 3-hour interview show. That’s not a surprise for innovation expert Simone van Neerven. The comedian has been reinventing himself for years and – consciously or unconsciously – successfully applies many innovation lessons.

Just an excerpt from one of Theo Maassen's comedy shows:

“When we were kids, the best thing ever was that after dinner, we created our own dessert by taking two packs of custard – chocolate and vanilla – and pouring these together in a bowl. And what happened? They invented ‘double custard’! WTF, I want to make that myself! We have more and more products, but are they making us any happier? There have never been so many toys, and at the same time, children have never been so bored. Inventions are nothing more than better means to a lesser end. So, why don’t we just stop with this nonsense?”

This passage characterises how Maassen views the world: observing with wonder, connecting surprising dots, not avoiding sensitive topics, and being socially involved. And, of course, a lot of humour.

Innovation inherently brings uncertainty, creativity, and a mindset that not everyone possesses or wants to embrace. What distinguishes innovative individuals from others? And what does Theo Maassen have to do with that?

Theo Maassen is incredibly curious

Maassen is very comfortable with himself. He thrives on chaos, is verbally strong and socially smart, super intelligent, witty and incredibly curious. The urge to know and understand everything is a trait he shares with great innovators. It starts with observing sharply and asking yourself how things work in detail. Examples of innovations coming from keen observation are TikTok, wheels under suitcases, and the ketchup bottle upside-down design.

Wonder about absurdities

Maassen marvels at the absurdity of apparently normal things in life: “Back in the day at gymnastics class in primary school, free-play was the most beautiful and fun thing there was. And then I wonder, why are there no free-play associations? You can join football, hockey, and tennis, but not free-play. Why is that?”

That kind of wonder often creates opportunities for new concepts or services, such as antibiotics and Viagra. Also the microwave was the result of something that happened unintendedly that was noticed at the right time. ‘Wisdom begins with wonder’, as Socrates once said.

Being able to connect surprising dots

Maassen is a lightning-fast thinker and has broad interests. He reads a lot, delves into many different topics, and makes surprising connections between seemingly unrelated themes, like the ‘double custard’ with children’s boredom. By associating, he makes a complex problem smaller and more understandable and gets to the root of it.

Theo Maassen is a rebel pur sang

Maassen is a disruptor and likes to disorient people. He is stubborn and becomes rebellious when dealing with absurd, childish rules or things that don’t make sense: “Why do we wear neckties around our necks where it is most inconvenient?” He hates herd behaviour and the mentality of ‘this is how we always do things around here’. “Where would we be if millions of years ago, when the very first creature carefully crawled onto land, the other creatures would have shouted: “Hey, that’s not what we are supposed to be doing!” With sassy, sometimes sarcastic jokes, he makes people think and hopes they will reflect more often on why they do things the way they do.

Strong moral compass

Over and over, Maassen reminds us how difficult it is to act with integrity in our complex world. In his shows, he is genuinely angry about what is happening in the world. “Two-thirds of the world is starving, but we have Pedigree Fresh Bastard. That is dog food for dogs with bad breath. Oh my god, imagine this: you have a nice wife, a beautiful house, and your children are doing well at school, but your dog has bad breath!” With these kinds of jokes, he shows the insanity of the world we live in. The number of absurd innovations keeps growing, not making this world a better place. Nowadays, it should be almost unthinkable that new things are invented without any social relevance.

Provocative exaggeration

Sharing a different perspective or idea leads to polarisation often. But Maassen can connect through humour. He is brilliant at making people smile and loves confrontation, but he always creates an open and pleasant atmosphere where anything can be said. He proves his point by exaggerating things so much that it becomes absurd. He makes you laugh while, at the same time, you scratch your head and reflect on your own beliefs and actions.

Numerous studies show how important humour is in the workplace. By laughing regularly, people think more freely (even outside the well-known ‘safe’ box). They make connections between different ideas easier, allowing them to think more deeply about problems that require creative solutions.

Theo Maassen continuously reinvents himself

But Maassen is not just a critical joker. Like most successful innovators, he is also a multipotentialite. He started as a comedian but soon got a few small roles in series and films and later even leading roles. He released two singles that reached the Mega Top 50, started presenting TV shows in 2014, made his movie director debut in 2018, and became a podcaster in 2020. In the meantime, he is also a mentor for younger comedians and even gives master classes to the Conservatoire students. Everything Theo Maassen does involves creating something new. And thus, it is just a matter of time until he launched his first innovation.

This article was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout, the most popular business and management platform in the Netherlands.

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