It occurred to me the other day that stand-up comedy is a lot like philosophy. Let me try to show you why.
Stand-up starts from things that everybody knows about: gender roles, racial stereotypes, airplanes, work, advertising, traffic, brushing your teeth, farts. And it shows you something new about those things – or better, the comic strikes a new attitude with respect to them. If it’s funny, that means the insight struck some emotional knot that is suddenly unwound, and you laugh a little. The best comedy can shock you out of your normal way of seeing things.
Everyone knows that people used to use rotary phones, and that cell phones beam signals into space. What is being taught isn’t a set of facts, everybody knows the facts that stand-up comedy works with. It’s more like a frame-shift – they cause you to reframe a familiar situation with shockingly different values.
Jerry Seinfeld is the modern master of observational comedy, of course. His virtuosity is finding novel insights into the most mundane elements of mainstream american culture.
Here’s Dave Chapelle teaching about the black perspective on america. I suggest you particularly listen for his white-guy voice – it’s dead on. It’s a perfect example of what I mean when I say that stand-up teaches about what is obvious to everyone. To me, it’s like hearing my own accent for the first time. I can’t even hear the whiteness in my voice, until Dave reflects it back at me.
George Carlin remains the master of close-reading of ordinary language.
I like to think philosophy is something very similar. Wittgenstein consistently held that philosophy is a kind of homeless discipline. Nothing is the proper and exclusive domain of philosophy, it is just the proper ordering of all of the other domains of thought. He wrote
God grant the philosopher insight into what lies in front of everyone’s eyes.
Moral philosophy starts from intuitions about what is good – logic from painfully obvious facts about what is consistent or true. These are things that stand before everyone’s eyes, and the philosopher is asked to say something interesting and insightful about them.
The philosophy of science starts from the sciences. My job in philosophy of biology is to say clever things about what everyone (ie. everyone who studies biology) knows.
“Say, did you ever notice how we measure the fitness of a trait by taking the average reproductive success of organisms with that trait in a population? But that doesn’t reliably separate correlation from causation! I mean, what’s the deal?”
Not very funny, I admit. Philosophers have our own criterion for judging insights into the obvious. Instead of funniness, we prize the elegance of the argument, it’s ability to clarify and its generality. But the analogy is there, I think.