the philosopher and the comedian

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.


3 thoughts on “the philosopher and the comedian

  1. I’m sorry I’m a bit late in commenting. The parallels between philosophical investigation and jokes as often struck me. I would say that certain styles of humour and philosophy rely on lateral thinking, questioning what is certain and what is contingent for example, transforming the banal into the bizarre or unexpected, so that is one natural parallel.

    There have been some books deliberately mixing humour and philosophy Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar is the one example I’m familiar with, it had quite a buzz when it was published, I have to say that it covers way to much ground to quickly to be all that effective (nothing really gets discussed for more than a page, ADD) but there are some good jokes here and there but not as many as I would like (there are two other books by the same authors in the same vein, one about political arguments/fallacies and the other about death).

    Here is one of my favourite jokes from their book (it is the end of a very brief discussion of pragmatism, this joke is more than half the section):
    A woman reports her husband’s disappearance to the police. They ask her for a description and she says, “He’s six feet, three inches tall, well-built, with thick, curly hair.”

    Her friend says, “What are you talking about? Your husband is five-fee-four, bald, and has a huge belly.”

    And she says, “Who wants that one back?”

    [To this is an old joke, the authors add a new twist]

    The police say, “Lady, we are asking for a description that corresponds to your actual husband.”

    The woman responds: “Correspondence, shmorrespondence! Truth cannot be determined solely by epistemological criteria, because the adequacy of those criteria cannot be determined apart for the goals sought and values held. That is to say, in the end, truth is what satisfies, and, God knows, my husband didn’t do that.”

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