Philosophy and comedy share certain characteristics. At the most basic level, both philosophers and comedians ask the question, why? Why do we do things this way and not a different way?
Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example, is a series of ethical debates, typically involving a conventional view of morality, and Larry’s more idiosyncratic view of correct behaviour. Usually, both sides have some legitimacy to their view point, and the comedy arises from the Talmudic argument, and the social dissonance between Larry and the rest of the world. Here’s Larry involved in another ethical debate:
Both philosophy and comedy serve the Socratic function of making us question our unconscious habits, making the habitual strange and ridiculous, saying the unsayable, challenging conventions, challenging power.
I think of Diogenes the Cynic – how he punctured his society’s civilised pretensions. Diogenes today would be a stand-up comic, not an academic philosopher. Indeed, he hated philosophy’s movement towards institutionalisation, and would go and heckle at Plato’s academy, pulling out chickens and other stunts to get laughs.
His modern equivalent is Dave Chappelle – check out his Cynic song, sung from a dustbin, about the benefits of giving up the rat-race and saying ‘fuck it':
And before him, it was George Carlin, musing on the pointless anxiety of a life full of ‘stuff’ (this monologue is fucking genius):
Perhaps the difference between the philosopher and the comedian, today, is that while comedians and philosophers start off asking the same questions, they end up at a different place, because comedians quickly find the process too funny, or ridiculous, and throw their hands up in the air and make some bathetic remark. They take refuge in the absurd, while the stony-faced philosopher presses grimly on.
Woody Allen (a philosophy major) is the clearest instance of this ‘waving the bathetic flag’ – his films are full of instances where he raises profound philosophical questions about life and death, briefly confronts them, and then escapes them with a bathetic moment. It’s his basic comic manoeuvre. For example, the line from Hannah and Her Sisters – ‘How the hell do I know why there were Nazis, I don’t even know how this can-opener works.’ Or some of Allen’s early one-liners: ‘Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.’
Perhaps it’s not an escape into bathos, not a consolation, but rather a recognition that even the process of trying to philosophise about existence is itself ridiculous and absurd. So the comedian has a self-awareness that the philosopher lacks, perhaps.
Comedians, like philosophers, also love to ridicule the superstitions and irrationalities of religion – Life of Brian is the best example, more powerful and persuasive in its critique than any Sam Harris polemic, I’d suggest. One of the reasons the Skeptic movement is so vibrant is that it’s as full of comedians (Ricky Gervais, Robin Ince, Stephen Fry…) as it is of scientists and philosophers. Here, for example, is rabid atheist Doug Stanhope:
But then there are also more Platonic comedians, like the mystic Russell Brand, or Bill Hicks, who suggest there is some higher reality beyond this ridiculous world:
Perhaps the main difference between philosophers and comedians, is that there is no such thing as an academic comedian. Stand-up philosophy, in particular, involves a giving of yourself, a sharing of yourself, a public exposure, not required or even allowed by the formal strictures of the academy.
Again, I think of Diogenes going along to Plato’s formal lectures, standing up, and pulling out a chicken. That heckling from the back is comedy’s riposte to philosophy – stop taking yourself and your word-games so seriously, and stop hiding away from the messy reality of life. Here, on that note, is Jonathan Miller of Beyond the Fringe, riffing on Russell:
Here is Stephen Fry making a similar joke. Within the joke, he’s asking the question – do we revere philosophers less in Anglo-Saxon countries than on the continent, simply because we can’t take them, or ourselves, sufficiently seriously? We can’t help laughing at Russell, or De Botton, or David Hume stuck in a bog…If so, I think that’s probably quite a good thing. As Fry suggests, it may be one of the reasons we avoided the extremes of fascism and communism in Anglo-Saxon countries – because every time some pompous git like Alain Badiou started mouthing off about Maoism, we laughed at them.
Anyway, another philosophical comedy clip, this from Not the Nine O’Clock News, with Rowan Atkinson and Mel Smith doing some wonderful stuff on the human / animal relationship:
And, finally, from the most philosophical of comedians, Monty Python, here is their ‘argument clinic’ sketch: