Author Topic: Comedy & Philosophy  (Read 3635 times)

Comedy & Philosophy
« on: July 30, 2011, 11:12:33 AM »
Let's talk about comedy and philosophy.  What does that mean to you, or make you think of?  First for me is, inevitably, Lenny Bruce - I mentioned Warning in another thread this week, the first 8 minutes of which are head-spinning.  Lenny plays with the concept of truth to expose law and religion as being essentially corrupt, and based on lies.  Short, lovely version here, which highlights the underlying poetry of the notion:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYlCfRiOEhM

Xavier: Renegade Angel is, as we know, astoundingly creative and original, and also throws philosophical concepts around continually:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZijqF3ey3k

Eugene Mirman from Delocated has a video on experimental philosophy.  Not funny, but interesting:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHoyMfHudaE

After asking the same question on Twitter, I got some great suggestions.  The Fall & Rise of Reggie Perrin, and Woody Allen.  How did I not think of the latter in particular?  A lot of his jokes are playing off philosophical concepts, and/or are in themselves philosophical.  They're also really fucking funny.

"I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me."

"Today I saw a red and yellow sunset and thought: 'how insignificant I am!' Of course, I thought that yesterday and it rained."

"It is impossible to experience one's own death objectively and still carry a tune."

Jemble Fred

  • ... And I ain't ashamed.
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Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #1 on: July 30, 2011, 11:32:49 AM »
I'd say Monty Python is obviously the one comedy most people would instantly link to Philosophy and philosophers, but despite Cleese's preoccupation with the subject, it's more about their traditional juxtaposition of highfalutin figures with common themes – Australians, football etc. – than actual philosophical humour.

There is this too...
Beyond The Fringe: Oxford Philosophy
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVQrpok9KPA&feature=view_all&list=PLC35FC5C7520CA58D&index=3

Though sadly I couldn't find the Cleese/Miller version, it did lead me to this, which I found utterly charming:
Miller & Moore, 'The Body In Question'
http://youtu.be/xVwFqGSGBCU

Famous Mortimer

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Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #2 on: July 30, 2011, 01:02:23 PM »

Little Hoover

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Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #3 on: July 30, 2011, 10:30:26 PM »
This is a really interesting thread topic Neil, but I've absolutely no idea what I can add to it. Sorry.

Smeraldina Rima

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Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #4 on: July 30, 2011, 10:33:20 PM »
Sartre is in a bistro and he orders a coffee without milk? Waitress comes back and says:

Sorry we don't have any milk. Do you want it without cream?

AHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #5 on: July 30, 2011, 11:34:22 PM »
I've always kind of classified Tommy Boyd partly in the comedy camp, because so much of what he does is designed to provide laughs to the people who know that the rest of his audience is getting wound up without realising it. He's also a great thinker, and although I can't say he's ever really combined comedy with philosophy, from what I've heard, he's certainly someone I frequently laugh with who also pushes those buttons...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3jH-yQ8RnI

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #6 on: July 30, 2011, 11:45:00 PM »
Is religion philosophy? Or is it conformity based on accepted culture or the catalyst from some point of vulnerability? I'm not entirely sure (and apologies if this is off topic), but in Australia, comedian John Safran produced a series of documentary style comedies exploring different religions, with the aim to throw himself into as many as possible to see what they were all about. Produced with a sense of irreverency, they managed to be fairly engaging without being too disrespectful. They never really set the comedy world on fire, but they were enjoyable enough.

The final episode was different. Unlike previous episodes, the entire 30 minutes was dedicated to one specific encounter, with Christian minister Bob Larson from the USA. Bob performs a series of exorcisms on John, and the results are fairly dramatic. It's been claimed that John was faking his reaction but I think what's really happening is a kind of trance like hypnotism. It's pretty powerful stuff, and although it's not especially philosophical, it touches that area and comes out of a comedy show (without being comical itself - this episode is unusual in that it's not played for laughs on any level).

Again, sorry if this is off topic, but I do find it fascinating. I uploaded the whole thing in three parts. Part one is here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZN0bqk_P38

EDIT: "I take a three-fold chord from Ecclesiastes 4 and I bind your hands together" remains one of my favourite inadvertently hilarious phrases I've ever heard. Just re-watching the episode now; I forgot about that bit!
« Last Edit: July 31, 2011, 01:18:55 AM by Artemis »

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #7 on: July 31, 2011, 12:43:25 AM »
^

That minister's intensive thinking when it comes to diagnosing schizophernic's rather than the possessed is marvellous!

"have you had any treatment? Ahh...well stay on the drugs..."

Implying that people with a mental illness unable to incorrectly identify their problem = Devils did it!
« Last Edit: July 31, 2011, 01:02:46 AM by babyshambler »

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #8 on: July 31, 2011, 01:05:55 AM »
That minister's intensive thinking when it comes to diagnosing schizophernic's rather than the possessed is marvellous!

Ha, yep, the convenient short cut on logic and proper psychoanalysis is incredible. "Daddy didn't love you!"

I guess there is a punchline there somewhere, but it's very bleak and certainly not obvious.

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #9 on: July 31, 2011, 10:42:21 AM »
Philosophy works better in Comedy when it is hidden under something that is multi-layed. For example, there are numerous references to Schopenhauer in Woody Allen's 'Annie Hall', but none of them explicit because there is so much else going on. This was probably intended, with Arthur's view that every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. Where as one viewer might see a high brow romcom, others see some kind of complex masterpiece, the pinnacle of mainstream intellectual cinema, containing many little secrets underneath the surface that they seek to unravel.

pancreas

  • The islets of Langerhans are the very best islets
Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #10 on: July 31, 2011, 11:53:03 AM »
The thing that immediately came to mind is this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4u2ZsoYWwJA

at about 7:30.

In general it's an interesting topic; another is, Where is a philosophical approach to discussing comedy successful?. (Partly what the point of this forum is, I suppose.)

But for the topic in hand, which as I understand it, is Is Philosophy good comedy fodder? Yes, clearly. And perhaps it shouldn't be surprising:

Could one argue that Philosophy and comedy both succeed by taking the audience into unfamiliar places and then using certain established frameworks for examining those places? There seems something similar about the processes, even if that's not quite it. But it's certainly true that you can't have a good piece of comedy without something original; more often than not this will constitute some (broadly understood) philosophical insight. Conversely I've often heard philosophers discussing philosophy as if it were a joke---so things like 'the punchline is that consciousness is bound up with i-states' or whatever. Well, I don't know---discuss.

One thing seems sure: it's a pretty untapped area. It would, as Louis CK demonstrates, provide great material for stand-up..

In a slightly different vein, Stuart Lee certainly seems to employ a post-modernist method as a foundation for his stuff (as perhaps Lenny Bruce used a Marxist method??). The fact that I can't stand most post-modernist devices makes Stuart Lee very difficult impossible for me to watch. But I can see the appeal.

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #11 on: August 06, 2011, 04:27:55 PM »
Sitcoms sit somwhere between academic philosophy and forms of literature like novels and poetry. In academic philosophy, writers try and explain their views about the world clearly, consistently and rigorously. Characters in good novels and plays don't act like philosophers- they behave unpredictably, and their motivations are murky- that's what stops them being 2-d. A novel like Ian McEwan's “Enduring Love” is criticised because the characters are too transparently ciphers for McEwan's argument about Good, Rational Science versus Bad Irrational Religion.
But in sitcoms, this 2-d-ness is a source of great  pleasure- the same quality that spoils “Enduring Love”, which I would say was being too philosophical and not artistic enough,  is what makes “Peep Show” really enjoyable- Mark and Jeremy are embodiments of  an ancient ethical debate, the  argument between hard-working, orderly, Apollonian conformism and lazy Dionysian hedonism- and if they acted in ways which deviated massively from this, (in the way that characters in a novel would) the whole core of the programme would be lost.

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #12 on: August 10, 2011, 10:47:03 AM »
Malcolm Bradbury's Mensonge is a very good satire on structuralism and deconstruction.

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #13 on: August 10, 2011, 12:59:17 PM »
Ordered that after it was mentioned in the chatroom on Sunday, sounds great, gets very positive reviews.
« Last Edit: August 10, 2011, 01:26:23 PM by Neil »

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #14 on: August 10, 2011, 01:20:49 PM »
Ordered that after it was mentioned in the chatting on Sunday.

Sorry I missed that...

Quote
In brief, Structuralism and Deconstruction are and remain important because they have quite simply disestablished the entire basis of human discourse. This cannot be overlooked; for example, it has left those of us who, like myself, have just gone out and invested large sums in expensive word-processing equipment with a good deal of egg on our faces... The impact of this will in due course be massive, meaning nothing less than that it will be necessary to re-write everything. Happily this will take time, and just for the moment the instructions on a jar of instant coffee still remain more or less usable, though we cannot count on it, any more than we can or should on anything else in this increasingly difficult world.

pancreas

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Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #15 on: August 10, 2011, 04:22:24 PM »
If we're going literary, then try some David Foster Wallace. Very good at being simultaneously philosophical and comic. Anyone who doesn't like this, for instance, needs to be chopped or whatever:

http://www.harpers.org/media/pdf/dfw/HarpersMagazine-1996-01-0007859.pdf

Mark Steels Stockbroker

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Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #16 on: August 10, 2011, 05:25:59 PM »
Quote
A novel like Ian McEwan's “Enduring Love” is criticised because the characters are too transparently ciphers for McEwan's argument about Good, Rational Science versus Bad Irrational Religion.


Rather a simplistic view of the book. There is plenty of criticism of the central male character, including his self-awareness that he isn't a real scientist, just a pop-science writer who isn't taken seriously by his old colleagues. The story teaches him lessons that his crude sub-Dawkins view of religion doesn't explain his stalker. And his wife is there to remind him that poetry and other human creations exist as well.

On the other hand, I would say the earlier Black Dogs fails precisely because it does go for a crude "science vs. religion" antithesis, which is very facile, and belongs in the world of dull middlebrow columnists.

Mark Steels Stockbroker

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Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #17 on: August 10, 2011, 05:27:54 PM »
Mensonge got a lot of lukewarm reviews when it came out, for being an example of an academic doing jokes for his mates that didn't mean much to the wider audience. It belongs in a thread about satire that is very inward-looking/cliquey.

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #18 on: August 10, 2011, 07:52:21 PM »
Mensonge got a lot of lukewarm reviews when it came out, for being an example of an academic doing jokes for his mates that didn't mean much to the wider audience. It belongs in a thread about satire that is very inward-looking/cliquey.

...and in a thread about comedy and philosophy.

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #19 on: August 10, 2011, 08:31:53 PM »
Much of the Armando Iannucci Shows strike me as taking the sketch show format as a vehicle for thought experiments based around broadly ethical subjects. Also, some of the reversal gags play on notions of authenticity and simulation (like the flight simulator that provokes a genuine near-death experience) that Baudrillard would probably say mispresented his work and Žižek would use as an example of Baudrillard's work.

More daffy; a Kids in the Hall sketch on God being dead:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3eTsNEgmL8

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #20 on: August 10, 2011, 10:38:46 PM »
Heard a great vaudeville gag when I was out (difbrook tells me it might be a henny youngman joke), and it's used in a million different contexts:

First man: How's your wife?
Second man: Compared to what?

In this instance it was being used with regard to egalitarianism, and feels very relevant at the minute.

Zetetic

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Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #21 on: August 11, 2011, 01:37:34 PM »
In academic philosophy, writers try and explain their views about the world clearly, consistently and rigorously.
Do they? Much of the Continentals (if we're prepared to include them as philosophers) revelled in obscurantist use of language - and the impression of philosophy that's generated is fairly easy to parody. If we consider Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations then that emphatically and explicitly sets out not to explain something, but instead to change the way that the reader thinks. I wonder if that comes close to your issues regarding 'Enduring Love'.

There's been a real neglect of comedy in Analytic Philosophy, specifically Philosophy of Language. I can't think of a better example than the use of language in comedy to show that, for much of the time, the last thing we're doing with language is using it to make declarations about objects in the world.

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #22 on: August 11, 2011, 01:41:44 PM »
Do they? Much of the Continentals (if we're prepared to include them as philosophers) revelled in obscurantist use of language - and the impression of philosophy that's generated is fairly easy to parody.

...or they tried to use language in a way that highlighted the failings they maintain it has.

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #23 on: August 11, 2011, 02:07:53 PM »
...or they tried to use language in a way that highlighted the failings they maintain it has.

Argh - I hate it when they do that! I suspect that's one of the reasons Lacan doesn't seem to make much sense in translation.

(Though it's mostly that he makes up equations to express his ideas... which is just about the thing I ploughed into the humanities to avoid.)

Mark Steels Stockbroker

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Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #24 on: August 11, 2011, 02:50:12 PM »
Quote
There's been a real neglect of comedy in Analytic Philosophy

Unless maybe you count Harry Frankfurt "On Bullshit".

Quote
If we consider Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations then that emphatically and explicitly sets out not to explain something, but instead to change the way that the reader thinks.

Helping the fly out of the fly-bottle. But do you think Ludwig was "continental"?

"Continental philosophy" is not entirely about postmodernist crap, and it isn't a single bloc either. There are genuine differences between Hegelians and existentialists. The topics are not so far away from the analytic tradition either. It is debatable whether Derrida was just informally trying to express the arguments that Quine and Putnam set out more formally.

I don't think much of Lacan, Lyotard, deconstruction, or any other bullshit lapped up by clueless Eng.Lit. grads who don't understand much basic logic. But I don't think you can dismiss everything written in French and German since about 1945. Habermas and Foucault were raising issues in epistemology that fit with what was going on at Anglophone departments.

Mark Steels Stockbroker

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Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #25 on: August 11, 2011, 02:53:00 PM »
Quote
There's been a real neglect of comedy in Analytic Philosophy, specifically Philosophy of Language. I can't think of a better example than the use of language in comedy to show that, for much of the time, the last thing we're doing with language is using it to make declarations about objects in the world.

You could also see Tom Stoppard's TV play Professional Foul (the scene at the philosophy conference). And also Jumpers.

Mark Steels Stockbroker

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Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #26 on: August 11, 2011, 03:34:53 PM »
The entire point of Austin's How To Do Things With Words (the locus classicus of 50s Oxford philosophy) is that we don't always use language to make "statements". Lyotard and Derrida then went on to appropriate his notion of "performative utterance".

Austin is one of the big targets of Gellner's Words And Things, which in turn inspired the Beyond The Fringe sketch.

Zetetic

  • Burying isn't the same as killing.
Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #27 on: August 11, 2011, 06:34:44 PM »
Helping the fly out of the fly-bottle. But do you think Ludwig was "continental"?
Oh, no. Sorry that wasn't very clear.

Quote
But I don't think you can dismiss everything written in French and German since about 1945. Habermas and Foucault were raising issues in epistemology that fit with what was going on at Anglophone departments.
I was wrong to paint the lot with the same brush.

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #28 on: August 13, 2011, 01:42:52 PM »


Rather a simplistic view of the book.


You're right, “Enduring Love” is hardly the worst example of crude characterisation that I could have picked. But from your comments on Black Dog, I guess we would agree that a novel could be considered a failure when its characters are too easily categorizable, or too obviously representatives of abstract ideas.
Richard Rorty writes about this interestingly in his esssay  “Heidigger, Kundera and Dickens”. Do you think what he says here about Dickens is also true of the best characterisation in sitcoms?:

“....the most celebrated and memorable feature of his novels is the unsubsumable , uncategorizable idiosyncracy of the characters. Dickens' characters resist being subsumed by moral typologies.... Instead, the names of Dickens' characters take the place of moral principles and lists of virtues and vices. They do so by permitting us to describe each other as “ a Skimpole”, “a Mr. Pickwick”,a “Gradgrind”.....In a moral world based on what Kundera calls “the wisdom of the novel”, moral comparisons would be made based on proper names rather than general names and general principles.”

 While Basil Fawlty or Del Boy could be slotted easily into that list of Dickens' characters, as people that can't easily be described abstractly, this is not so true of many of the comic-grotesque characters in sitcoms- the humour in The Simpsons, The Young Ones, Red Dwarf, Father Ted comes from the fact that the characters are so easy to pin to a particular set of values eg. Mr Burns= greedy capitalism, Kryten= servility, Father Jack=drunken senility- if these characters were more nuanced, wouldn't they be less funny?

Re: Comedy & Philosophy
« Reply #29 on: August 13, 2011, 04:22:24 PM »
If we consider Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations then that emphatically and explicitly sets out not to explain something, but instead to change the way that the reader thinks. I wonder if that comes close to your issues regarding 'Enduring Love'.

Yeah, that's exactly how I feel. I'm really interested in the letters between Wittgenstein and his friend Paul Englemann where they hold up as an ideal for art a poem by Ludwig Uhland.
 In the poem, a soldier takes a sprig from a bush on a battlefield, plants it in his back garden after the war and watches it grow-it's a poem that's obviously about something, but its more profound because it doesn't try and spell out what it's getting at.
I think this is a really useful approach for artists and writers to think about-( and probably an overly pessimistic one for philosophers). Coming back to our theme, it points to some of the appeal of Chris Morris and the Day Today team.

So much British TV satirical comedy has been so explicit in its meaning- there was no ambiguity   in something like Spitting Image. The Day Today is a complete contrast - take the “Prince Charles has volunteered to go to prison” sketch- there must have been hundreds of fake newsreader items on comedy shows and Radio 4 panel games  making fun of Prince Charles, and all of them would have been so clear about what they were saying- he's got big ears, he's wealthy and privileged, he talks to plants, he has silly opinions about architecture etc. In comparison, the Day Today sketch is absolutley impossible to pin down. This is not because its purely whimiscal and  lacking in substance, there's no doubt that on some level its about social class, the relationship between class and the law, about the liberal posturing of the wealthy etc etc. But it's impossible to explicitly state what it means, and that's what makes it wonderful.