Monday, December 17, 2007

Not Pure Drivel

Some years ago, I wrote a post about philosophical humour. It ended up dwelling on philosophers. But there are also comedians who do philosophy.

Woody Allen is one of them, though he doesn't suit my taste: "When I was in school, I cheated on my metaphysics exam: I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me." More compelling, perhaps, is Steven Wright, as in this incisive contribution to debates about absolute generality: "You can't have everything. Where would you put it?"

But these intellects suffer from a lack of formal philosophical instruction, without which comedy is at best contingent. They should learn from such luminaries as Bill Murray, Steve Martin and Ricky Gervais.

In Born Standing Up, Martin describes his comedic and philosophical education. The latter took place at Long Beach State College, was stoked by Lewis Carroll's logic, and ended in Wittgensteinian despair. The former began with the discovery of jokes, "musty one-liners from other comedians' acts, but to me they were as new as sunrise." Like John Stuart Mill, however, who in his nervous breakdown was "seriously tormented by the […] exhaustibility of musical combinations," and Frank Ramsey, who found that there was nothing to discuss, Martin faced a crisis: what to do when the jokes run out, like the periods of Times Roman?

His solution was a construction of genius, the rigorous application of logic to the problems of life. Objecting to the Freudian theory of laughter as the release of pent-up tension, Martin asked:
What if there were no punchlines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension?
This refutation of the tension theory inadvertently confirms its rival: the conception of comedy as incongruity. What could be more incongruous, and thus hilarious, than set-up after set-up deflated, no punchline ever supplied?

On this basis, we can prove the necessity of humour. If a set-up is followed by an incongruous punchline, then the joke is funny; if there is no punchline or if it is not incongruous, this too is incongruous and therefore funny. Our happy conclusion – Steve Martin's sublime discovery – is that it is impossible not to be funny. You've got to laugh.


Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

I think Martin underestimates both the degree to which he relied on the traditional setup-punchline and the degree to which other comedians used more of what I'll call "internal punctuation" and "deceptive cadence" (on this score I'm thinking of Lenny Bruce, or maybe George Carlin; Jonathan Winters, even).

On the first point, though, Martin's treatment of the punchline was often distinctive, in that his standard issue were subversively, deconstructively corny (e.g., "I like a woman with a head on her shoulders. I hate necks.") or self-referential ("Repeat after me: 'I promise to be different....' Good!"). But he also went in for the by-then conventionally absurdist (e.g., "It's so hard to believe in anything anymore.... I guess I wouldn't believe in anything anymore if it weren't for my lucky astrology mood watch.") -- the sort of joke you could imagine Danny Kaye or Groucho having made twenty-forty years before. What held it together and made it seem modern was the veneer of self-importance and pseudosophistication. (Which is where the philosophical education really came in handy. Hey-oh!)

10:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great post. JM and I still laugh at -- and on occasion JM retells -- a joke we first heard from you, the one that ends "f*ck you, clown!"

8:47 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Thanks! The clown joke is a perfect illustration of what I had in mind. I've been trying to link to a decent version online for the benefit of those who don't know it, but I can't seem to find one...

8:48 PM  

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