Thinky Ha Ha: Comedians as the New Philosophers

Comedian

Stańczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen Bona after the Loss of Smolensk, Jan Matejko

Yup, I’m a philosophy grad- twice over, actually. I’ve studied it, I’ve taught it, and I’ve written about it.  The years I spent immersed in the academic side of philosophy were among the happiest and most fulfilling of my life.  I don’t, however, consider myself an academic philosopher anymore.  Maybe I never really did.  That’s not to say that I’ve hung up my toga.  I’m not sure it’s possible to crawl back into the cave once you’ve been out in the sun (high five to Plato).  I’ve just become accustomed to looking for big questions and arguments in other places.  When you’re a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail (last metaphor , I promise).

These days, I get my philosophy from movies, from television, from music, and even from advertisements, and I’m not alone.  There are a slew of writers and thinkers devoted to digging for it in popular culture.  My favourite source is, and has been for a long time, in the wonderfully wise-assed rantings of stand up comedians. Tackling difficult issues through laughter isn’t anything new.  Satirists have been doing it for thousands of years, and it works.  Comedic philosophy is especially potent in stand up, when the audience is addressed directly, the comedian is speaking with his or her own voice, and the raw energy of a live performance is there to amplify their ideas.

I’d like to pay tribute to the brave thinkers who spend hours writing material, schlepping from club to club, and enduring hecklers, all in the name of being able to say “What about this? Have your ever thought about it this way?”  Here are some of my favourites:

The list goes on and on, and I think I could probably fill an entire blog with examples (hmmm…maybe someday).  What really gets me fired up about philosophy through comedy is its accessibility.  Most people won’t take a course on Plato, but they will turn up the volume to hear what a comedian has to say about human nature and the state of the world.  Philosophy is more than an elective at university.  It’s a survival skill in the 21st century, and I’m a fan of anything that injects it into the common consciousness. Three cheers for those who treat big questions like they’re jokes!

 

 

Not Really in Search of Lost Time

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Around these parts, my nickname is Google.  It isn’t because I buy up emerging technology, or because I get judgmental about people’s lousy typos (okay, maybe the latter is true).  It’s because I have a memory like flypaper.  A high proportion of what I encounter in the world stays with me for a long, long time.  What’s more, I have this thing where I only need to hear half of what someone is saying before I catch them mid-sentence and not only recall the facts they’re looking for, but  make connections to a whole lot of other facts.  My brain works like a global search engine.  Call it a super power.  Call it a cool party trick. My grey matter houses a pretty impressive data bank.

I once heard the writer Margaret Laurence refer to this sort of thing as a fiction writer’s memory. I remember what people say in great detail.  I remember their accents and tone, the metaphors they use, and the subtle choices in vocabulary that convey their intentions.  I’ve got entire comedy routines stored between my ears, and if I hear a song a few times, I can usually recall the lyrics (my earworms are more like sea serpents).  I’m the one who remembers what someone said they wanted for their birthday six months ago, and the one who knows which line came from which movie.  I’m killer at trivia games, and I cleaned up at school because I could cough up a semester’s worth of lessons at exam time.  Pretty handy, eh?

Well, sort of.  Sometimes. Proust may have spent a chunk of his literary career digging through the past, and some therapists may place stock in being able to regress, but those of us with quick recall know that there are benefits to being able to forget.  Sometimes Teflon is preferable to fly paper.

For one thing, my mind is still a mind, and not a hard drive. If I’m tired, or busy, or stressed, there are hiccups in my memory, especially now that I’m not a kid anymore, and now that I’m a parent.  There are times when I too have brain farts, and I take them pretty hard.  It’s difficult for me to shrug off lost facts or missed deadlines.

Sometimes I think my tendency to interrupt, to ramble, and to stick my foot in my mouth is really a side effect of having a whole lot of what I’ve experienced backed up and ready to explode out of me.  There’s an awful lot of random data sitting around, waiting to be of use, and when it is, it’s very difficult for me to shut my mouth and wait my turn to speak.

My biggest complaint about having this sort of ability stems from what Spider Robinson saw as being a “melancholy elephant”.  When it comes to memories, I have a whole lot of awesome from which to draw.  I also have quick and direct access to the icky parts.  Every dumb thing I’ve ever done is floating around in there, closer to the surface than I would like. I tend to overthink things and proceed with caution because whatever happens, I know it’ll be crossing my mental desktop on a regular basis.  I’ve been lucky in that I don’t have a ton of regrets, but the ones I do have tend to stick around and needle me. The stupid things I’ve said,  the opportunities I wish I’d taken, the decisions I should have made…they come back to me way too easily.  It would be nice to be able to file things away and have them stay filed.

So what do you do if you’re a chronic rememberer like me?  You take the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” to heart.  You read good stuff, you watch good stuff, and you listen to good stuff. You hang out with people who do and say good stuff.  You travel and look for good stuff in the world. If my life is going to repeat on me, I want to make I consume as much good stuff as I can.  That’s not to say that I plug my ears and wait for everything to be sunshine and rainbows.  Good stuff is true stuff, useful stuff, meaningful stuff.   Luckily, and unlike the real Google, I get to choose what I’d like to stick.  I share, recognizing that there are lots of people who watch as their memories disappear in a puff of smoke.  At the end of the day, there’s a warm fuzziness to being able to say with certainty “I remember…”

 

Why Secret Identities Really Stink for Female Superheroes

It’s part and parcel of being a superhero, isn’t it?  You wear a costume, you fight bad guys, and at the end of the day, you deny you had any part in it.  Having an alter ego keeps the general public from placing constant demands on you.  If they can’t find you, they can’t ask you for stuff, and your services are reserved for instances in which they’re desperately needed. Being incognito keeps the scientific community from sticking you in a petri dish.  At the end of the day, superheroes are human, and human beings like to have some degree of normalcy in their lives.  They want to go on dates, pick up a pizza and take their cars for an oil change, all of which are difficult if everyone’s breathing down their necks.  For a lot of reasons, it kind of make sense to keep your “superness” on the down low.

For guy superheroes, the secret identity thing is no doubt a little frustrating.  Keeping up appearances can be exhausting, and never receiving proper thanks for your efforts must be annoying. For the gals, however, it just flat out sucks.

It’s been brought to our attention lately that there aren’t nearly as many superheroes with two x chromosomes.  Statistically speaking, they’re woefully outnumbered. The ones who do make it into the cannon on film and in print don’t make it into the action figure sets or onto t-shirts (at least not without a layer of pink and sequins to soften their impact).  There’s a big difference between not being readily visible and not existing at all, and female superheroes seem to get nudged into the second category.

Hiding because we’re afraid people will take advantage of us, as is sometimes the practice of superheroes, is also a dangerous habit for women.  Learning to say “Nope, do it yourself.  I’m busy” should be a priority. It should be right up there with “I don’t have to wear make-up to go get the mail” and “I don’t have to suck in my gut in photos.”  If female superheroes can’t put their foot down, then who can?

Superheroes in general are supposed to be role models, epitomizing the values we hold dear.  Keeping your mouth shut, pretending to be ordinary when you’re anything but seems like the wrong message to be sending to us mere mortals.  I’d be willing to bet that every single one of us female non-supers have bitten our tongue and not fessed up to being amazing at something because it wasn’t “ladylike” or it might make us stick out.

What would the world be like if Wonder Woman didn’t have to do that spin thing, Super Girl wasn’t constantly looking for phone booths, and Bat Girl wasn’t hanging out in someone’s basement? What if we all learned to wear our superpowers on the outside? Would our strengths be any less respected if they weren’t so carefully guarded? How many more female superheroes would be recognized if they weren’t operating under cloak of darkness? Geeze, what if being “super” didn’t require a disguise with a cape and tights in the first place?

Here’s to being openly, unabashedly awesome- out in the open.

Ex Nihilo, Let’s Go!

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“Try to think about absolutely nothing.  Go ahead, try it!”

It was my second year of university, and I was sitting in Ancient Greek philosophy class.  Our prof was covering Parmenides, and gave us this thought experiment to prove a point.  I remembered thinking, Aw, crap. Can’t do it. The point of the experiment was that no one can think of nothing (no double negatives intended here), but to a chronic over-doer like me, it was a snarky reminder from some long-dead dude in a toga.

I have always, and still do, have a hard time with nothing.  The fact that this particular lecture is so clear in my mind, even #@$% years later, suggests that it still smarts a little that I’m no good at it.

We’re fascinated with nothing.  The Italian phrase Dolce Far Niente means something like “the pleasure of doing nothing.” Shakespeare coughed up famous phrases like “Much ado about nothing” and “Sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  In the film Neverending Story, an evil force called The Nothing threatens to obliterate everything that exists.  There’s Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (not an easy weekend read, trust me). We whisper sweet nothings into our beloved’s ear.  We celebrate the fact that at some point in the history of mathematics, someone invented the zero. Parmenides may have been right in pointing out that it’s impossible to think about nothing, but when it comes to trying to get closer to it, do we crave it, or do we fear it?

I’ve been in parts of the world in which nothing is a more comfortable fit.  In Japan, we visited a temple that invited guests to walk around a pitch black path in the basement, guided only by a rope.  It was quiet and dark, and while walking, you could either savour nothing for a few precious minutes, or occupy yourself in wondering how far it was to the exit, and to daylight and the crowds outside.  Three guesses which category I fell into.

The first time my dearest and I visited Paris, we took a picture of our bare feet, submerged in the fountain in the Trocadero.  It had been a raging, busy year for us, and we enjoyed the novelty of sitting in cafes, without electronics, sipping tea and eating pastries.  We needed to document the fact that we’d dabbled in the Parisian version of nothing.  Our little piggies swimming in the fountain were the closest we’d been to nothing in a long time.

Blame it on rush-rush North American culture.  Blame it on the noisy, flashy, digital era in which we live.  Blame it on my waspy upbringing, which sees humans as being like sharks- likely to suffocate if we stop swimming.  Blame it on the swarm of jacked-up hummingbirds that live in my skull.  Whatever.  I still suck at nothing.

But I’m trying to get better at it.

Because when I lie down and stare at the ceiling, and then realize that half an hour has passed, it’s good.  Because looking at the calendar and finding it empty for the day is good.  Because a blank page can be as intriguing as it is scary.  Because, despite thousands of years of arguments to the contrary, quite often, from nothing comes some very interesting and important something.

Maybe Parmenides should have spent more time staring at his feet in a fountain.

I wish you all a whole lot of nothing.