Philosophers Can Be Fun(ny), Too!*

Tonight I finished reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and yes, it’s worth your time to read it. Especially if you are a woman. Especially if you have other work you should be doing. Especially if you are depressed. Especially if you have to eat some food tomorrow.  Because it’s not only very funny, but also very inspiring.

Before I had even finished the book I wanted to write a post about the little insert on pages 84-85 entitled, “The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.” I used to know these rules thanks to my brief stint with improv during high school when I was part of the theater freaks clique (yes, I used to call us that because theater people are weird, eclectic, and very often queer and those are all reasons for why they should be loved even more), but I was so happy to be reminded of them again because, as Tina notes, these are some good rules for life. They are:

1) Agree and Say “Yes”, which means that you should respect what the other person has created and start with an open mind about where your scene will go.
2) Say “Yes, and…”, which means that after agreeing you are to add something of your own. Don’t be afraid to initiate and make your own contributions. They are worthwhile and will help keep things moving.
3) Make Statements, which means don’t just ask questions about the scene, thereby putting extra pressure on the other person. Instead of simply raising questions and pointing out obstacles, be part of the solution.
4) There Are No Mistakes, only opportunities. Obviously, this means that what might be feared as a mistake could actually present the best opportunity for something really original, creative, and new. A happy accident. A new discovery, and something that could turn out to be really, really good.

If you stopped reading right now, I won’t be hurt because if everyone lived by The Rules of Improv alone, the world would probably be a much better place. I envision a world with lots more collaboration and experimentation where statements that something is “random” or “awkward” would actually carry meaning again. (You should still buy the book though.)

If you are still reading because you are curious about what I finally decided to write upon finishing the book, well first, thank you for your perseverance. Second, I want to write about writing, philosophy, and how I wish I could be more funny like my friends. I’ll start with the last one.

I have loads of funny friends. The handful of people from my high school theater clique with whom I am still in touch have, like me, gone to college and earned their degrees. Unlike me, they continued doing improv and sketch comedy over the past number of years, moved to big cities like Chicago and LA, and are really just a few laughs from the right people away from making it big time and living the dream. As a result of all that improvising, their levels of comedic timing and originality have undoubtedly exponentially eclipsed my own. (If you haven’t heard of the Luke, Lee, and Matt Barats then I assure you that someday you will. And that someday is today, because now I expect for you to look up their respective stuff on YouTube.) Where they are acting and performing for live audiences multiple times a week, I have spent the years since high school graduation attending bigger and bigger universities while living in smaller and smaller towns, all the while reading dense (and mostly incredibly boring) philosophical texts from old men of centuries past. The only outlet for my humor is in poorly referenced jokes while teaching when I forget that my students are of the generation that was born in the early nineties, so they hardly know who Mel Gibson is or that “Willow” was actually a really scary movie. It makes me feel old and completely out of touch.

Over the years, while I have accumulated an ever-increasing library of books by dead people on things like death (so not funny…unless you pick any random page of Heidegger’s Being and Time to read aloud and give a little chuckle at how utterly and ridiculously difficult it is to understand his writing (perhaps only philosophers will understand that reference, and perhaps that was actually Heidegger playing a joke on us that we’re all just too dumb/take ourselves too seriously to get)), I have been fortunate enough to continue meeting more funny people. One of my friends is a super hip-artsy-cool lady who’s rubbed elbows with the Groundlings peeps (think the cast of Bridesmaids if you are unfamiliar), who is now utilizing her openness for play in psychotherapy for kids. One of my other best friends’ first response to the question, “What is the most important thing to you that you must share in common with your partner?” was that they needed to be able to play together, to act silly, to talk to one another in ridiculous voices. When I first met her, I walked into the living room of her one-bedroom apartment to find her making a fort while listening to The Sound of Music. Maybe that’s not funny ha-ha, but it is fun-fun-fun-fun, especially for someone who at the time was twenty-four and a doctoral student.

She was also wearing this.

And finally, I tend to date really funny people. My boyfriend, who happens to also have some pretty hilarious friends, was singing Tenacious D’s “F*** Her Gently” like a professional to a whole bar the night that we met. During our first real conversation with one another, we discovered that he was already familiar with some of my previously mentioned friends’ videos on YouTube. I’m not surprised by this at all now given that he checks up on Collegehumor.com in the morning like it’s the source for daily funny news, has introduced me to videos of  amazingly hilarious sketch comedy duos, would love to make a career out of doing his own sketch comedy if his band doesn’t hit it big and he decides to not dig in people’s mouths for money (I mean, he wants be a dentist, not that he doesn’t know that picking pockets would be more lucrative), and he makes me laugh all of the time.

There are other funny people in my life, but I’ll stop describing them here so that I don’t make myself feel any worse about my decisions to become a perpetual academic nerd who hasn’t had time to watch Billy Madison or Anchorman enough to laugh when my boyfriend quotes them or to know from experience that Modern Family is actually a really quality television show (I fake the latter when my grandmother talks to me about how great the show is, and when the former happens, I’m usually just met with countenances of subtle disappointment, mostly from myself to myself.) But before this turns into a pity party, let me quickly turn to the other two things I said I would talk about: writing and philosophy.

The short of what I am about to say in everything that follows is this: Perhaps it is the case that philosophy doesn’t have to be boring and writing philosophy doesn’t have to dry/tedious/painful/anxiety-producing, but perhaps reading philosophy, writing philosophy, and teaching philosophy can be fun….or even FUNNY.

Just because philosophy tends to be very “intellectual” doesn’t mean that it’s somehow above comedy–trust me, all of funny friends are as equally smart as they are hilarious. Nor is it the case that comedy can’t address really important social and political issues–think of all the comedians who have been able to see the really effed up shiz in society and then make other people see it by getting them to first laugh at it (Two relevant examples most people recognize: Jon Stewart, whom I love, and his satirical counter-part, Stephen Colbert, whose early days on the Report proved how scary it is when Americans are unable to tell the difference between satire and right-wing neoconservativism. And don’t forget my feminist, anti-racist, queer-mingling, even-less-bourgie-than-Fergie inspiration, Tina Fey. That’s really why you should buy and read her book). Without saying that philosophy is not seriously valuable for personal and social change, perhaps there lacks an easily-identified or readily-produced overlap between philosophy and humor because philosophers often take themselves and what they do too seriously.

Fortunately, I can think of two exceptions, and they are not new names to appear on my blog. The first time I ever heard Charles Mills speak about his book, The Racial Contract (an extremely important book about very serious matters, mind you), he opened with a little routine about how, thanks to an epistemology of ignorance about the workings of global White Supremacy, one might be led to think that Africans, Native Americans, and everyone else in the world said, “Oh hello, White People! We are so happy to see you!” and then offered up their labor, their land, and everything else they had, like freedom and a quality of life, as a welcoming gift. Charles then noted how philosophy could perhaps be done a lot more like stand-up. I think that is a really good thought. If you’ve never been to a philosophy conference or heard someone give a philosophy talk (which actually means they just read aloud the paper they wrote in front of you for AN HOUR), then trust me on this. You would most definitely want it to be more like stand-up. I heard Charles give the same presentation about six months later. He opened with the same joke. It was still funny and his presentation was still a pleasure. And, truthfully, there are very few philosophy talks that I would actually enjoy sitting through a second time.

The other funny philosopher who comes to mind is Ladelle McWhorter. Del is a philosophical role-model and inspiration to me in many, many ways (look around this blog and you will find her name everywhere), but one way that she inspires which I have not mentioned before is in how she writes her books. Like Charles, she’s easy to listen to when she gives a paper, but like hardly anyone else, reading her writing is challenging, thought-provoking, inspiring, intensely philosophical, and really, really funny. Probably thanks to her Southern upbringing, Del can tell a great story. But it probably comes down to the simple combination of her terrific wit, honesty, and an unmatched willingness to speak in her own voice that makes Del’s work so damn funny and fun to read. There are times when her sarcasm drips off of the page, and if one is diligent enough to check her footnotes, one quickly learns that footnotes can be so much more than places to put bibliographic references and self-indulgent digressions. They can turn reading philosophy into an activity that’s more like a conversation with a really smart, but really weird friend. The kind of friend who throws strange tidbits of information in a story that aren’t really necessary but that actually make the conversation way more interesting.

Charles and Del are two contemporary philosophers who make me laugh, and they are two who have been absolutely integral to my own ways of thinking about very important philosophical and political issues like racism and homophobia. And my man Nietzsche, well, he may have been really depressed and lonely, but he was also a syphilitic genius, and all of that together makes Ecce Homo a super entertaining read. Not just that, it’s also the book where Nietzsche sheds the most clarifying light on what he was up to in all of his previous works. And one thing that is often mentioned about my other philosophical homeboy, Foucault, is that he would laugh in response to a lot of questions people would ask him about his work and what we should do. He read Nietzsche. I read them both. And I think there’s a reason for my affinity towards them because, while I would never feel comfortable saying that I am the funniest person in the room, especially not when I’m with my friends and perhaps only if I’m the only one in the room, I would pretty comfortably guess that I might be the one who laughs the hardest, the loudest, and the most.

Why is that important?

Well, to show you how redundantly unoriginal I am (because I’ve already blogged about this a number of times before), Lynne Huffer writes, “As Nietzsche affirms, ‘there seems to be nothing more worth taking seriously’ than morality, a territory whose excavation will render the future rewards ‘of a long, brave, industrious, and subterranean seriousness.’ Among those rewards will be what Nietzsche names as cheerfulness. Such hope in cheerfulness is something Foucault and Nietzsche shared, as Deleuze reminds us in his description of Foucault’s inimitable laughter. So perhaps the quintessentially Foucauldian cheerfulness of a self-shattering, life-affirming laughter will be the reward of a practice of thinking Nietzsche calls, in his own queer language, ‘a gay science'” (Mad for Foucault, 186).

It’s probably a consequence of being personally and philosophically influenced by the personalities and works of Charles Mills, Ladelle McWhorter, Nietzsche, and Foucault (not to mention all of my hysterical, non-philosopher friends), that I feel strangely comfortable with what some people have noted as my very “casual” style–which perhaps is a more polite way of noting that I have insisted on doing things (teaching/writing/philosophy in general) how I want to do them simply because I want to do them that way, regardless of how other people say one should do it. (There are other ways that people have described this attitude; put in terms of non-verbal communication, I think it involves thumbs or at least one finger.) Really, though, it’s simply that I try to not take myself and academic philosophy too seriously, which again, doesn’t mean that I don’t think that academic philosophy can’t do very important and meaningful work. I just mean that I think it’s okay to have fun and enjoy it, too, and it may even be that doing so makes our philosophy better.

When I teach, I often….I mean, on a daily basis, I say really outrageous things to my students. In class, they laugh, I laugh, we laugh, and quite a lot actually (no, not all of my jokes are about Willow, and yes, sometimes I can craft a pretty witty little quip). I think that my approach to philosophy and my personal style helps make class fun, exciting, and engaging. I enjoy teaching, and I think that my students often enjoy learning about and doing philosophy with me. So I may not be doing improv in Chicago with the best of them, and I will probably never get to realize my childhood dream of being on Saturday Night Live, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t also have plenty of opportunities all of the time to practice being a funnier person. My students might not appreciate being the guinea pigs of my slow comedic development, but somebody else down the road might really appreciate that he or she didn’t have to be the one to grimace and shake her or his head at all of my bad jokes. Sorry, reader, you’re still a part of the grimace and shake-head audience of the  present.

I know, I still haven’t gotten to the bit on my own writing yet.

If it isn’t obvious by now, and I think it really ought to be, I am seriously considering the possibilities for how to write philosophy in a way that mimics how I teach philosophy. I’ve noted before that I can write on this blog in one sitting for hours on end without hitting the walls of my writer’s block, and that maybe I could just write my dissertation in pieces on here (kind of like what started to happen with this post). But I was probably putting too much emphasis on the formatting differences between the encouraginly small-ish text box that I see when posting here on my blog and the blank Word document that spans the monitor screen when I sit to write my “real” work. Maybe it’s less a matter of what medium invites my writing and more a matter of how I write at all.

When I teach my class, I’m totally myself. I’m a whole person and I let my students see that. I’m honest, I make mistakes, and actually, my best classes are often when I don’t prepare lectures but instead improvise to facilitate discussions after my students give their presentations. When I write, though, I often feel restricted by what is “appropriate” in terms of structure, voice, style, and language. I usually feel disconnected from my academic papers when I go back and read them again months later. They hardly ever sound like me (and yeah, I even think that they can be pretty boring).

So here I sit, having read Tina Fey tonight and not enough on theories of affect, having written almost 3,000 words in one sitting and hardly any at all in the past week and a half on my (still not enough to even be called a sufficient rough draft of a) dissertation prospectus, but also feeling really inspired and excited about philosophy. What’s a girl like me to do, huh?

*In case you didn’t know, the use of parenthesis to create a play on words and meanings in the title or body of a philosophical piece is now commonly employed and widely considered a mark of one’s complexity of thought, of one’s affiliation with the traditions of post-structuralism or feminist theory, or simply as evidence of one’s desperate desire to prove that she can be clever, too, just as clever as her non-philosopher friends.

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2 thoughts on “Philosophers Can Be Fun(ny), Too!*

  1. There's the goal: being able to communicate a complex thought in a laid-back, conversational way. Preferably without the aid of narcotics. This blog's a good medium. Nice post.

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