The Jester: On the Kinship between Philosophy and Comedy
There is a tight kinship between comedy and philosophy. When they operate at the highest level, they are both critical, destabilizing activities that seek to speak the truth that lies hidden in the falsehood of received opinion, to breathe fresh air into the mold of traditional practices, and to find some living marrow in the bones of ossified institutions. In fact, the comedy club is one of the cultural places where the spirit of philosophy is most alive today — perhaps more alive than in the universities. This is unsurprising. After all, the comedian and the philosopher are engaged in essentially the same pursuit. One does it in jest. The other does it in earnest. Both do it reflectively and playfully. And yet, there must be something that distinguishes the comedian from the philosopher. They are kindred spirits, to be sure, but their kinship should not be pushed to the point of identity — after all, for two things to be alike, they must be two and not one. Supposing that I am correct to claim that they are devoted to the same sort of activity (at least at the highest levels), what exactly distinguishes them?
One suggestion, already voiced above, is that the difference does not lie in what they do but in how they do it: one doing it seriously, the other in jest. But this hypothesis, although suggestive, is not entirely correct. After all, if it is just a matter of changing one’s attitude, then a philosopher can become a comedian (or vice versa) by means of a unilateral decision. All it takes is a minor adjustment in one’s bearing: from earnest to irreverent (or vice versa). But this would seem to give the philosopher/jester too much decisional power over which side of the dichotomy he falls on — more power than he actually has.
In real life, whether one is a philosopher or a comedian is the kind of thing that is, at least partly, determined externally. It is not a simple matter of wishing to be something and immediately becoming it just by changing one’s stance. Whether one’s wish becomes a reality depends on factors that are beyond one’s control. Many philosophers try to be funny and fail — just go to a philosophy conference and get a taste of the “jokes” told there. Many comedians try to be philosophical and fail — as we can see from the current, highly politicized, overly earnest brand of “comedy,” where causes are defended at the expense of laughter (and truth), where the audience is made to sit through moralistic sermons about what is “acceptable” under the new ethics of political correctness, where what is supposed to be transgressive thinking is invaded by the easy slogans of the day. In short, whether one is a philosopher or a comedian does not seem to be a simple matter of adjusting one’s subjective attitude.
Our original hypothesis, as stated, is incorrect. The distinction is to be found elsewhere — in something that escapes the control of the philosopher/jester and decides for him on which side of the divide he falls, sometimes even in spite of himself. It is our purpose here to find what this “something else” is. Maybe it will be helpful at this stage to descend from abstraction to a more concrete level of reflection — indeed, to the most concrete level possible: an individual.
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One of the great jesters of our time is the British comedian Ricky Gervais. If you have any doubts about this statement, just watch his hosting of the Golden Globes (available on YouTube). There he performs the function of a jester with absolute mastery. What is that function? Primarily, to speak the unspeakable truth about a powerful person (say, the king), group of people (say, the nobility), or institution (say, the Church) to the face of said person, group, or institution — to everyone’s amusement (including to the amusement of the target). And what is this unspeakable truth that the jester gives voice to? Well, there are many variations, depending on the case, but in essence all jesters say the same thing: the emperor has no clothes!
This Ricky Gervais did beautifully. He stood before a bunch of privileged celebrities (the nobility of our time) and said what everyone knows but is afraid to say. He said it. To their faces. Laughing all the while. He not only targeted those in the audience (some of whom had to speak on stage after being submitted to his unforgiving gibes); he also targeted his own employer (the Hollywood Foreign Press Association), the station broadcasting the ceremony (NBC), and the Golden Globe itself as an award. The closest parallel I can think of is Aristophanes (the original jester) mercilessly berating the Athenians for their love of demagogues (Knights), their litigious spirit (Wasps), and their taste for war (the Acharnians, Peace, and Lysistrata).
Only the video clips can do justice to Ricky Gervais’ performance, but here is a sample:
– Jennifer Lawrence made the news when she demanded equal pay for women in Hollywood. And she received overwhelming support from people everywhere. [Claps of approval.] There were marches on the street with nurses and factory workers saying, “How the hell can a 25-year-old live on $52 million? [Laughter]
– It’s an honor to be here in a room of what I consider to be the most important people on the planet: actors. [Laughter] They’re just better than ordinary people, aren’t they? [Laughter]
– The excellent Spotlight has been nominated. The Catholic Church is furious about the film as it exposes the fact that 5% of all their priests have repeatedly molested children and have been allowed to continue to work without punishment. Roman Polanski called it the best date movie ever. [Laughter]
– If you do win tonight, remember that no one cares about that award as much as you do, okay? [Laughter] Don’t get emotional — it’s embarrassing. [Laughter] That award is — no offense — worthless. [Laughter] It’s a bit of metal that some nice old confused journalists wanted to give you in person so they could meet you and have a selfie with you. [Laughter] That’s all it is. I’ve got three Golden Globes myself. One’s a doorstop, one I use to hit burglars with, and one I keep by the bed to — doesn’t matter why. It’s mine! I won it fair and square. It’s just the right shape and size. [Laughter]
– For any of you who don’t know, the Golden Globes are just like the Oscars, but without all that — esteem. [Laughter] The Golden Globes are to the Oscars what Kim Kardashian is to Kate Middleton. [Laughter] A bit louder, a bit trashier, a bit drunker, and more easily bought. [Laughter]
It goes on and on like that, one after the other: the highest level of comedy, sometimes verging on becoming a philosophical reflection. How so? Ricky Gervais’ performance does in the field of comedy what John Cage’s 4’ 33” does in the field of music or what Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal does in the field of plastic arts. In each case, the work pushes the medium beyond its boundaries and into the realm of reflective thought. Cage’s piece, for example, raises questions about the nature of music itself, about the role of social expectations in distinguishing music from sound, about the role of order and chance in music, etc. Although these questions are raised within the medium of music, they can be fully explored and developed only philosophically, by means of an explicit conceptual analysis. Cage’s piece, then, is music trying to transcend itself, trying to become something else: philosophy. The same is true of Gervais’ performance. Within the medium of comedy, Gervais raises questions (about the politics of celebrity, about the nature of comedy itself, etc.) that push the limits of the medium towards the terrain of philosophy proper. This essay attempts to explore conceptually some of the ideas that are contained comedically in his performance — specifically, the question of the role of criticism in comedy, to which question we now turn.
In light of the above quotes, you may ask yourself why the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Golden Globes, and the celebrities put up with all Ricky Gervais’ antics. It would be one thing if they were caught unawares and were, therefore, unsure of how to react (so they just sat there and took it). But they knew exactly what they were getting into. His brand of humor was well known to all. Besides, they actually invited him back four times — for a total of five appearances (this little detail is telling and sounds the first note of the theme that will be developed below). Why did they invite him back? Why did they willingly put up with being exposed and relentlessly criticized? Why did they hire someone to explode their false self-image in their faces, for everyone to see, again and again?
Here is where we get to the heart of the matter. On the surface, the jester is undermining the powers that be by means of his act. His loose tongue knows no bounds. His biting wit is cutting, his humor unforgiving. He says things to the king that the servants would be afraid to think, let alone speak. Yet it is the king who hires him. What does that tell us? If the king is the one who allows the jester to speak, that means that the king is so powerful (and so secure in his power) that he can afford to be publicly criticized and made fun of. The jester’s act — however transgressive it may look, however much it may seem to challenge the king’s power — is actually an expression of that power. The king looks condescendingly on the jester from his privileged position because he knows the jester cannot touch him. If anything, the jester solidifies the king’s power by working for the king as a sort of pressure valve. The king wants some of the discontent of the people to be expressed openly, releasing built-up tension and ensuring that said discontent will not burst in actions that could really undermine his position. The jester is his means of doing that. So, His Majesty allows himself to be ridiculed, challenged, and even humiliated before the subjects. This is by design (even when done unconsciously). The king laughs all the while: the laughter of those who can laugh at themselves without losing one bit of their power, that laughter that is nothing but an expression of said power. When we, the public, laugh at the king, our laughter is also an expression of his power. He wants us to laugh so as not to act. It is, then, his laughter grafted onto our faces. When we laugh at the king, it is actually the king laughing at us.
None of this is to say, of course, that the jester is consciously complicit in the machinations of the king — sometimes not even the monarch himself is so complicitous. From the point of view of the jester, he is in fact undermining certain power structures by means of his humor (and indeed he is — at least locally, if we narrow our perspective enough). Sure, he knows that what he says is taken in jest, but at bottom there is something of the activist in him. The truth he speaks is meant to penetrate a morally dubious power structure insidiously and make it gradually more porous, more likely to collapse. But the fact that his activity is taken all in good fun only shows that the power structure can take it, that it is happy to take it, that it submits itself to the jester’s shenanigans voluntarily.
The jester is noble in his pursuit, but his target always has a leg up on him. That is what happened at the Golden Globes: Ricky Gervais gave Hollywood his middle finger, but Hollywood co-opted his act for its purposes — after all, it was using his abuse of itself in order to make money, to get high ratings, to let plebeians like you and me have their little moment of vengeance on these self-indulgent, self-congratulatory award shows (a good strategy for getting us to watch what we claim to despise). King Hollywood incorporated all of Ricky Gervais’ critical moves in a higher structure, in almost Hegelian fashion: what appeared to be a negation of Hollywood values and practices was made into an affirmation of them. And King Hollywood was laughing all the while, as kings do. Ricky Gervais was a superb jester (he always is), but he failed (not that he was consciously trying) to make the leap into philosophy. Why? Because Hollywood laughed, because he was funny.
But what happens when the jester actually threatens the established power, when this power is fragile enough that the jester’s witticisms touch it to the quick, when the jester is taken seriously? Socrates happens. The hemlock happens. The philosopher is the jester who does not produce laughter.
In the earth-shattering clash between Socrates and Athens, we have nothing but a jester whose critique stopped being funny to the audience it was aimed at. Athens humored Socrates at first, but that jester kept pushing it. He became more and more relentless. Athens tried to take it all in stride. They smiled at that odd man for years. It was so easy to laugh him off in the good old days, as he was laughed off by generals, sophists, and other luminaries. But there is a limit to everything — even humor. As Athens’ smile started to wane from its face, Socrates’ child-like investigations began to be considered more and more like a moral crusade. By the time of the trial, Athens saw his activity in a new light: he was rubbing the citizens’ nose in their own filth, exposing their arrogant ineptitude, their self-satisfied vices — to the point of compromising the morale of an already demoralized (having recently lost a drawn-out war) people.
However powerful Athens was compared to most other Greek city-states, it was still a fragile community with a host of existential challenges: a war, a plague, faction, corruption, moral and religious decadence, etc. So, the clever gadfly who simply wanted to rouse that noble and sluggish horse of a city back into life with his lighthearted, light-footed, light-producing pricks was properly, from the point of view of the horse, swatted. And that is the jester who becomes a philosopher. The audience is responsible for the transition, not he. It happens the minute they grow serious. There is true danger when laughter stops. (This should give Ricky Gervais some pause, for his last appearance was taken considerably more seriously than the previous ones, as evidenced by the uncomfortable expressions in the crowd and the editorials objecting to his monologue.)
So, what does this analysis mean for those of us who practice philosophy? It means that we must be always vigilant, always on the lookout, always careful that we do not become jesters in spite of ourselves. Look at the current modes of philosophical practice: from being a philosophy professor to being a political commentator, cultural critic, writer, think-tank hireling, or what have you. They are all susceptible to “producing laughter,” to being humored by a condescending audience that ultimately has nothing to fear from them. But philosophy always involves some risk. The philosopher’s reflection is done in the face of danger, before an audience that is hit with the full force of the thought and is, therefore, unable to laugh it off. As practitioners of this ancient pursuit, we must remember that. We must jest in seriousness and not philosophize in jest (as we often do), for the jester who is taken seriously is a philosopher, just as the philosopher who is humored is a jester.