This question came up in one podcast where a couple of stand-up comedians join forces with a philosopher to discuss various topics. The idea was to determine whether a comic can be considered a philosopher who draws public attention to seemingly obvious everyday experiences (hence, the street epithet) and challenges our common assumptions in an easy-to-understand sort of way.
The discussion that followed was fascinating. It centred around core values that define the nature of each pursuit. This thought has a much deeper significance than might appear at first glance.
For example, how would you respond if someone asked you who you are? Depending on our cultural background, some might begin with their social roles (a mother, a father etc.), and others could start with their professional roles (an artist, an entrepreneur etc.).
However, if your interviewer pressed further and asked – well, that is what you do, but who you are as a person, what defines you – what would your answer be?
From experience, I would talk about my intrinsic values, those that characterize me as a person, not a performer of this or that social or professional role. They are the sort of values I wouldn’t know how to explain further except by saying that’s just who I am.
Back in my podcast story, the resident philosopher offered his thoughts on whether stand-up comedians are street philosophers by immediately digging down to the essential values of each pursuit.
You can do philosophy differently and focus on broader or narrower questions. But if all your various actions are not moved and motivated by the value of attaining knowledge and understanding for their own sake, you are not doing philosophy. When I learn to use a hammer, I do not pursue this knowledge for its own sake. It has an instrumental value for me, a means to an end.
What about stand-up comedy, then? At this point, the discussion became even more engaging. While the philosopher proposed that the defining value of comedy is joy, entertainment, and to make people laugh, one of the comics objected.
It is, of course, a necessary condition of comedy that it should make people laugh. If it isn’t funny, it isn’t comedy. But, for him, this is not enough. We could say that being funny is a necessary but insufficient condition of stand-up comedy.
He felt that what defines a stand-up comedian, as opposed to someone who simply tells jokes, is the effort to provoke thought, draw attention to aspects of a daily routine of human life and challenge the audience to reflect. And, of course, to do all this in a light, enjoyable, and funny manner.
If our core values are what defines us as persons and our pursuits, then some stand-up comedians can be a lot more philosophical than some philosophers manage to be.
Image credit: photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash