Philosophy and comedy—they are much more similar than one would think. Philosophy studies the “essence” of things. It tells us the fundamental nature of outwardly unexplainable concepts, such as reality, existence, reason, and human values. Many philosophers from the past strived to make sense of the complex mess that is humanity. What not only makes us human, but also unique, is our awareness of the vast and confounding universe around us. Everyone has had an existential crisis. We’ve all joked that life is “meaningless.” We’ve all acknowledged the inarguable absurdity that is human existence. In short, we’ve all pondered over some philosophical questions. We may have not gone into as much depth as scholarly philosophers such as Aristotle, Friedrich Nietzsche, or Albert Camus, but these questions have, without a doubt, crossed our minds throughout our own tumultuous existences.
Unfortunately, the study of philosophy has died down in recent years. Being a philosophy major isn’t exactly a popular choice, and those who are, aren’t exactly receiving a downpour of job opportunities. As society has changed, its means of asking these philosophical questions has changed as well. Our modern day philosophers don’t sit at their desks slaving over manuscripts, or speaking at the front of lecture halls anymore. Our philosophers take on a much different form—a more casual, comical one.
I love philosophy, but I also love comedy. I’ve been watching stand-up specials, comedy movies, and YouTube comedians for years. However, it was only recently (once I came to college) that I’ve dipped my toe into the world of academic philosophy. Immediately, I noticed the parallels between the philosophical texts from decades and centuries ago that I’ve been reading, and the words of the comedians I listen to today.
One comedian who is most notable for his nihilistic musings, is Louis C.K.. Louis is, to put it mildly, a genius. He says anything and everything. He tackles the ugly and the dirty. Louis is unafraid of pointing out things we all think—no matter how brutal they may be to face head-on. He expresses complex human thoughts, emotions and issues, and presents them to us with a comedic twist. This is a modern form of philosophy.
In 2013, Louis was interviewed by Conan O'Brien. In the interview, Louis talks about the toxicity of our technology, such as our cellphones. He says we now use technology as a distraction from our own gloomy thoughts, “The thing is, you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away.”
He then goes on to say, “underneath everything, there’s that thing. That empty, forever-empty…that knowledge that it’s all for nothing, and you’re alone.”
In philosophy, what Louis is describing would be called, “the absurd.” The absurd, in Albert Camus’s philosophy "Absurdism" is the conflict we, as humans, face when trying to find meaning in a world that is inherently meaningless. When one is faced with “the absurd,” it means facing the fact that as humans, we are alone in the universe, and that we do not have an inherent purpose for our existences. I could go on and on about Camus’s philosophy, but I’ll stop there. I highly suggest reading "The Myth of the Sisyphus."
Here, Louis is taking on a “serious” philosophical issue and he’s expressing it to the public in a humorous, lighthearted way. As Louis describes this “empty, forever-empty” feeling, the crowd watching his interview laughs uproariously, because they understand what he’s saying. They agree with him. They can relate to the feelings he is defining. He is describing a common, human insight. This is exactly what philosophy seeks to do.
Louis goes on to say that whenever humans are confronted with this feeling of emptiness, we suppress it. We refuse to acknowledge the sadness, the hollowness. Instead, we distract ourselves. We pick up our cellphones whenever we’re not in motion, we turn on the TV if the room is silent, we text every random person we know to make plans if we’re alone on a Friday night. We cannot face the absurdity of our existence.
Louis says, like any philosopher would, to reject this feeling. Do not reach for the phone. Do not deny your true nature. Let the sadness “hit you like a truck” and face the absurd head on. Only then, just as philosophers like Camus and Nietzsche have said in the past, will we feel true and profound happiness.
Louis covered such a complex issue that philosophers of the past have written entire books on, in a nine minute interview. Most people write-off comedy as something silly. To be comedic means to be unserious, and if one is unserious, their words are unimportant. However, comedians like Louis are using the art form of comedy as a means of expressing very thoughtful issues. Even his TV show, Louie (which is amazing), is dripping with all sorts of philosophical questions and concepts.
Comedy is a new, fresh platform for the modern philosopher to stand on. Stand-up comedy is a form of social commentary. It is the perfect way to reach a wide array of people, and to explain serious topics to them in a hilarious and entertaining way. Just look at "The Daily Show"—why do you think that’s such a hit? Next time you watch a Netflix stand-up special, look for some classic themes from philosophy. You can learn more than you’d think from a dirty joke.