I’ve been thinking about intersections between comedy and philosophy for some time. I plan to post a recurring, if perhaps disjointed, series of reflections on such intersections here.
Recently, I heard one of my favorite comics make what I think is a brilliant point about the kind of comedy that stands the test of time. (I hesitate to link the podcast since it sometimes veers into vulgarity.) In short, his point is that political humor (and more generally, topical humor) has the shortest shelf-life of all jokes. Why? It is so contextually specific that within a short amount of time, it becomes incomprehensible or at least uninteresting. Anyone up for a Spiro Agnew joke? On the other hand, jokes about generic and lasting features of the human condition have a better chance of standing the test of time. While political cartoons or humor from the 1920’s are distant from our own sensibilities, it’s easy to smile while watching Buster Keaton’s physical comedy because we all confront physical awkwardness at some level and can relate to it.
So what’s the connection with Indian philosophy, then? Well, most of us studying it in the modern academy are on some level, comparativists. Whether explicitly or not, our training typically involves some level of comparing, contrasting, and general connection-making between our Indian thinkers and the leading figures in the west. See this post for one influential strategy in this regard. But I think that there is a similar concern of which we should be aware.
While it is certainly important to make connections that allow for reciprocal illumination and help us notice dialectical resonances which facilitate deeper understanding, if we make such connections too strong, tethering our classical thinkers to fleeting, if temporarily important western thinkers or ideas, we run the risk of putting them in a box and dating them. The whole reason that we continue to study our classical thinkers is that their work is worthy of attention, year after year and century after century. To box them in is to undermine this.
We’ve all probably read some of the early 20th century dissertations that are made into books by some leading Indian publishers. I tend to skim over the comparative elements when they focus on thinkers who may have been in the news back then but are frankly off of my own radar, and I then focus on the straight focused discussion of the Indian thinkers.
So, have I merely gotten lost in a vortex of YouTube discussions of comedy, or is there something to this concern?
And while on subject, perhaps we can lament the loss of my (at least) favorite American Buddhist comedian.