The philosophy in stand up comedy

Why stand up comedians are today’s version of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

I have been enthralled by stand up comedy ever since I saw Alonzo Boden perform  on Last Comic Standing back in 2004. Every week he would show up on stage with a brand new, 5 minute set that contained hilarious observations of events from earlier that week. It amazed me how he could take an something that just happened a couple of days ago and explain it in a way that I had never thought about it before.

By the end of that year, 16 year old me had developed a 15 minute stand-up set that I would have performed if I knew where a comedy club was. Most of it was bad, but one of the bits I had about Joseph the “father” of Jesus WILL be used for a future blog post. Watching Alonzo get runner up on Last Comic Standing, along with me discovering Second City that spring, changed the way I saw comedy. For the first time, comedy wasn’t just the dumb antics of a class clown. It became a tool for you to comment on the world around you.

Definition

My personal definition of comedy is looking at something you understand from a slightly different perspective. When someone on trips and falls, it’s funny because we all understand how and why it happened but are removed from the pain and embarrassment. We are amused at all the factors that lined up to create that moment. Elevating it up to a bigger level, parody movies like Scary Movie or Spaceballs are funny because it deconstructs and shows the faults and patterns in whatever it is trying to spoof. The parody wouldn’t work unless the writers and the audience are legit fans of the original product to begin with. Great comedy takes concepts we all know and presents it in a new, ironic light

But what happens when you can’t choose your audience. What happens when there is nothing to connect your audience other than the fact that they are in the same place as you at the same time.  This brings us to stand-up comedians and why they are so talented.

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What makes the art of stand up so amazing is that you must find a different connection with a different audience, live, each and every night. The class clown’s job is relatively easy because he or she knows their audience pretty well. A seasoned stand-up comedian needs to have material that works in New York, Georgia and California all at the same time. The need to have your material work across the cultural spectrum of this nation means that you need to be a master at breaking down whatever you’re talking about to its most human, relatable core.

This isn’t a task for an average mind. Being a great stand-up comic requires you to understand how the world works, understand the social/political/emotional/cultural triggers behind what’s going on in the world and then understanding how to repackage that information in a way that is non-threatening to your audience’s worldview. If you look at some of the most famous stand-up comedians of all time, you see this advanced understanding of the world throughout their act. While Katt Williams relies heavily on his “pimp” persona to get laughs, my favorite bit of his involves his frustration as a kid learning about the silent letter.

While there are many stand-up that can do this, in my opinion the top tier of comedy is reserved for the people who can not only hold a mirror up to society, but can also derive moral conclusions form it. Look a Chris Rock talk about what men and women desire for life. Look at how George Carlin uses descriptions of baseball and football to describe the hopefulness of 19th century thinking and the war-like intensity of the 20th century experience. In a very divided world, comedy is one of the few places that can bring us all together without the judging each other. Through comedy, we are most easily able to push conversations forward to place we might not have gone before. Something can’t be that bad if you’re laughing at it, right?

This idea plays itself out when you look at some of the most culturally important TV shows of the last 25 years. Shows like SNL, Cosby Show, Chappelle Show and Ellen all have heavily relied on stand-up comedians to define their voice. Shows like these serve as our introduction into talking about the tough issues in our society. And don’t think that stand ups’ influence stops on TV. Stand up comics like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Judd Appitow defined genres of movies based on their ability to make us laugh and feel other emotions in a variety of mediums.

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From Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to Kant, Mill and Nietzsche, philosophers have attempted to understand both the world around and within us. While there are many academics who publicly wrestle with philosophical questions today, I think that the most popular and purest form of social philosophy comes from those on the stand up stage. The social-emotional analytical skills that are learned being funny on the microphone are now being used to define how we see the world.

One of the most popular books of the last couple of year was Modern Romance that was co-written by Aziz Anzari. It was one of the most popular dissections of how technology affects interpersonal relationships today. Now look at the comedy Aziz produced while writing his book. His specials Dangerously Delicous and Live at Madison Square Garden covers a the span of relationships topics form: the fear of spending the rest of your life with one person to being what’s the nicest way to decline a date.

Look at how we consume or news. Stand up Jon Stewart turned the Daily Show from a standard late night comedy about entertainment to the most trusted news source for the left-leaning half the country.  And his example of making late a place for analysis of world events, rather than just a talk show for entertainers, is now the new standard. This is reflected in the current late night hosts of Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, John Oliver and Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah. Three of which have stand-up comedy roots as well.

Laugh once, think twice

As you can tell, I am a huge fan of stand-up comedy. It’s probably because I’m still too scared to actually go up on stage and tell jokes myself. That’s why I have this blog. To give my opinions on the world, try to make you laugh/think; but it doesn’t require me to be present when you don’t think I’m funny. The great philosophers are revered today because the questions they asked and the theories they proposed, pushed their cultures to change behaviors and better understand the world around them. In a world where it is becoming easier to retreat into our own bubble of thinking, hopefully stand ups will continue to shock us into a higher level of thinking but presenting the seemingly familiar in brand new, unconsidered lights.

Like the great Aristotle said, “the secret to humor is surprise”

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