August 17, 2007

YOU KNOW WHAT'S REALLY FUNNY? (via The Mother Judd):

Sharing laughs and a love of philosophy: Old friends from Harvard combine philosophy and humor in 'Plato and a Platypus,' the surprise hit of the book world (David Mehegan, August 15, 2007, Boston Globe)

Two friends are having lunch, and one tells this joke: Guy comes home from a business trip and finds his wife in bed, a nervous look on her face. He opens the closet to hang up his coat, and finds his best friend standing there, naked. Stunned, he says, "Lenny, what are you doing here?" Lenny shrugs and says, "Everybody's got to be someplace." The joke-listener laughs, then says, "He's giving a Hegelian answer to an existential question," and the joke-teller says, "Hm. There's a book here somewhere."

This curious match of amusing with a musing is the true story of how Dan Klein of Great Barrington and Tom Cathcart of Sandwich conceived the zaniest bestseller of the year: "Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes." Released in the spring, the 200-page book jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list and stayed for five weeks; it's still no. 32 on the 35-title online list (the printed list has 15 titles). The book's career so far demonstrates at least one point: Writers shouldn't give up too soon on a book they believe in.

Crammed with 143 jokes and an occasional cartoon, "Plato and a Platypus" is a 10-chapter course on the classic categories of philosophy, written in a Marxist style (Groucho's), paced by the frequent appearance of Dmitri and Tasso, a comic two-man Greek chorus. The chapter titles -- "Metaphysics," "Logic," "Epistemology," "Ethics," "Existentialism," and "Philosophy of Language" -- are serious, but the content that follows is anything but.

Interviewed together on Cathcart's Cape Cod porch, the two writers manage to share the answers to questions without interrupting each other. They display such easy chemistry and create such a constant straight man/funny man repartee that one might forget that they are serious about philosophy and worked hard on this book. It's obvious that they are also serious about friendship -- the first thing out of Dan Klein's mouth was, "We've been best friends for 50 years."

Comedy explains philosophy, but philosophers are stumped by humor.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 17, 2007 5:04 AM
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