Pondering the Punchline

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What do G.K. Chesterton, Joe Rogan, and Saint John Paul II have in common?

G.K. Chesterton thought deeply about the world. He wrote on everything under the sun, sprinkling his interesting vocabulary and witty aphorisms throughout his works. Saint John Paul II was a formidable man, hardened by wars and sensitive to the major philosophical currents of thought in his lifetime. Renowned for his intellect, he was also known for his sense of humor. Joe Rogan is a comedian, commentator, and podcast host. His podcast is one of the most popular in the nation. Chesterton and John Paul II are both Catholic and both philosophers. Joe Rogan is not Catholic and nor is he a theologian.

Yet there’s more in common between holy people and comedians than we might imagine. Think about the holy men and women you know of; the saints, both living and dead, are vibrant. Their lives are radiant from the grace of God, and this radiance spills over into their personal relationships. Christian joy is palpable, and it is often this joy that attracts non-Christians to the Lord. This joy that remains despite suffering brings a different perspective to the world. The saints can look at the world, see its failings and quirks, and make light of them in a mature but entertaining way.

Comedians have joy, albeit natural joy. They are vibrant, energetic, and thoughtful. They see the world’s quirks and use them as material. Where many see normalcy, comedians see punch lines. Their different perspective makes people laugh. Of course, many comedians are not saints, and not all saints are funny. Most comedians, however, are philosophers of a sort, and holy people often make others laugh with little effort.

Vibrancy and joy go hand in hand. The saint and the comedian have both. Beyond similarity in personality, the saint also has a methodological similarity to the comedian. It’s not enough to have vibrancy and joy. Something needs to happen so that the holy man thinks of a joke. Many holy, vibrant people are also philosophers. Where vibrancy, energy, joy, and philosophy converge, the saint can become a comedian. How does this happen?

The philosopher examines the world and burrows within. By induction, he goes from experience to the components involved, then to the nature of things, and eventually gets to the foundation of existence itself. By deduction, he goes from first principles to daily experience, passing through general axioms and essences. Along the way, he notices things that make sense and things that are a little odd. He may not have an issue with creation, but he might wonder why God created man and not unicorns to be the intelligent species. The dedicated philosopher delights in thought experiments, many of which are quite imaginative.  His process and his conclusions are sometimes boilerplate, sometimes surprising, and sometimes strange comedy

The comedian makes people laugh. He often does so by pointing out the oddity in reality. He looks at the world and asks questions. His questions get him thinking, and his thoughts serve as fodder for new material. Why would you drive on a parkway but park in a driveway? Why do we wait in lines to buy food when animals can just waltz into the forest and get it themselves? What’s the deal with airline food, anyway? Take a situation, dig into what makes it interesting, inject some energy and some public speaking skills, and you have your next bit. The difference here between the comedian and the philosopher is that the comedian takes the extra step to craft a joke. The philosopher has done the leg work, but has not thought about communicating his discoveries on the club stage.

On the surface, the disciplines are very different. Could anyone picture Saint Thomas Aquinas performing in a comedy club? What about Tina Fey writing a treatise on justice? Nonetheless, both philosophers and comedians look at the world and ask questions. They end up in such different forums because they direct their inquiries to different areas.

For the comedian, the object of the inquiry is everyday experience. For the comedian to be successful, he needs to appeal to most of the people in his audience. This often results in jokes that cater to the least common denominator. Jim Gaffigan is a Catholic comedian, but only a small portion of his jokes are about religion. If he were to joke exclusively about Catholicism, he would lose a significant portion of his audience. He can get away with joking about food and weight since these are things that affect everyone. The audience can quickly relate to the joke without the need to think deeply. The topics are often universal and concrete. They are not necessarily shallow, but they must relate to the majority of the audience in a simple way.

For the philosopher, the object of inquiry can be anything under the sun. Those philosophers who undertake serious inquiry often settle on metaphysics, the meaning of life, death, happiness, and the question of what makes for a good life. The philosopher may begin from the everyday experience of these things, but he soon moves on to the core. Talk of nature, essence, being, and axioms is valuable but abstract. On the other hand, you very well may find a philosopher contemplating the mysteries of automobiles and grocery stores. Because they do not need to please an audience made up of the common man, they do not necessarily need to direct their inquiry to the least common denominator. They might do so, but often it is the more esoteric field that is most valuable for the philosopher.

In order to earn his keep, the comedian needs to joke about what is relevant to the common man. Because of this, he may never dig under the surface to first principles. But the ability is there, and once he finds enough leisure to do so he can naturally shift his focus. This is what Joe Rogan is doing in his long-form podcasts. He interviews men and women from many different professions and disciplines, asking them probing questions and learning what he can in order to live life well. He is turning his attention to more abstract philosophical matters, but he is using the same methodology that made him a successful comedian. He examines the way things are, and uses his thoughts as material for his work.

The philosopher understands that even first principles bear on everyday experience, but it takes some time to see their application. Metaphysicians will most likely not do well as stand-up comedians because their subject matter is so abstract. But as the philosopher enjoys more leisure, he, too, may shift his focus. In more relaxed moments, philosophers might slip into comedy. Their attention diverts to the everyday, and their deep thoughts sound just like the comedian’s punch lines. When this happens, we get people like G.K. Chesterton and St. John Paul II. Chesterton had the luxury of getting paid to produce witty aphorisms, and as a result he needed less leisure time to venture into comedy. John Paul II and most other philosophers have not had this opportunity, and their humor is less well known but no less effective. They simply have not had as many occasions to direct their inquiry to everyday matters.

One might easily wonder how great saints and holy friends can be so learned yet so hilarious. It can be just as perplexing to see comedians take up philosophical ventures. But once we examine the similarities between them, the resemblance is striking. The philosopher-comedian has learned to direct his inquiry to both everyday matters and the esoteric, injecting everything with a quick wit and a vibrant joy. The same method works on all sorts of objects. Those philosophers and comedians who do not venture into the other discipline may need only the leisure to do so. With the right opportunity, Joe Rogan might wax poetic, and the saint might cause an uproar.

David Dashiell

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David Dashiell lives in the Pittsburgh area with his wife and daughter. He is the associate director of liturgy for a group of four churches. Originally from Maryland, he earned his Master of Arts in theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

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