On the Ontological Nature of Comedic Discourse

Or, more succinctly, is Dane Cook remotely funny?

Sirius Radio

I spend a lot of time driving.  At a previous client, I used to have one of those fantastic 2+ hours a day commute going out to the west ‘suburbs’ of Chicago (if you can call either Lisle or Naperville a suburb) and while I don’t miss it at all (well, I miss a person or two from the client, I guess), I used it to keep at least vague track of contemporary music and listen to a lot of sports radio (digression…I have never, ever been accused of being hip, but I realized most directly last year how out of it I’ve gotten when, from The Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Singles of the Year, I recognized the name of the band for only seven of them, and could only hum 3 of them to save my life).

More recently, my commute to downtown has made daily life a lot easier, but I tend to take a number of road trips.  This past spring, I did a ‘NHL Hockey Tour’ and visited 8 different cities for games (the downside of the Blackhawks’ resurgence is that it has become easier to get a ticket to a Red Wings game than a Blackhawks game, for instance), and a wonderful companion on the trips is Sirius satellite radio.  Since I was usually travelling on a weekend, I would listen to any live NHL game on the Best of XM package, but if that wasn’t available, I would usually tune into one of the various comedy channels (except for the Jamie Foxx channel, since there’s too much music played there), and I’d say that about 50% of the time, that’s what I listen to now at any given moment (especially since it’s the offseason for the NHL and so not as much to hear about). 

Anyway, something got me to thinking (and you can probably guess where I’m going with this…).  But first, for one of the rare times on this blog, let’s talk a little about Philosophy.

Philosophy 101

When I taught undergrad philosophy, it was generally a lecture course, that is to say, I rarely used my classes as interactive forums about any particular philosophical topic, instead, I would simply teach using my fascinating examples, and let them ask questions, etc.  I did this for a number of reasons (one major reason is that I just didn’t really care to devote a semester to hearing what individual students thought about any particular topic), and one major reason was that getting students to understand what Philosophy was involved getting beyond typically trite statements that tended to start with “Well, my personal philosophy is….”, since that had little to do with Philosophy.

But, to get people to begin to understand some of the fundamental concepts and distinctions, I would usually start the first or second class by writing a set of statements on the board, typically like the following:

A: 2 +2 =4

B: The Earth revolves around the Sun

C: Capital Punishment is immoral

D: The Beatles are better than Duran Duran (I was deliberately dating myself with this one, but people got the gist of it)

I would then ask them what they thought about these statements.

One of the fundamental mistakes that they would make would be to blithely classify things in terms of facts vs. opinions, and as you might guess, most people would readily accept A and B as facts, you’d get more of a split when it came to C, and then usually, most would classify D as an opinion.

Some fundamental distinctions within Philosophy are between Objective vs. Subjective and Absolute vs. Relative.  Once you start to get into it, you find some seemingly strange results.  For instance, A is Relative but Objective, that is, that 2 + 2 = 4 is Objective, but Relative to Base 10 (so, 1+1 = 10 is true relative to Base 2, but false relative to Base 10).

When students would say that something was an opinion, what they typically meant was that it was (almost or completely) Subjective (if it was up to an individual to decide if it was true or not) or, when it came to moral statements, perhaps Relative (to a particular culture, for instance). 

But when it came to something like D, students were more likely to say that it was an expression of a personal opinion, that you simply preferred one over the other.

My professional informed opinion is too complicated to describe here, but even the layman student could be pushed to think about it (if they cared to) by making some basic observations.

For instance, there seems to be no inherent contradiction (and a lot of Philosophy involves discovering or eliminating inherent contradictions) in saying that I think The Beatles are better than Duran Duran, even though I might at any particular point prefer to listen to Duran Duran at the time.

To press this, I would usually use movies as an example (for whatever reason, people seemed to be more inclined to think that there was something about a movie that might make it better or worse than another one) and ask if it was just an ‘opinion’ that  The Godfather was a better movie than Porky’s Revenge.  There’s one in every crowd, but more people than not were hesitant to accept this.  The Godfather, in some sense, seemed to have better actors (better in what way?), a better script (better in what way?), an actual plot (okay, not much to say there), etc.  Even if you didn’t want at any particular point in time to slog through a viewing of The Godfather, it seemed harder to defend the position that Porky’s Revenge, in any way, shape or form, was a better movie.

And most people are able to make similar distinctions across all sorts of genres in all sorts of cases.  You might be in the mood for a romantic comedy (knowing full well it was fluff) but not really think that it was better than a ‘serious’ film.  You might want to see an action film (knowing full well that the chase scenes were completely unbelievable) without thinking it was better than a documentary.

And (though it dates me a bit as well again), a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 was as highly entertaining as it was because the premise of the show was that the movie being showed in each episode was, well, crap.  The characters of MST3K pointed out at every possible moment that the movie was crap, and, in fact, seemed at its best when the movie was as craptacular as you could get.  Yet, few people would actually say that the movie was good, just because it was enjoyable to watch under those circumstances.

Which brings us back to comedy.

This Dane Cook fellow

My ‘taste’ in comedy is pretty wide ranging, and so I spend as much time as I do listening to Sirius’ comedy channels because you get a wide range of comedic styles.  You have political humor, the standard ‘men and women are different’ humor, impressionists, ‘blue’ comedians vs.. safe, ‘Blue Collar’ vs.. edgy, a wide gamut of things.  I have my preferences, but I’ve always wondered if I preferred certain comics because they were funny (and not preferred others because they weren’t funny) or if there was more to it than what I happened to prefer.  In most cases, I would like to think that I could at least identify why something might be thought as funny, even if it didn’t strike me personally funny at the time.

And then there’s Dane Cook.  By all financial accounts, he is one of the most successful comedians of our time.  He’s made millions, sells out tours, sells countless product….but I never heard a single bit of his (and he’s played a lot) that caused a single laugh (though more about this at the end).  I mean, not even close.  He’d do a bit, the audience would be going wild….and I couldn’t tell what could possibly be funny about any of it.

It turns out (from a Google review, anyway) that I’m not the first person to wonder about this (you can Wikipedia the dude to find out).  How is this guy so successful when he doesn’t seem to have a single bit, a single sketch, a single routine when he elicits a laugh?  At all?  In fact, the funniest ‘routine’ of ‘his’ that I’ve ever heard was a MST3K-type spoof of him about how unfunny he is.

So, is it just an opinion of mine that he’s unfunny?  Am I right or wrong about it?

Irony, perhaps

The ironic thing is that after dozens of routines that I’ve heard from him that I never came close to laughing about at all, I’ve heard two in the last week, and perhaps the funniest one was about him Googling himself and talking about how unfunny people find him to be, and how it affected him.  It was LOL stuff (paraphrasing: “You know, after Googling all this stuff about Dane Cook, this guy is a complete douchebag.”)

So, is the Ontological Nature of Comedic Discourse Absolute?  Relative?  Objective?  Subjective?

There’s a correct answer, but I leave it for now as an exercise for the reader to determine it (though as a hint, if you say it is totally Subjective, you’re wrong……)

posted on Monday, June 28, 2010 9:53 PM Print
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