I was recently alerted to the existence of an up-and-coming podcast that just started last summer called Modern Day Philosophers. Hmmmm, is that like the New Books in Philosophy podcast, bringing to light the work of under-appreciated academics?
No, as you can see by the guest list: These are for the most parts established comedians like Artie Lang, or Bill Burr, or Lewis Black, and the idea is that these thoughtful people have a lot to say about religion, society, the good life, and reality.
So it’s a comedy podcast, and to get these comedian guests to wax philosophical, each episode assigns them one historic philosopher. Now, at PEL I’ve long looked for a famous comedian (or rock star, etc.) to actually read some philosophy and come on to represent their profession. I’ve found it’s very hard to get these famous people to read anything and so prep in the way that we do here (Lucy Lawless being the exception).
Host (also a first class comedian) Danny Lobell’s solution is simply to forgo prep on the guest’s part. But wouldn’t that make the guest feel stupid, if Danny comes in all knowing philosophy and has to instruct the guest? As Danny explains on his season 1 recap episode, he intentionally doesn’t prep either. Though he is obviously interested enough in philosophy to have initiated this podcast, and has read a few things and built up some knowledge over these episodes, his persona here is of the guy who didn’t pay attention in school and now, over a long period, is attempting just to get the equivalent of Philosophy 101 into his head.
The actual philosophy is researched and injected into the episode (through an email, seemingly composed mostly through cutting and pasting from wikipedia–I caught at least one verbatim, awkward quote from that source, but much of the rest certainly reads like that–printed out by Danny right before the episode) by Alex Fossella, a comedian who was a philosophy major. Alex does not appear on the episodes himself, except in the two season-recap episodes. Instead, he plays the part of the off-screen menace who provides a challenge to the people having the conversation by throwing out mysterious, largely unexplained quotes. Even the biographical bits from wikipedia contain lots of unexplained terms, and so (with the exception of at least one episode where they allow themselves the liberty of Googling a few of these terms) Danny and the guest simply shrug at how hard philosophy is, or take sometimes wildly inaccurate guesses (see the beginning of this one where “philosophy of mind” is interpreted as something to the effect of “what you believe is up to you; make up your own mind,” i.e. subjectivism).
Is this an effective formula for a comedy podcast? Yes, I think so. The advent of podcasting has allowed us to spend as much time as we want in the virtual company of people smarter and funnier than our actual friends, and these guests (and Danny and Alex themselves!) seem uniformly fun and interesting to my sensibility. Providing the guest with the quotations and establishing an overall atmosphere of “we’re here to talk about deep things” prompts them to talk about different things, I expect, than most of them have already discussed on Nerdist, WTF, and the 40,000 other comedy podcasts out there. So I wish them all the best, and it’s a good addition to your iTunes list if you’re into comedy podcasts.
However, for the PEL listenership, I must warn you if you haven’t guessed already that the historical philosophy is about one-inch deep here. You’re not going to learn any more about these figures here than you would spending 30 seconds reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the figure. While I understand that the format makes it difficult to work in more of these figures (e.g. simply reading more text would make it probably less entertaining to listen to), and certainly it’s nice in this anti-intellectual era to be at least throwing names like Sartre and Plato around so that people might want to learn more, but the current format is not conducive, I’m sorry to say, even to getting Danny and the audience to the level of completing the equivalent of philosophy 101 any time soon.
So I’d like to suggest a few ideas that would up the edification factor without dragging down the fun:
1. Use Alex more. For example, Danny does a short post-recording reflection at the end of every episode. Do this instead as a recorded Skype call with Alex, to be edited down to no more than 10 minutes, after Alex has gotten the chance to listen to any confusion or uncertainty about the figures that came up during the episode and do some supplementary research, and let him briefly clear things up. He and Danny could alternately do a very very short minute pre-episode recording that you could share in advance with the guest and then slap it on the recording before the guest comes on, much like our Precogs. If this doesn’t work logistically, just do more recaps like the season enders to cover episodes in bulk, or refer listeners to your blog and make Alex give a know-it-all analysis of each show.
2. Alex’s submissions as read on the show should be easier to understand. Formulate original, down to earth explanations of the figures instead of just copying from Wikipedia. Hell, make the explanations funny!
3. Danny, don’t be afraid of preparing; you’re skilled enough that you’re not going to make the guest feel stupid. Have a 20 minute phone conversation with Alex before each episode, or just go try to read the Wikipedia yourself and look up terms you don’t know. Better yet, go listen to the PEL episode (if there is one) on the topic, and/or immerse yourself in iTunes U and other podcasts to get some ammunition you can pull out if you want.
4. I bet that even many of the guests would not be averse to preparing a bit. Even just sending the 1 page of Alex text in advance to the guest would help. It’s more fun to hear people figure out what difficult passages might mean if they’ve had a little time to dwell on them. And I bet that, e.g. if Alex picked out 5 good pages of the philosopher’s major work and both you and the guest read it, that would work wonders. Don’t worry that you’d be leaving the audience out on the fun; you just have to make a point of still reading select quotes on air (and you and the guest can even pick out your favorite sentences from the context!) and both of you can try to express what the article was talking about and what you got out of it. Yes, these guests are brilliant improvisers, but some of them would do even better with the material if they had an hour beforehand to think it over.
There are lots of different recipes for a fun philosophy podcast, with different emphases that appeal to different audiences. For many, PEL can be too abstruse, so maybe they would prefer something like Philosophize This that’s more self-consciously instructional. And in fact both PEL and PT intentionally make use of a casual mode that appeals to those who may have had trouble with the whole formality of school, where many of the best philosophy podcasts primarily feature professors speaking like professors. Modern Day Philosophers has chosen the more difficult road of a mostly free-form structure featuring no one with much connection to the history or the profession. That is generally a recipe (to judge by many other philosophy podcasts I’ve tried) for utter failure, but as far as capturing the magic of shootin’ the shit about important stuff in your freshman dorm late at night, Modern Day Philosophers succeeds, I think, thanks to the participants’ comedic gifts.
Here’s Danny Lobell’s standup, if you’d like to get an idea of where he’s coming from: