"Comedians are the new philosophers. That's the responsibility we have now."
I feel very fortunate to live in Denver, a city with a thriving comedy scene. It also happens to be the hometown of comedian T.J. Miller. Miller moved away years ago, honed his improv skills in Chicago for a while and now he has fully embraced Hollywood. Apparently, Hollywood has returned the favor. He's been cast in more than a dozen films, more than a dozen television shows, and currently stars in the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley. The latter premiered last April and has already been picked up for a second season, earning almost universal praise from viewers and critics alike.
There are many places to see comedy in Denver but the main venue, Comedy Works, is considered to be one of the best in the nation. They book the biggest stars in the business but it also serves as a kind of incubator or testing ground for the local comedians. It's a place where the undiscovered local talent can work side by side with the most famous national acts. This kind of mixture was on display in a recent episode of My Dining Room Table when Denver's top comedian, Adam Cayton-Holland interviewed T.J. Adam's been on national television a couple of times, Adam created and operates Denver's High Plains Comedy Festival,and is a founding member of The Grawlix. This trio's sketch comedy can also be found in video form at Will Ferrell's Funny or Die.
It's not at all unusual for podcasters to interview people more famous than themselves, of course, but this interview was different. Adam Cayton-Holland and T.J. Miller are the same age and they're both from Denver. In fact, they had gone to middle school and high school together, each being the funny guy in their respective circles and each respecting the other as such. I was impressed not only by the intimacy of their conversation, but also its depth and darkness. But first a few words about these guys.
Adam usually records his podcasts at his dining room table, but this particular interview was conducted in the back yard of Miller's childhood home, where his parents still reside. It was a setting well-suited to their nostalgic reminiscences about their time together at Denver's East High School. They also talked enthusiastically about the local comedy scene. This was a charming and friendly beginning, especially for Colorado listeners, but then their conversation turned to the dark side of life and shit got real. About an hour into their conversation the topic of suicide was raised, specifically the suicide of Adam's younger sister, Lydia Cayton-Holland.
T.J. began by asking Adam if he was ready to talk about it. Many of his friends would like to be helpful but they find the topic too difficult, Adam explained, but he needs to talk about it. He told T.J. that last December The Atlantic published Ghost's I've Known, Adam's autobiographical essay about his sister's tragic suicide. (Is there any other kind?) Oddly, it was a big hit with readers. He'd also read the essay for a live audience at a regular story-telling event.. In both cases, people ate it up, apparently relieved to hear about something so personal and so real. It seemed to be an antidote to a certain kind of loneliness for both the writer and the reader. "Isn't it funny," T.J. mused, "that some of your greatest work came out of your greatest loss?"
I was already impressed with the raw honesty of their conversation but then T.J. said some things that truly surprised me. My impression of T.J. as an over-grown toddler or a goofy clown started to evaporate when he called himself an existentialist and expressed his love of Nietzsche. We all need to talk about death, T.J. explained, especially our own. "I'm talking about something that everyone NEEDS to start talking about, which is death. That is my work as a comedian now, fortunately or unfortunately," he said. This Nietzschean comedian is starting to put fairly serious philosophy into his stand-up act and he's currently writing a screenplay titled "The Nihilist". (I'm praying for green light on that project.) T.J.'s understanding of Nietzsche was impressive enough, I thought, especially for a comedian, but what I found most remarkable was his apparent ability to apply the ideas to his profession and to the real-life situation of an old friend. "People are either searching for meaning or trying to not ask what the meaning of all this is." Avoiding these hard topics, he explained, is the saddest thing in the world because then your connections to other human beings are superficial or even fake. Life really is quite meaningless without those connections and without the meaning we create for ourselves. "Truthfully, as a man who believes in creating your own meaning in existence," T.J. said, suicide "is ultimately, in my view, somewhat cowardly." It's not even cowardly, he added, it's just selfish.
Shortly after listening to this interview, an old friend told me I you should listen to T.J. on an episode of the podcast called You Made It Weird. On this one, the conversation (with host Pete Holmes) was only slightly less intimate and much more loaded with talk about Nietzsche and nihilism. It was almost like part two of his talk with Adam, even mentioning Adam by name as well as the published essay about his sister's suicide (about 27 and half minutes into the episode) and then elaborating on his screenplay, "The Nihilist". From that point onward their conversation remained in a philosophical mode. It was pretty juicy stuff. Even when host Pete Holmes tried to lighten things up and move back into the regular show-biz mode, T.J. continued to impress me. Holmes started to ask about Miller's recent Emmy nomination but T.J. interrupted. "Awards are for kids," he said. "You give trophies to children so that they have something tangible so they can feel what achievement is." T.J. also mocked the very idea that he should be promoting the HBO show in which he stars - instead of talking about suicide in the face of meaninglessness. They never did talk about the Emmy Awards or that show on HBO. Instead, T.J. spent the last ten minutes of the episode issuing one very fine and personal apology to director Michael Bay. That was all about human connections too. To the extent that comedians really are philosophers, comedy becomes something more than mere entertainment. It becomes part of an examined life, at least partially.
Daniel David says
I entirely agree about comedy that aspires to be philosophical; it can be excellent—take some of Bill Hicks’s stuff, for example. But on comedians as the new philosophers:
I’ve heard a number of comedians make similar statements lately, but as someone who finds the lion’s share of comedy pretty mundane, it’s a little irksome. My view is admittedly a blinkered one, and I’m obviously taking this statement out of context, but it strikes me as a narrow view of philosophy and pretty inflated (though oddly common) view of comedy. I realize that a lot of people think that the two interpenetrate significantly, and maybe its just semantics, but I wonder how many philosophers would be as casual about the equation.
Comedy veers deliberately into the ignorant and the trivial as often as the profound or the didactic. Either can work for its purposes, and that’s the real problem for me. Being funny is an entirely separate goal from having or spreading good ideas (which is a crude way of putting what I take philosophers to be aiming at). Forgetting that distinction might mean we hazard likening the good or the true to the entertaining. I’m resigned to believe that philosophers have the privilege of occasionally being boring in the service of honesty and thoroughness, but that’s death for a comic.
David Buchanan says
Good points, Daniel. I’ve been thinking about some of the same issues you’ve raised lately, so much that I’ve decided to write something about it. It’s pretty clear that any reasonable equation of comedy and philosophy would have to come with a few qualifications. Certain kinds of comedy are like certain kinds of philosophy in some respects. (Maybe it’s just a co-incidence but Nietzsche makes me laugh out loud.) If that essay plan works out, I hope you’ll take a look and maybe offer a response.
Daniel David says
I look forward to reading it. I like the fact that Miller seems to feel comedy should involve a sense of ethics. A lot of people seem to think that comedy is an end in itself, and shouldn’t be held to account for any social effect. If I’m recalling correctly, I think that’s part of what ultimately made Chappelle uncomfortable with his show. Anyway, it’s nice to see a comic acknowledge that and take responsibility.