Excerpted from Art of the Ordinary: The Everyday Domain of Art, Film, Philosophy, and Poetry by Richard Deming (© Cornell University Press)
As most people recognize, the surprise of a joke can open our eyes to the absurdity of the commonplace. Comedy does not merely alienate or estrange, however, as the audience needs to remain in touch with what is being dislodged. Some of the wilder experiments of the surrealists do just that. Whenever the comedic goes too far afield, there is no longer a point of entry for the audience, and the funny merely becomes the bizarre. In those situations, there is not enough recognizable perspective to underscore the possibilities of a shared experience of the absurdity of the most familiar actions, object, and ideas. As Freud himself noted, comedy needs an audience, which is why the company of others only adds to the pleasure of comedy.
Certain comic moments provide a unique perspective that summons the paradoxical from the familiar so as to throw into relief that which is generally taken for granted. We might say that comedy, at its best, can offer well-crafted thought experiments that operate on a variety of experiential levels and represent situations in such a way that we might observe them outside of reflexive or directive rationality. In what follows I concentrate not on what we might call wit, in regard to spontaneous jokes or conversational repartee, but rather on the work of stand-up comedy. With its use of craft, structure, and subverted expectations, stand-up comedy draws on worldviews and can reveal additional possibilities of meaning in ways similar to any other form of art, even if its own methods and forms distinguish it from other forms, even other forms of comedy. In roundabout ways, comedy provides an occasion for looking at perspectives built on expectations arising from how we think the world is. The comic’s joke, made with an audience in mind, comes and one laughs, involuntarily, in excess of one’s conscious intent. This interaction reveals a point of identification—the comedian knows how to make an audience laugh and the audience knows to laugh in such a context. Intuition and those aesthetic responses provoked by comedy, signaled primarily in the form of laughter or smiling, can help guide thinking about experiences with concepts that define or redefine our relationship to objects or events. They look specifically at what we take for granted. Certain comic routines can provide forms of “creative reading” that do not transform what they discuss, but rather tune the attention so that multiple perspectives, the familiar as well as the new, can coexist. These flashes of insight on which comedy is built can open up observable moments for the issues I am raising because considering the ordinary entails revising our relationships and interactions with the everyday.
There are stylistic connections between certain forms of philosophy and certain kinds of stand-up comedy. These connections are evident when stylistic elements are part of the experience that the thinkers are trying to generate. One long-held argument about why Heraclitus tended to be so hermetic in his aphoristic style is that he sought to present paradoxes in order to gather people’s attention to the complexities of life as it is lived. Paradox, as an irresolvable condition that activates a desire to resolve its conflicts and contradictions, engenders reflection, thereby creating a possibility of investment. The investment takes the form of responses to the questions opened by paradox—a paradox much like the idea that what is most familiar is most mysterious. With this in mind, I turn to a stand-up comedian almost pre-Socratic in his terse delivery and his fascination with the usable paradoxes of the ordinary, Steven Wright.
Wright was born in 1955 and raised outside Boston. Discovered by a producer for The Tonight Show in 1982, he immediately stood out as a unique comic talent because of both his lack of affect and his reinvention of jokes and one-liners, as opposed to stories. Wright has cited George Carlin as an early influence, but there is little evidence of that in his work, and Wright sounds nothing like any of his contemporaries (including such higher-profile figures as Jay Leno, Paul Reiser, and Jerry Seinfeld, all of whom were able to make a leap into television). Although there have been figures in the history of comedy who were masters of one-liners, comics such as Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield, none before Wright had the swerve toward the surreal or absurd that is so characteristic of Wright’s work. His first album, I Have a Pony, appeared in 1985 and was nominated for a Grammy, as was his second album, I Still Have a Pony, which was released in 2007. Although he won an Oscar for a short film he produced and made brief cameos in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, it is the terse, austere style of his stand-up that has continued to make him so influential as a comedian. “I was Caesarean born. You can’t really tell, although whenever I leave a house I go through the window,” Wright says in a pithy but representative moment in his act. Nevertheless, the existential irony as well as the linguistic turnabout that can produce conceptual shifts within the space of a sentence make Wright’s comedic work, and his perspective, so distinctive. Peter Keepnews of the New York Times once described Wright’s style as “Henny Youngman meets Samuel Beckett.” Wright is arguably as stone-faced as Buster Keaton, who of course starred in Samuel Beckett’s Film. The stoicism and limited emotional register offer little in his voice or body language to inform the audience where the change in perspective will occur, and never instruct viewers as to how they should feel about what he says. He also rarely gives evidence about how he feels about what he has said, and these effects are what allow for the possibilities of identification in that the audience has to be much more nuanced in their interpretive process in regard to what his jokes provide.
The facts of Wright’s life are somewhat incidental to his work, in contrast to a comic such as Richard Pryor. Although Wright often uses the first-person singular, he rarely presents anything that reveals actual autobiography. One joke reveals the degree to which Wright is abstracted from the personal: “I got a postcard from my best friend, George. It was a satellite picture of the entire Earth. And on the back he wrote, ‘Wish you were here.'” This perspective resonates with the ways that Wright articulates a sense of estrangement from the world.
Rather than presenting longer narratives, Wright tells jokes and one-liners, and their humor is not at all straightforward. Instead, Wright’s comic observations are characterized by a paratactic series of statements and esoteric, even gnomic, observations. Consider an old bit from his stand-up routine that goes like this: “I’ve been doing a lot of painting lately. Abstract painting—extremely abstract. No brush, no canvas. I just think about it.” Those who know Wright’s style will recognize the delivery: completely deadpan, monotone, and utterly surprising. Its economy is impressive and even disarming: “I went into a place to eat, it said, ‘breakfast anytime.’ So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.” The form of this statement is impeccable and is a testament to the economy of his structure. The last word, “Renaissance,” changes our understanding of everything that comes before. If one were to change any word in these two sentences the joke would not work. In that way, the joke works in much the same way as a poem, the meaning accrues by the way the sentences are constructed, with the last word providing a revelation that recontextualizes what we expected when we saw the phrase “any time.” Such precise composition can lead us to think about form.
What comes before and after any given moment in Wright’s act bears no immediate, logical connection to what follows; that is, his routines are not part of a larger narrative. The sentences move by juxtaposition. For those who do not know his work, it will need to be taken on faith that it is funny; and I am all too aware that writing in this way about his material I risk bleeding away its surprise, rendering it as anything but funny. The key here is not to explain its funniness, but to indicate what its funniness can reveal. The humor resonates because of what the lines reveal in a flash. What makes this comedy into a philosophical art is that it can reveal the “usable paradoxes” at the heart of ordinary experiences in surprising, insightful ways.
Wright’s process of misapprehension is actually a strategic misapplication of terms and conditions, and its recontextualization yields new or widened concepts of what is taken for granted by raising questions about what lies beneath the confusion. This displacement is at the core of some lines from his routine that I want to spend time discussing because so much of the idea of the uncanniness of the ordinary and the everyday inform them: “I got up the other day and everything in my apartment had been stolen and replaced with an exact replica.” What calls Wright’s particular lines to mind—I have not forgotten them since I first heard his routine more than twenty-five years ago—is not the degree to which someone may or may not find these lines humorous, though the humor is its measure of an aesthetic worthiness. Wright is, after all, an influential and even canonical figure of contemporary comedy. Rather, if we take the bit about everything he owns being replaced, mysteriously, with an exact replica—if we take its funniness seriously, that is—the feeling state described in Wright’s bit warrants thinking about its latent philosophical content because it is fraught with skeptical impulses in regard to one’s experience of that which is closest to hand.
In Wright’s bit, the claim generates this question: If everything has been replaced with an exact duplicate, and it happened while the speaker was presumably asleep, how would he know? That is the central problem of the joke: a dilemma of two different experiences of reality. Is what he experiences real or illusory? This is the fundamental question of skepticism. Even if we see these lines as merely funny, and therefore avoid putting pressure on them, the philosophical implications still might come up if we ask, why is it funny? Is it because Wright is ironically worrying about something that does not matter? Although it is definitely the case that Wright intends to be funny—that is his profession, after all—his intention does not necessarily limit how a listener might take what he says. What he says means more than he intends, and this capability is what makes art, even the art of comedy, so fecund. Such fecundity is not limited only to artistic expressions; art merely reveals that pervasive and latent potential everywhere. The rich possibilities lie within all uses of language. The context of art simply foregrounds language’s capabilities.
Let us look from a variety of angles at the implications of the claims here in what Wright says. If there is no material distinction between what was stolen and its replacement, what difference would be made in the substitution? The problem here is a philosophical one. The pragmatist’s response would be that it makes no difference, and we can move on. “What use would it be to worry about differences that make no difference?” a pragmatist would be inclined to ask. The pragmatist’s question and its pointed impatience entail dismissing the validity of Wright’s feelings as well as his claim. That question hurries past the possibilities that could come from offering attention to cases where there are not strictly pragmatic or utilitarian ramifications. Any investigation into belief and the terms for understanding difference is swept aside.
To sidestep the nuances of dilemma that Wright’s bit sets up, the dilemma within which any of his auditors become enmeshed, is to suppress and perhaps repress anxieties that might be something more than merely a cast of mind. The impulse to disregard what Wright says is a familiar one of the sort that anyone might encounter in dealing with a feeling one has but cannot quite explain, however real the feeling seems. Ignoring Wright’s observations might be a missed opportunity for thinking about a person’s subjectivity being enacted by its responses. In Wright’s bit, he represents his own life as if he were other to it, both subject and object, caught someplace between avoidance and acknowledgment of what one might reveal to oneself in reading oneself as Other. As Freud contended, this condition of being both a subject and a self-reflexive object is ever present in the human psyche and constitutive of the unconscious. Often we work to deny that split of consciousness, creating a blindness where that denial exists. In literature, Oedipus and Lear, for example, are the most explicit figures of this self-inflicted blindness—both are incapable or unwilling to see themselves as others might. This blindness is what philosophy needs to address. Nietzsche, prefiguring Freud, insists, “So we are necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not comprehend ourselves, we have to misunderstand ourselves, for us the law ‘Each is furthest from himself’ applies to all eternity—we are not ‘men of knowledge’ with respect to ourselves.” This self-reflexive estrangement creates a dislocating experience of just the sort that resonates throughout Wright’s lines and is present even in the lines from the interview with Wright I cited earlier about comedy arising from a “heightened noticing part of [his] mind.” If that estrangement prompts people to try to discover the means for moving beyond the ego in some brief or necessarily limited capacity, that alienation can have a positive effect as a pedagogical force available to each of us in the world.
This separateness between perception and experience speaks to how Wright, in his feeling that everything he owns has been replaced with an exact replica, notes a shift in his immediate, local environment—a space that speaks to him and in a sense as him. His joke also provides a glimpse into the ways we can think about the import of our own response to what Wright notices in the sudden and indescribable change of his relationship to his surroundings. In any event, against what would be the pragmatist dismissal of the problem, the conversation about Wright’s concern can continue in regard to the fact that Wright felt some difference between the originals and the replicas. To dismiss his concern is to miss the insistence of Wright’s anxiety and what it could come to indicate about real ontological and experiential situations in terms of the ordinary. Wright’s own things suddenly feel strange to him, despite that there is nothing apodictically different about them; he is at odds with his experience of his things because something has created a dissonance between him and his belongings. He seems not to be able to say what that difference is, and cannot arrive at it rationally. We might then think about what his feelings suggest in terms of his stance toward the objects and what he takes to be their more or less tentative ontological status. Consider, therefore, what Wright, however indirectly, implies about the possibility that there is an aspect of the ordinary that is nothing less than uncanny, that the familiar can in fact feel strange in its sudden possibility for otherness. We can think about the occasion for engagement that Wright’s bit affords us: the things in Wright’s apartment are not what they are, or were—they are now duplicates, substitutions—despite that in every empirical way, they are the same as what they replaced.
One could dispense with the problem by saying that Wright is simply deluded, but that would be to deny the implications of what he feels and to overlook the familiarity that the audience’s laughter signals. Indeed, if his words are just the ravings of a madman, no one would be likely to find what he says funny; the audience would feel, at best, uncomfortable, or at least annoyed that they paid money to see a crazy person rambling. The fact that at some level the experience he describes of the comfortably familiar being also incomprehensible is one that is emotionally recognizable by the audience. His routine describes the feeling that we cannot be certain about anything, even our own things.
Skepticism is brought to haunt Wright’s lines even if one asks, “how do we know it (the theft/substitution) was not just a dream that felt real and the feeling continues because whatever initiated that feeling is taken to be real, although it is nothing more than illusion?” We could imagine, for instance, Descartes posing just such a challenge as a heckler in the audience. But the skepticism in such an understandable response is matched by Wright’s skepticism that what seem like his belongings are not in fact his belongings. It is not that the things are not his to own as possessions, but rather something about these replica-objects points at the distance between the things and his experience of them, between what they were before he went to sleep and what they were when he awoke. We do not need to decide between skepticisms, as Wright’s triggers an interrogation of what we take as certain while at the same time raising questions about how we settle our doubts. The paradox is this: if we attend to our feelings, we could be misled by our own psychology. Yet if we hew strictly to rationalism and empiricism, we become estranged from what feelings and intuitions can tell us about our relationship to the world.
The problem that Wright poses to us calls to mind—well, my mind—a footnote in the second edition of Kant’s first Critique about what the philosopher refers to as a “scandal of philosophy.” Kant writes, “It always remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason that the existence of things outside us (from which we after all get the whole matter for our cognitions, even for our inner sense) should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a satisfactory proof.” Is not this “scandal” where we arrive at with Wright’s example? It describes the fear that on any given morning we will not wake up in the same place that we went to sleep, that we will not be the same people on waking as we were when we went to sleep. This premise of sudden change is at the heart of too many horror movies (from Rosemary’s Baby to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Get Out) to deny that the fear exists. It is indeed pervasive. One need not be Gregor Samsa to recognize that. The possible responses to that fear and to what rests on that scandal of philosophy give one the opportunity to discover where justifications eventually might come to an end and where an investment in a given belief system begins rests on what some might call faith. Yet those limitations mean the anxiety is never settled; it is only negotiated. How one chooses to respond to the fear is a recognition that one takes responsibility for the belief system one chooses.
 Some of my thinking about the important differences between crafted comedy and spontaneous jokes is informed by Suzanne K. Langer’s “The Great Dramatic Forms: Comic Rhythm,” in Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key (New York: Scribner’s, 1953), 326–50. Although she focuses on comic theater, her interest in the structure and form of jokes is illuminating in other contexts as well.
 In her essay “‘Surface’ as an Expression of an Intention: On Richard Wollheim’s Conception of Art as a Form of Life,” Gabriele M. Mras describes the shared recognition of context as being indicative of Lebensform. That is, the artist, in this case Wright, and the audience do not share only affective recognition, but rather the whole context for recognition is shared and indicates the ties of the group. She begins her claim by stating that the “dominant view in the philosophy of art holds that in coming to understand a painting in front of us we become acquainted with and linked in a particular way with the subjectivity of the artist.” She states further, “We find in successful pictorial depiction a particular expression of a conception of human beings as persons—a recognition of something essential to our nature as human beings. But, if so, we do not just recognize that in seeing a painting we share perceptions. We recognize that we are like her or him by perceiving what is put in front of us as painting” (167). This claim can be expanded to other forms of art as well, including comedy. In Wollheim, Wittgenstein, and Pictorial Representation, ed. Gary Kemp and Gabriele M. Mras (New York: Routledge, 2015), 160–69.
 Although he comes from a very different perspective, Noël Carroll offers a concise but remarkably comprehensive overview of philosophical approaches to comedy and their historical context in Humour: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
 Steven Wright, I Have a Pony (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Records, 2005), CD.
 Peter Keepnews, “A Strange Career Takes an Odd Turn,” New York Times, February 10, 2008, AR 28.
 For an extended consideration of Keaton by Cavell, see “What Becomes of Things on Film,” in Themes out of School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 173–83.
 Track 5, 3′11”–3’18,” from Wright, I Have a Pony.
 Track 7, 2′23”–2’31,” from Wright, I Have a Pony.
 Track 8, 1′12”–1’19,” from Wright, I Have a Pony.
 Track 7, 1’31”–1’59,” from Wright, I Have a Pony.
 Of course, it hardly needs to be said that what Wright says on stage is not exactly a true claim about his own feelings or experiences. What he says is akin to a dramatic character saying something. What Wright says is therefore like a fictional truth rather than an experiential one. At the same time, that feeling is recognizable by the audience, and furthermore one is still given to asking what the conditions are that would generate such a statement. If one does not do this, fictional characters never give audiences and readers anything to think about.
 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 15.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 121.
Richard Deming, Senior Lecturer in English and Director of Creative Writing at Yale University, is a poet, art critic, and theorist whose work explores the intersections of poetry, philosophy, and visual culture. His collection of poems, Let’s Not Call It Consequence (Shearsman, 2008), received the 2009 Norma Farber Award from the Poetry Society of America. His most recent book of poems, Day for Night, appeared in 2016. He is also the author of Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading (Stanford UP, 2008). He contributes to such magazines as Artforum, Sight & Sound, and The Boston Review. His poems have appeared in such places as Iowa Review, Field, American Letters & Commentary, and The Nation. Winner of the Berlin Prize, he was the Spring 2012 John P. Birkelund Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin.