Fly on the Wall—Kant You Take a Joke?

Comedy and Consequences as a Philosophical Problem

Intellects ablaze with school smarts, we might ask how we might expand the appeal of our newfound learning.  Perhaps an expanded sense of humor would help, but what kind of jokes are safe and what sagely wisdom might we impart if we’re restricted to predictable puns?

John Cleese, notable for the counter-culture opus, Monty Python, and the glib, poking-at- respectable-society, Fawlty Towers, summarized the plot whereby thoughtful people seek to tell funny jokes while worrying too much about saying the wrong thing, “you can do the creation and then criticize it, but you can’t do them at the same time.  So if you’re worried about offending people and constantly thinking of that, you are not going to be very creative.  So, I think it has a disastrous effect” (online).  When it comes to humor’s academic potential, and vice versa, Cleese implies that we’d best leave playing it safe for those exam essay answers where we want to give an opinion but know that what’s required are the facts.  But if we want to be funny, we have to take risks.

Know Thy Audience

Facts being relative to historical interpretations, and our times being rife with topics deemed too contested for verbal horseplay, humour becomes a study in audiences.  Recently, while considering the meaning of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism  a Henry Miller critique of 1940s Hollywood sprang to the fore:  “Hollywood always has its scouts out for new material, human or otherwise.  Sometimes it smells a bit strong, a bit like the stockyards, if you get what I mean.  But if anybody has an idea, something original … for instance, a woman falling in love with her ironing board … something original and entertaining, they’ll take it.  And what’s more – you’ll get paid for it!”  Don’t give them the story of your life!  They can invent that much better than you can live it.  No, something ‘original’” (Miller, 56).

From there it was a short dalliance with the notion of an excess of adoration for a housework tool to hearing the phrase “he’s a slipper!”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well, that stud’s so good looking that when you see him you want to slyly slide your wedding ring off and proceed to a coy introduction.”

“Good grief, Eva Braun, that’s awful!” I reply.

But, then, humour is in the eye of the beholder.  And I did chuckle.

Kant or Can We?

So here enters the lead moral philosopher of the 18th century Enlightenment: Immanuel Kant.

For Kant, we can’t expect good morals to ensue from simply being good in hopes of a reward.  Good words and deeds ought to follow, he said, a categorical imperative: “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” (online).  He seems to be suggesting that if we want the whole world to tell bad jokes about the inanimate objects a person’s attractiveness reminds us of, and the actions associated with that thought, then Kant seems to imply that we ought to go ahead and tell jokes we’d like to be universally told and appreciated.  On the other hand, if we want society to hum smoothly along without too much conflict then we best consider the rules of tact and taste before we blurt out our newfound pearls of humour.

Kant suggested that contrarian individuals, the sort that find funny things to say that lead to nervous responses like peals of laughter, are actually a detriment to social harmony: “without these characteristics of unsociability which are indeed quite unattractive in themselves… human beings would live the arcadian life of shepherds, in full harmony, contentment, and mutual love” (online).  To be sociable would seem to mean to toe the line and steer clear of unsavoury humour, such as implies a proclivity for adultery for instance.  But, then, what about creativity as Cleese would have it?  Cleese said that creativity arises best without an inner censor.

Critical thinking leads to new and unusual findings and theories, to be sure.  Maybe the risks and rewards of humour aren’t so far removed from the unlocking of new thought processes.  The magical mental mystery tour from inkling to thought to speech is far from a natural flow.  Along the way are checkpoints and roadblocks and repressions; we must, as creative writing instructors have said since time immemorial, know our audience.  In our present times, that means to be considerate so as not to offend or irritate others.  It’s a slip and slide ride for those who attempt to do otherwise; we might be cancelled, fired, or receive a bad mark form our instructors if we push the boundaries of acceptable speech.  At no time, it would seem, are racist or sexist jokes appropriate.  Yet few childhood micro-sociology moments beat realizing that adults are sharing a joke that is not appropriate for tender young eardrums.  A simple nut, a Brazil Nut, led to much intrigue among kids wondering why adults were nervously chittering about its original moniker.

Maybe the best bet if we wish to tickle funny bones is to be aware that, like in the arid realm of academia, the world of comedy is a shifting landscape.  Kant implies that to be morally upright means that if we want a free market of jokes we ought to lead the way; on the other hand, if we want to avoid offending those we care about then we’d better refrain from off-colour humour.  In the end, then, the categorical imperative seems to lead us to a more utilitarian reality where we choose our priorities, and choose them carefully.  It’s a bit like deciding whether to pack in a few more weekend hours of pre-exam studying or go out and make fun hay while the sun shines.  Maybe AU teaches us that our choices and consequences are more complex than a moralist or hedonist would automatically assume.

Cleese, J.  In Wulfson, J.  & Altus, K.  (2022).  ‘John Cleese says Wokeness has a Disastrous Effect on Comedy’.  FOX News.  Retrieved from
Kant, I.  (1724-1804).  in Qvortrup, M.  (2022).  ‘Kant’s Political Philosophy’.  Philosophy Now.  Retrieved from
Miller, H.  (1944).  ‘Hollywood’s Hallucination’.  In Sunday After the War.  Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions Paperback.
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