Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein have had past GoldLab Symposium audiences roaring with laughter. Together, they’ve co-authored three books, including the international bestseller,Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar—Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes.
We recently asked them to reflect on their experience at the GoldLab Symposium, their speaking partnership, and what makes philosophy and humor work so well together. Enjoy!
How did both of you become involved with the GoldLab Symposium (GLS)?
From out of the blue, I received a phone call from Larry Gold saying that he had read my book, Travels with Epicurus, and he wanted to invite me to his symposium to talk. For a few minutes I suspected he was phoning from a New Delhi phone bank and was selling off-shore gas reserves in Colorado, but I hung in there. The man, as everyone knows, is incredibly charming. I told him that my real expertise, such as it is, is explaining philosophy through jokes with my co-writer, Tom Cathcart. So, of course, Larry then called and invited Tom, too. That original phone call turned out to be an opening to a wonderful new world of experiences for us.
Do you have a favorite GLS memory? Or a favorite part about the experience?
We suspect that for the pure scientists in the audience, some of the more humanistic speakers may have been the surprise. For us, it was just the opposite. We never would have predicted that we would be so intrigued—or astounded—by talks on malignant melanoma or telomerase genes. We couldn’t always follow every detail, but we got enough to say, “Wow!”
Your presentations have had the GLS audiences roaring with laughter. Why do you think philosophy and humor go so well together?
I (Tom) was the skeptic at the outset. How many jokes could there possibly be that illustrate philosophical ideas? (My guess was four. Danny’s—correct—guess was hundreds.) After we had basically finished writing Plato and a Platypus, Danny teased out what is the common ground between philosophy and jokes: “They proceed from the same impulse: to confound our sense of the way things are, to flip our worlds upside down, and to ferret out hidden, often uncomfortable, truths about life.” There’s probably another reason too: philosophy is often stodgy and hard to understand. To see it reduced to a joke about two elephants in a bar feels good.
Can you tell us a little about your speaking partnership?
When we were doing book tours for our various books, we both remarked that what we really enjoyed most about our writing partnership was the performing. We loved the audience contact and the giddiness of watching an audience get on our wave length and just have a good time. So, said we, why not spend our glamour years doing what we like best?
How is it going? Any good stories from the road?
Doing our shtick for audiences remains a ball, although here and there we each are visited by senior moments. Fortunately, we have never had them at the same moment; that’s why it’s good that there are two of us. Often during Q & A, someone says that they hated philosophy in college, but now they get what it’s about and like it. That makes us happy.
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