I’ve been listening to an audiobook from Audible called No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life (isn’t that what everyone listens to on the train in the morning? No? Just me?). It’s actually not a book, but a series of lectures on Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, etc. that I’m absolutely loving because it deals with so many of the issues that we non-religious people face: how should one live their life, what’s the meaning of life, etc.
What struck me was this: I listened to a lecture last week talking about Sartre and identity. And the what he said (excuse the clumsy paraphrase here) was that we’re social animals, not in the sense that we like to socialize a lot, but in the sense that our identities are inextricably linked to what other people think about us. Part of your identity is what you think of yourself as being and part of it is what others think of you.
I didn’t give it much thought until a few days later and I’m pitching ideas for a sketch show with a friend and basically he’s playing a character with a racist history that doesn’t want to be known as a racist. And it was funny to hear him talk about how that was one incident and why can’t you just see me for what I am, a musician? Now, I think that if Sartre was wrong, that other people have nothing to say about our identities, then that wouldn’t be funny. And I think that in character-based comedy, the laughs tend to come from recognizable (usually bad) human behavior.
So in one sense, I see the audience as a sort of truth-detector that laughs whenever you get close to the heart of something. Which is why a lot of improv teachers tell you to play truthfully. And the reverse of that is that theoretically you could test out philosophical or psychological theories by artfully writing them into comedy routines.
The irony is that while an audience (as a unit) would almost certainly laugh at the bit (we’ll find out in a few weeks anyway), if you asked them all individually about it, they probably wouldn’t be able to give a clear answer as to why they found it funny and they might even outright deny the plausibility that their identity is formed by anything outside of their control.