Comedians are the new philosophers


  1. the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.
  2. a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.

I suppose there’s a lot of it about.

From TED talks to Freakonomics-type books, to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast And Slow, there are plenty of people telling us the best ways in which to live our lives.

But the ones I currently notice most are the comedians. The most obvious example of all this is Russell Brand, with his editorship of The New Statesman, Newsnight interview and regular columns for The Guardian. But there’s also plenty of life advice to be had from Louis CK railing against the indulgences of modern life, Ricky Gervais’s atheism and Frankie Boyle’s surreal analyses of pretty much anything.

Now, the idea of the fool who is actually the smartest guy in the room is far from a new one (see King Lear for one that’s several centuries old), but it seems to me that we’re in a time where these opinions are particularly pointed and are gaining a large amount of traction.

The great 70s comedians, such as Pryor, Bruce and Carlin were entertainingly analytical, but the UK mainstream never experienced the same thing, as our contemporaneous versions of those geniuses were racist pricks such as Stan Boardman and Jim Davidson. Sure, there was smart satire in the work of Monty Python, but it went round the houses and up the drainpipe twice before you knew what it was saying about British life of the time.

In the 80s we did indeed have a lot of political comedians, such as Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle, but their vitriol was precisely in step with the opposition of the time. These days the opposition and the government are far more aligned, so saying something outside of the Tory and Labour common ground is far more provocative. In 2013 you have to take on everyone because they all want to protect corporate tax avoidance, fudge the regulation of media and do very little about the stranglehold energy companies have on us.

I once went to a talk by Clive Stafford-Smith, who runs Reprieve, and he said that the only way to really damage a leader is to use humour to make him or her look ridiculous. Well, we seem to have  a few people heading in that direction.

I wonder where it will end…