Why is that funny?

Authors look at the philosophy underlying jokes

By Pamela  H. Sacks

Daniel Klein laughed when he came across the query, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Mr. Klein repeated the line to his friend Thomas Cathcart, who replied, “Don’t you realize how profound that is?”

“I tend to see everything as a joke. Otherwise I get very depressed,” Mr. Klein said.

Mr. Klein has had reason to be downright cheerful in the last couple of years – ever since he and Mr. Cathcart put philosophy and jokes together in a book called “Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar …Understanding Philosophy

Through Jokes,” which turned out to be an international bestseller.

The two men have been close friends since their student years at Harvard College, where they both majored in philosophy. They either talk on the phone or e-mail each other every day.

The idea for the book popped up after Mr. Klein, who once wrote for comedians Flip Wilson and Lily Tomlin, told Mr. Cathcart a joke about a husband who catches his best friend with his wife. The husband says, “Lou, what are you doing here?” Lou, who has tried to hide in a closet, replies, “Everyone has to be somewhere.”

Mr. Cathcart pointed out that Lou gave a Hegelian response to an existential question.

Mr. Klein immediately suspected that many jokes have philosophical underpinnings. He suggested that they write a book, but Mr. Cathcart was skeptical that they could find enough examples to make their case.

“I challenged him,” Mr. Klein said. “The next time we took a vacation, we took a whole pile of philosophy and joke books, and by the time we were done, he said: `By golly, you were right.’”

Mr. Klein and Mr. Cathcart will talk about the fun they had putting together their irreverent book at 7 tonight at the Worcester Jewish Community Center at 633 Salisbury St. in Worcester.

“Plato and a Platypus” is a goldmine of gags that elucidate a range of thought processes and philosophical approaches, from logic to ethics to metaphysics. The jokes in their chapter on the philosophy of language illustrate what can come of linguistic confusion.

Here’s one:

Billingsley went to see his friend, Hatfield, who was dying in the hospital. As Billingsley stood by the bed, Hatfield’s frail condition grew worse, and he gestured frantically for something to write on. Billingsley handed him a pen and a piece of paper; and Hatfield used his last ounce of strength to scribble a note. No sooner had he finished the note than he died. Billingsley put the note in his pocket, unable in his grief to read it just then.

A few days later as Billingsley was talking to Hatfield’s family at the wake, he realized that the note was in the pocket of the jacket he was wearing. He announced to the family, `Hat handed me a note just before he died. I haven’t read it yet, but knowing him, I’m sure there’s a word of inspiration for us all.” And he read aloud, “You’re standing on my oxygen tube!”

In the two years that they worked on the book, Mr. Klein focused on the jokes, while Mr. Cathcart concentrated on the philosophy. Mr. Klein, who lives in Great Barrington, maintains that Mr. Cathcart is by far the smarter of the two. When told of that assessment, Mr. Cathcart, who is in the process of moving from Sandwich to Manhattan, replied with a guffaw. “He’s rarely right,” he said. “On this occasion, he hit the nail on the head. He’s spot on.”

The success of “Plato and a Platypus” came as a complete surprise to both of the authors. The manuscript was rejected by 40 publishers before Abrams said yes. Soon after the book’s publication, Harvard Magazine ran a story about Mr. Klein and Mr. Cathcart. Then they were featured on National Public Radio, and the book took off. It has been translated into 20 languages.

College instructors have told the authors that they use “Plato and a Platypus” in their introductory philosophy courses. In the authors’ view, that’s a fine idea – but it probably shouldn’t be the sole text.

For the past 30 years, Mr. Klein, 70, has made what he describes as a modest living by writing thrillers. Mr. Cathcart, 68, spent the bulk of his career in hospital administration. This year, they published their second book, a small tome on political doublespeak called “Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington.” Their third volume – this one about death, jokes and philosophy – will come out in the fall.

“It’s incredible,” Mr. Klein said. “All of sudden we have money. We never had money before. When they gave us a huge advance on our third book, Tom said, `Well, they made us an offer our wives couldn’t refuse.’”