What do you do with a degree in philosophy? Some of us choose to become critics, but we’re fortunate that others, like Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, go in for what they call “philogagging” — telling jokes that illuminate often abstruse ideas about the nature of existence. The pair dedicated their last book, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes (2007) to their “philosophical grandfather,” Groucho Marx. Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, a sort of Everything You Wanted to Know About Death But Are Sorry You Asked, hails their “philosophical mentor,” king of the philogaggers, Woody Allen.
As descendants of Socrates and Plato — and comedians in need of a straight man — the authors naturally structure their discourse as a dialogue. They kick off their discussion with the question, “Do you really think you’re going to die?” Their point is that “We are the only creatures who comprehend that we are going to die and we are also the only creatures who can imagine living forever. It’s that combo that drives us crazy.”
Mixing jokes, bad puns, simplified philosophical exposition, somewhat tiresome patter, and New Yorker cartoons like those collected by Mort Gerberg in Last Laughs, Cathcart and Klein touch on René Descartes’s dualism of mind and matter, Paul Tillich’s “eternal now,” Friedrich Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence,” Søren Kierkegarrd’s “streetcar named despair,” and “the Eternal Fruitcake Conundrum.” There’s more schtick than meat to their routine this time around, and their straight man, mortician Daryl Frumkin, is pretty lame. But the gallows humor is rich. My favorite joke, illustrating the will to live: A Death Row prisoner requests strawberries for his last meal. Told they’re out of season, he says, “No problem. I’ll wait.”