From late May into August, the New York Times Best Sellers list was occupied by a most unlikely summer read, a book of philosophy. Then again, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes is a most unlikely approach to what the Greek in the title once called “the highest music.” What Great Barrington, Massachusetts, author Daniel Klein created with his writing partner, Thomas Cathcart, might best be termed “Borscht Belt Philosophy”—the great ideas of Western thought filtered through the humor of old Catskill comedians. Here, for example, the book introduces the logical fallacy Post hoc ergo prompter hoc (“After this, therefore because of this.”): “Every morning, she steps out onto her front stoop and explains, ‘Let this house be safe from tigers!’ Then she goes back inside. / “Finally, we said to her, ‘What’s that all about? There isn’t a tiger within a thousand miles of here.’ / “And she said, ‘See? It works!’ ”—OK, so it’s silly, but that’s the idea. Because, by riffing on jokes rather than singing the praises of wisdom, Klein and Cathcart manage to make the intellectual heavy lifting of their book somehow less weighty, and the wisdom more accessible. The authors met at Harvard in the 1950s, where they both majored in philosophy. Klein went on to write for TV and for comedians Flip Wilson and Lily Tomlin, and has published 20 books, including 10 novels. Platypus began as an e-mail exchange between the two friends. As the idea took shape, the men were determined, between the yuks, to get the philosophy right. “Tom wrote the explanations—he’s smarter than I am,” Klein says. “I put in the pixie dust.” The 68-year-old author says he remembers hundreds of jokes: “It’s part of being Jewish. Seventy-five percent of the jokes in the book are Jewish. I knew the guys who wrote for the Borscht Belt.” Who woulda thunk all those gags were really about metaphysics, epistemology and existentialism? The book was rejected by 40 publishers before it was finally accepted; now it’s being translated into 17 languages, and a sequel, Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington, will be out in February. Such is the essence of irony.
Why did you become a writer? Was there a specific incident that convinced you this was your calling?
These are all just guesses: I was a fanciful kid or, as my mother termed it, a liar. Writing is legit fibbing. Also, I came from a heavy-duty science family and was considered the dummy. Words seemed like a safe way to distance myself from numbers. The last one that comes to mind is also a double negative: I don’t like working for other people, not good at it in any event, so writing solo solves that problem.
What used to be difficult but has now become easy?
Letting myself go with the word flow. Trusting my instincts and always remembering there are drafts and drafts to go to get it right.
Name something beautiful most people wouldn’t think of.
What’s more important, love or justice?
Love. No contest. For one thing, love is the prerequisite for justice.
Do you agree with Boethius that philosophy offers consolations?
Yes, except for the times when it doesn’t.
Have you ever wanted to be a stand-up comedian?
Yes. But my terror of bombing in front of a live audience precluded that line of work for me.
Do you prefer order or chaos?
As my wife will attest, I have a problem distinguishing one from the other.
What do you think it says about the American people that a philosophy book was a best seller throughout the summer?
One thing it suggests is that Americans have become so frustrated with disinformation and just plain lies they’ve decided that, hard as it is, they want to figure stuff out themselves. Philosophy seems like it could help. Actually, I think it can.
Which would be more useful for understanding the Bush administration, metaphysics or existentialism?
Can I vote for logic?
Well, judging by available evidence, that choice hardly seems operable.
Oh, it’s operable. Using logic to manifest illogic. But if you want another choice, how about metaphysics, as in, the relativity of alternate universes?