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"Living a Wisecracking Life": David Shoemaker in conversation with Will Franken (Keywords: Humour; Morality; Absurdism; Deception; Stereotyping; Shame)

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In this conversation with comedian Will Franken, philosopher David Shoemaker explores wisecracks, the kind of humour that is essentially interpersonal, that are part of our conversations with each other in everyday life. As he argues, while wisecracks may be ever-present in our lives, they may also generate moral trouble, as sometimes what contributes to their funniness are things that we ordinarily think call for moral anger or blame, things like deception, meanness, cruelty, and the exploitation of problematic stereotypes. In the course of the conversation, Shoemaker considers philosophical questions raised by absurdism, mockery, shaming, and “punching down”.

Will Franken (WF): Let’s start with the basics of the book. What exactly are wisecracks, how do they differ from jokes, and why do you want to focus on them?

David Shoemaker (DS): All previous work on humour focuses on jokes. These are the familiar forms of humour that typically have set-ups and punchlines. We pass these along to each other, and comedians tell them to larger audiences. “A priest, a rabbi, and a duck walk into a bar,” that sort of thing. Jokes are performed, they are prepared, they are monologues, and, in our ordinary lives, they interrupt conversations, rather than being a part of conversations. What I’m interested in instead is the humour that is essentially interpersonal, the made-up-on-the-spot bits of back-and-forth banter, teasing, ball-busting, leg-pulling, and mockery that are part of our conversations with each other in everyday life. Wisecracks are by far the source of most of the humour in our lives, so they are worth studying for that reason alone. But they may also, as opposed to jokes, generate moral trouble, as sometimes what contributes to their funniness are things that we ordinarily think call for moral anger or blame, things like deception, meanness, cruelty, and the exploitation of problematic stereotypes. So wisecracks are where most of the funny is, but they are also where a lot of the moral trouble in humour can be found. I’m interested in that intersection.


WF: If wisecracking contains some immoral features, though, shouldn’t we just give it up? Why engage in some activity that’s immoral, given that it could undermine the cooperative element that’s key to a functional society?

DS: One of the aims of the book is to tout the benefits of wisecracking, as I think they’ve been undervalued. Sometimes the positive values of wisecracking can outweigh the kinds of immoral properties—properties like deception, meanness, and stereotyping—that are sometimes necessary for their funniness. But that’s just to put forward a view in which there are different kinds of reasons stemming from the different values in our lives that we weigh against one another and, sometimes, reasons from one value domain weigh more than reasons from another in determining what we ought to do. Now some people do think that reasons of morality always outweigh reasons coming from any other domain. But I think that this is false. Sometimes moral reasons (again, having to with reasons against deception, meanness, and so forth) can be outweighed by reasons from other values, including reasons of amusement. And indeed, I think the values of wisecracking are terribly important (and underappreciated) in bonding people together in powerful and important ways, not only as friends, but also as effective methods of fighting against certain kinds of bullies or immoral political movements. And it’s also true that living a wisecracking life has enormous prudential benefits too, enabling people to cope with their difficulties, generating sympathy, cultivating friendship, and much more. So I seriously doubt that moral worries about some wisecracks are always going to outweigh the benefits that wisecracking can generate.

By way of illustration, consider just two forms of wisecracking that have significant underappreciated value. One is mockery, which is often tut-tutted. People claim that it’s bad, but, in fact, we engage in it all the time with each other and it’s also an incredibly powerful tool with respect to those who are abusing power and so forth, to bring them down to size. What mockery can do is conservative in one way: it can remind you about certain norms whose boundaries you’ve overstepped, certain standards that you’ve violated—and that you need to stop doing that! However, mockery can also be used to highlight that we’re setting the groundwork for a new set of norms and we’re going to make fun of you relative to these because you’re not progressing in the way that you should. It’s a very powerful tool. A second form of valuable wisecracking is absurdism, which involves a recognition of how little some things may matter in the long run, and it includes self-deprecatory humour. These ways of wisecracking are really powerful coping mechanisms. Maybe—in the face of absurdity, or tragedy, or oppression—maybe all you can do is laugh.

Absurdity, most generally, consists in a disparity between our expectations or pretentions and reality.

WF: Regarding absurdity, I remember reading some passages close to the end of your book on the reflective life, on stepping back and looking at the absurd. After one gets a glimpse at the absurd, how does one step back into the engaged life?

DS: Absurdity, most generally, consists in a disparity between our expectations or pretentions and reality. We are engaged in the world, busy pursuing the things that we think matter, and sometimes the rug is pulled out from under us by reality. One example that Thomas Nagel gives is of someone being knighted as his pants fall down. To the person knighted this may be humiliating. But to most of the rest of us, it’s going to be hilarious: look at this person being honoured in this highly dignified ceremony in the most undignified way. There’s a story I tell in Wisecracks where a couple of my friends are trying to move a pool table in their house from one room to the other and the legs break and it crashes onto the floor and there’s dust everywhere. They looked at each other and just burst out laughing. One of them described it to me as “tragilarious”, which is a great term for this kind of absurdity, for this moment of recognition that there’s value lost here, maybe even a kind of tragedy, but, my God, it’s funny how this thing we were so earnestly trying to do ended in this stupid way!

Now that’s one kind of absurdity, the absurdity of everyday life. There’s another, deeper, absurdity, though, that we humans have the distinctive capacity to perceive. It comes from our ability to step back from all of our daily values, concerns, and strivings to look at our lives from the timeless perspective of the universe. From there, we may look like a bunch of ants, carrying stones up an anthill that will be destroyed by the wind or all come to naught in the long run. What we’re all striving for may be for nothing! And we’re striving for it with such earnestness. There are two ways to respond to this reflective move. On the one hand, it may all seem tragic, humiliating, pointless, and sobering. But on the other hand, the very vastness of the disparity between our value-laden pursuits and their possible meaninglessness, well, that can be hilarious. The absurdity of life is where we may find great humour.

But of course we can’t just focus on that disparity and be sceptical that anything matters. Indeed, the mattering is the thing that gives us reason to get out of bed in the morning. Something’s got to matter. Otherwise, there really is just no point and it’s just impossible to keep going at all. So our best approach to life requires a little of both: we have to behave, sometimes, as if all these things matter, but sometimes we have to crack wise with each other, as if nothing really matters.

Jokes are basically performed and prepared monologues, while wisecracks are forms of improvisational wit that take place between friends and family in social settings.

WF: Do you think professional comedians should be distinct from wisecrackers or should they resemble them more? Could a greater resemblance have positive or negative effects for the aesthetics or even the morality of performative humour?

DS: Again, jokes are basically performed and prepared monologues, while wisecracks are forms of improvisational wit that take place between friends and family in social settings. Some comedians have more of a “wisecracky” approach, especially when they are working the crowd, going back and forth with somebody. But there’s a difference in terms of relevant kinds of information that is necessary to make something funny. I think of professional comedians as trying to find something that’s going to be, in a way, universal and not require too much context or background information. Conversely, I think lots of wisecracking takes place in a context requiring lots of background information. For example, there are sly callbacks that may be made and only people “in the know” are aware of the relevant background information that makes them funny. This is why it can be so difficult to try to explain the humour to somebody who wasn’t there, so we wind up throwing our hands in the air and saying, “You just had to be there!” On the other hand, we can relay the jokes of comedians in a way that translates, if they’re funny, to somebody who wasn’t there. They can get it, because not much background relationship information is needed.

Whether or not comedians would be better off aesthetically going more in the wisecracks direction, I can’t say, because it’s just a different relationship with the audience than the kinds of relationships that I’m talking about. There are some who seem to have that kind of connection with their audience and, so, it sounds like what they’re doing is making wisecracks, even though it’s very carefully prepared material. Dave Chappelle, in some of his work, has this kind of really loose and easy-going relationship with the audience.

WF: I think there has been a trend lately of comedians taking what is essentially wisecrack behaviour and bringing it to the stage. The fourth wall is no longer there. Spike Milligan, for example, was shellshocked from World War II, but in his comedic writing and performance, there’s a chrysalis effect that results in much of his material not actually dealing directly with that trauma, but indirectly in a beautiful chaos of surrealistic takes on all sorts of topics. I worry sometimes that today’s comedians are losing that chrysalis effect.

DS: Yes, I’m aware of several newer comedians making these kinds of moves. The aim, it looks like, is to create the kind of sense of intimacy that gets you over the hump when it comes to friends and family and the kinds of wisecracks that are relevant for them. Maybe what’s happening is that they’re breaking the fourth wall or they’re generating an unearned connection or “relationship” with the audience via the kind of intimate confession that’s being made, so that the laughs that are coming are the kind of wisecrack laughs that we get with loved ones, with friends and family, as opposed to what you’d think would be the comedian’s job, which would be to maintain some distance and to reach us through the humour in and of itself (and not through some one-night-only “relationship” that appeals to our sympathetic side and gains them the benefit of the doubt, as it would for friends or family). Their job is to be entertaining in a surprising and more universal way, I’d have thought. I imagine what you’re getting from this sort of confessional approach is that the audience is more niche, but more on your side immediately. There are certain things that don’t have to be earned in a way that I think professional comedians should in fact earn.  

WF: Could fear ever play a role in wisecracking? Either for the mocked, who would prefer being teased and included as opposed to remaining on the outside of a social circle, or even the mocker, who might want to avoid expressing sincerity to others within that social circle?

DS: First, I want to be clear about what mockery is, as some people hear the term and immediately think that it’s a nasty thing. But it’s not necessarily. Mockery is simply drawing attention to someone’s flaw or failure in a humourous way, highlighting that flaw or failure for public consumption. It does aim to sting the mocked person, at least a bit, but it has all sorts of beneficial effects, including getting the mocked person to do better next time, and it too has a kind of bonding consequence: “If you can take it, you’re all right, you’re one of us.” Mockery is also a powerful tool in bringing the mighty down to size (think of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator). And as it turns out, we mock our friends, family, and loved ones all the time, as empirical work in linguistics has shown. One of the book’s aims is to tout the values of mockery and to defend its use for a variety of folks.

Regarding fear and mockery, it’s very complicated. I suspect that you’re right, that there are many people who’d prefer to be mocked rather than not mocked, precisely because it does imply (sometimes!) a kind of inclusion: we often mock or tease those we love, precisely as an expression of our love (this has been found to be the case in midwestern US families, in particular, who otherwise have trouble expressing their love directly). But I also think mockery does often express a kind of sincerity. It says, “Here are the norms I sincerely believe in, and you failed to live up them!”

As to your question about fear and wisecrackery generally, I think here about the absurdity of life, and that some people are afraid to take up the reflective perspective that reveals it. The people who are afraid to deal with and laugh at the absurdity in life cling to the things they think matter, because they are terrified that, in fact, the world could be crumbling beneath their feet and nothing really does, in the long run, matter. Or perhaps the values that they have are just totally contingent. They could have been born in a different era, to different parents and so forth. But the people who are always engaged in that opposite view, the holding-reality-at-an-arm’s-length kind of view are also afraid, in a way, to say that things genuinely matter to them. A kind of fear of sincerity does a lot of work for some people in preventing them from engaging with others and engaging in that kind of embrace of life and its value. There are problems with both extremes. This is why the Goldilocks approach is necessary.

In the book I talk about Prigs, who are the ones who say that if there’s any immorality in a wisecrack, any meanness or deception or pain, then it’s just not funny, and we are bad people for laughing at it. There’s a kind of fear lurking in them that everything they believe may not really matter. And then there are the Buffoons, who find every bit of failure and misery funny. They are the ones who you hear saying to someone whose pain they are laughing at, “Oh, c’mon, lighten up, that was funny!” They too are also missing out on something crucially important, that there are things in life that do matter, that we ought to sympathize with some people, that we ought to feel distress at their pain—sometimes. Engaging sincerely with others, admitting that they really matter, that’s hard work, too. That can be really difficult and terrifying.

WF: I sometimes laugh at the misfortune of others. In fact, I was wondering, while reading Wisecracks, “Am I a Psychopath? Am I one of the Dark Triad?”

DS: The Dark Triad are three personality disorders studied together by psychologists, given that they have a common cause, namely, impairments in empathy. They are psychopaths (who pursue their self-interest at the cost of all else), Machiavellians (who like to manipulate people as if they were puppet-masters), and narcissists (who think they are the most important people in the world, the ones to whom all attention must be paid). I’ve been studying psychopaths at arm’s distance for a while, especially when it comes to morality and responsibility. They score off the charts on schadenfreude, laughing at others’ misery and pain. But I do say at one point in the book that sometimes morality itself demands that we all be a little bit psychopathic, that we become less distressed by the misfortunes of others and see the humour in it, to laugh along with them at how absurd it all is. I think all of that’s terribly valuable.

Sometimes morality itself demands that we all be a little bit psychopathic, that we become less distressed by the misfortunes of others and see the humour in it

WF: So, there’s value in schadenfreude?

DS: Yes, I think there is. There are some philosophers who start with the data point that it’s always a bad thing but I think that’s a mistake. I think that sometimes, yes, the downfall of the wicked is hilarious. But, you know, the child who slips and cracks her head open on the ice, psychopaths do find that funny and it’s just not.

WF: Well, that’s how I know I’m not a psychopath! On page 135, you state that “You may not be aware that you’ve been harmed, but you can’t not be aware that you’ve been offended.” I thought that was a very good distinction.

DS: Thank you. It’s drawn in part from work by the political philosopher Joel Feinberg. I think that that’s the best way to put that kind of distinction. The reason it matters is that some people who aren’t, in fact, offended, will say, “Well, it’s offensive.” And you might rightly say, “Well, but were you offended? “No, but it was offensive.” What does that mean? Why should I take that seriously as a reason? Maybe you are saying some people are or would be, in fact, offended by it, but then why do you care if you’re not actually offended? I think that you yourself have to have been put into a particular offended state of mind in order for your complaint to matter.

WF: One of the great things about your book is it’s very balanced, especially in the section where you point out that “punching up and punching down” is a relative concept. I admire the attempt to get the discussion away from the extremely reductive, heavily politicised arguments on the topic.

DS: That was one of the overriding aims for me, trying to understand this phenomenon. It started when people began asking, “What happened to Dennis Miller? He just stopped being funny,” and trying to figure out when that occurred. It occurred after 9-11. He was very shaken by it and his conservative side became much more part of his act and he wound up being on FOX News and when that transition occurred, people said, “He’s no longer funny.” The problem with saying that is that his jokes had the exact same kind of structure as they did when he was doing Weekend Update on “Saturday Night Live”. They had all the exact same properties. It’s just that people on the left couldn’t see it as funny anymore because they didn’t share the political ideology. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon that there are people on the right who find certain things funny that people on the left simply can’t see as funny, but they can have identical structures when they’re told on the left and people on the left think they’re funny and people on the right think they’re not. I’m just fascinated by the ways in which these kinds of ideological commitments and biases that we have can prevent us from seeing what is objectively, I think, funny. This cuts both right and left. Both right and left have their Prigs and their Buffoons. Yes, the aim was to try to stay in the middle here. Getting your audience on your side with a smug, murmuring nod of agreement, that’s not comedy, it’s evangelism with a choir.

WF: Is it possible that, under a nurture model, all mockery could be construed by some people as immoral? You mention Peter Cvjetanovic, who was famously photographed marching with a tiki torch and angry face during the Charlottesville protests. One might point to his upbringing or his environment in a way that a real Prig could come along and say, “Well, you can’t even make fun of him, because everybody will have their own background and their own root causes.”

DS: Yes, they could say that. I think they’re wrong. Again, mockery often serves this kind of valuable policing function and, so, if people have strayed too far either outside of the circle or, in some cases, if they think of themselves too highly, mockery brings them down a peg or reminds them, nope, these are the norms here. As Francis Hutcheson said, men have been laughed out of faults better than any sermon could do. That angry finger-wagging and yelling just doesn’t work on a lot of people. What does work is being laughed at. But there are things that we humorously mock people for, I think, that are entirely outside of their control, things for which they aren’t responsible. The people who want to push back and say, “Well, it was because of their terrible childhood,” may be right. Nevertheless, there could be funny mockery of their failures that serves a valuable purpose, even if they had no control over their genesis. What it can do is provoke them to change, so that they can avoid such mockery in the future.

WF: As a culture have we now gone beyond shame? Is it possible anymore to really take somebody down?

DS: I find it remarkable how much less shame there is just in my lifetime, certainly in public and political figures. Things like hypocrisy, when pointed out, used to be something that people would respond to, aptly, I think, with shame. People will double down on their hypocrisy now, or shame just has no grip on them. There are some who argue that we need to get rid of shame and I think that’s a mistake. I think shame serves a very valuable function in societies. It likely developed in small tribes, but nevertheless, it can serve a function in larger societies as well. The problem is that, and I talk about this in the book, shaming people through online pile-ons can also be grotesque, a kind of over-shaming to the point that their targets literally want to end it all as a result. It’s just horrific when there’s a shaming pile-on for minor breaches. So, there are two sides to this. One is that people are feeling not enough shame and the other is that people are made to feel too much shame in other contexts. Both are problematic.

WF: What do you make of the recent Netflix and social media trend where Jimmy Carr will make a joke at the expense of gypsies or Ricky Gervais might say something about trans people and, like clockwork, social media erupts into “He did a bad thing” or “He didn’t do a bad thing”? Is this just a numbers game? Is one really ostracised and isolated as long as they can go to social media and get a certain amount of supporters saying, “Stick with your guns” in response to “Shame on you”? How much does social media enter into this?

DS: I think these kinds of comedians are saying the naughty bits in order to be seen as saying the naughty bits in a way that will generate this kind of firestorm. It’s the old “no publicity is bad publicity” line and it just feeds itself. That’s the aim, as opposed to what you think ought to have been the kind of aesthetic demand here, which is that comedians should be at the forefront of questioning norms and pushing boundaries in certain kinds of ways. The reason that you make these kinds of jokes would be to get us to reflect on the norms that we’ve got and to think about how silly they are, and that maybe we should rethink some of these, but that’s not the motivation, I think, for the guys you’ve mentioned. It doesn’t seem to be the motivation for Gervais, for example, whose specials I’ve seen, and who is tweaking people in a way that he knows will rile certain people up. He has no real interest in reflecting deeply on various kinds of norms and maybe pushing them in a better direction. It’s a cheap trick.

WF: Another thing I liked was your distinction between the social and medical models of disability because it helped me understand not just where we are as a society now regarding disability, but also where things have been heading in terms of performance comedy in terms of both the increase in the number of performers and the types of shows being produced. However, I have a very cynical view about attending comedy shows for the purposes of a healing moment. Do you have any thoughts on that?

DS: Yes, with wisecracking, I’m thinking of friends and family in particular who might be able to make fun of each other for a variety of reasons, including disabilities, even for the disability itself. This is, I know, an incredibly controversial idea, but it’s about inclusion and I think that, because of the values of wisecracking, and in particular the values of mockery of a certain sort, to withhold those values from people for arbitrary contingent features is just to further disable them. It’s an odd kind of argument, but I find it quite powerful that, for reasons of inclusion, we ought to be able to mock anyone, for whatever features that they have, in certain contexts (especially in loving contexts). What we’re often trying to do with wisecracks is to build tight bonds with one another and enforce norms that are of value to us, as well as fight off the bullies in our lives, and we need to be united to do so. That’s just not, or shouldn’t be, the aim of professional comedians. I take your point to be that, to the extent that it starts to become the aim of professional comedy to heal or for the audience to become “allies,” then the comedy loses. That seems right to me.

What we’re often trying to do with wisecracks is to build tight bonds with one another and enforce norms that are of value to us, as well as fight off the bullies in our lives, and we need to be united to do so.

WF: I know exactly what you’re talking about regarding that sense of inclusion. I had a friend when I was fourteen and the first time I went to visit him at his house, he and his younger brother called their mother “shithead” in front of me. The mother, I was surprised, would play along, putting on a very high, wavery, Edith Bunker-styled voice. At first, I didn’t get that the whole family was joking and putting on a show for my benefit, but eventually I felt so included that I started calling her “shithead” too! I wouldn’t have called this process “wisecracking” back then, but I certainly felt like I belonged in their social setting.

DS: I come from the Midwest and our family were big wisecrackers. We would make fun of each other around the dinner table. As I noted earlier, this is actually a way of expressing love, which, in my family, we just couldn’t do explicitly. This goes to your example of people who are afraid of a certain kind of sincerity in the expression of love and they’re teasing and calling one another “shithead”. To be included in that, it’s a delight when it happens. What I find really funny is this phrase: “Well, I don’t know her well enough to tease her like that.” When you are at that point, a certain tiny tease could get you over the hump into a really close friendship. It’s just wonderful.

WF: Even though you’re not focusing on performative comedy in your book, I think the implications for it are still there, especially in your analysis of punching up and punching down and the relativity of those metaphors.

DS: Absolutely. Particularly on the left, the punching up and down metaphor has just taken on a kind of gospel status. They think they know why it’s the right thing to say, but they don’t really and that’s why I want to steer them in the direction of the piling-on metaphor.

WF: Regarding that metaphor, in relation to the online world, is anybody who uses social media to some extent a narcissist?

DS: You’re trying to get attention, for sure. Especially tweeting, you want to get as many followers as you can and have them listening to the things that you’re saying about your daily routines that are just otherwise so mundane. “I finally found a forum where people are going to be interested in what kind of soup I had today for lunch!” There is some of that. But simply craving attention isn’t going to make you a narcissist necessarily. People may be driven to seek attention for all sorts of reasons. I mean, it could be that I’m craving attention because I want people to buy this book and I don’t think of myself as a narcissist. Actually, I do know that I’m not a narcissist. Or perhaps that’s what a narcissist would say?  

David Shoemaker's new book, Wisecracks: Humor and Morality in Everyday Life, is published by Chicago University Press.


David Shoemaker is Professor at the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University. His research specialties are agency and responsibility, personal identity and ethics, moral psychology, normative ethics, social/political philosophy, and humour.

Will Franken is a solo sketch comedian and Juvenalian satirist with over twenty years’ experience writing and performing for audiences in America and Europe. His work has been reviewed in various publications, including The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, The Independent, and The Sunday Times. He holds a BA in Philosophy and an MA in British Literature from Southwest Missouri State University, where for a time he was also an instructor. Franken is currently working on a book exploring the philosophy of ethics in classic cinema.



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