Humor may be a way of bringing together people with diverse perspectives — at least to start a conversation.

Sheila Lintott

The serious side of funny business captivates and challenges Professor Sheila Lintott, philosophy.

After delving into the philosophy of motherhood and friendship, she turned her eye toward comedy, particularly the often-underappreciated art of stand-up comedy. While revered in popular culture, stand-up comedy is often ignored by philosophers who traditionally focus on fine arts. 

"It's not that philosophers have blatantly dismissed the social and political import of stand-up," Lintott says. "But maybe it hasn't occurred to many philosophers to take it seriously in the analytic tradition." 

Lintott began performing stand-up comedy several years ago and uses her own feminist humor in her research. She studies how development of a single joke advances laughter in specific audience demographics, especially if it's a taboo subject.

"I try to figure out when and how I can make a joke that is funny and honest about a difficult topic while not making light of it," Lintott says. "I track the evolution of one controversial set I have. At first, I got a few uncomfortable laughs. But with a lot of subtle revisions, I figured out how to let audiences know that I'm OK while I'm talking about traumatic events, because if the audience feels sympathy or pity for you, they're not laughing. Many philosophers have talked about this emotional distance needed to find something humorous."

More than a few of the world's great thinkers considered how (and why) to deliver a punchline that packs a laugh — and just who can or can't pull it off. For Lintott's students, learning to develop a joke with rounds of rewrites is a puzzle to solve — and the solution to which is laughter. They come to appreciate the nuanced art of getting a laugh and accepting others' views when couched in comedy.

"There are many different political leanings in a class, and it can be hard," she says. "But students know the point of humor is to be funny without alienating the audience. Across difference, students help each other be funnier. That gives me hope that humor may be a way of bringing together people with diverse perspectives — at least to start a conversation. My goal is to help students practice and cultivate empathy so they can appreciate how complicated things are and how many legitimate perspectives there are on any issue."

Posted Sept. 22, 2017