Monday, June 13, 2005

"When I know, I know, and this time I know, trust me." Mel Brooks in Curb your enthusiasm--on rule following...

Or, I was in a sad mood, contemplating the death of Anne Bancroft, whose wit, talent, and lovely legs I admired a great deal. (For the record, I was born in 1971.) Of course, 'You can't start a sentence with "Or,"" according to Mel Brooks, who was the main reason I decided to watch an episode of Larry David's TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm. This example of a rule without a reason -- in other words, good grammar -- follows an exchange in the doctor's office of an upscale emergency room, where Larry David is admonished, first, by his sidekick (whom he had called while waiting in boredom, and because "he could") waiting in the emergency room and, then, his attending physician (not an overworked resident, but a senior doctor with plenty of time to discuss the merits of rule following): "not to use the doctor's phone." David, who needs medical attention after being hit accidentally by a bathroom door (operated by Mel Brooks, who is also the source of the quote on knowledge in the headline), challenges this rule (moreover, he had only made a local call). In response, the doctor appeals to the long, complex history of the origin of the custom to cut short the demand for justification. While he requires medical attention, David's demand for justification appears, especially by a jerk (and Larry David is happy to portray himself as a jerk, for example, when he publicly refuses to follow the rules of good manners in shaking Ben Stiller's hand because Stiller just sneezed all over it), ludicrous. But the doctor, too, repeats the rule (and his tacit appeal to his expertise and the ancient wisdom behind the rule) like a mantra before he turns to David's head-wound. (Accounts of origins may be very important in justification, but that will have to wait for another forum.) We are confronted by an unreasonable demand for reasons and an equally unreasonable inability to offer one. This is the stuff of comedy, but also philosophy. (Moreover, the exchange between doctor and patient turns on, at least, two meanings of "can" and "prick"--who said one can't make modal and deontic logic appear...vulgar?) There is a risk in over-analyzing comedy (and the varied risks of too much analysis is, of course, a theme of this particular show and its older cousin, Seinfeld), it becomes unfunny (unless one is very skilled, say, Plato or Nietzsche). Nevertheless one of the elements that makes the scene funny is that the doctor's appeal to authority is misplaced--his expertise does not extend to the rules practicing his practice. This is a common affliction of our experts whose knowledge is often more narrow than they care to wish to acknowledge (or realize). This is an ancient theme from Aristophanes onward; it would be an elegant segue-way into discussing Brooks' Young Frankenstein and his 'leading ladies,' Madeline Kahn and Anne Bancroft. But this will have to wait, for a better or, I should say, more appropriate beginning.

8 Comments:

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We are confronted by an unreasonable demand for reasons and an equally unreasonable inability to offer one. This is the stuff of comedy, but also philosophy."

It's clear why this is the stuff of comedy. But why is it the stuff of philosophy? Please give an example.

 
At 9:28 PM, Blogger nescio said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 9:39 PM, Blogger nescio said...

I am not sure I should respond to an anonymous challenge, but here goes. I am tempted to respond: this is the stuff of philosophy because I say so. I simply deny that a further example is needed. My temptation presupposes that the nature of philosophy is often contested and always contestable. But, of course, this is a mere temptation because my saying so (even if I had unimpeachable credentials--imagine being Kant) is in no sense authoritative or philosophical. However, I reject the demand for an example because even if there were no previous example to be found within the canonical history of philosophy I am calling attention to a feature of our moral lives that allows for further reflection. (I welcome friendly suggestions from other readers about possible examples. Also, the history of philosophy get re-written in light of changed perceptions of the nature of philosophy.) The particular conflict I identify may be of interest to philosophers (or ought to be if it is not already--and I am no expert) precisely because it suggests that not all demands for reasons can be responded to, but not because justification comes to an end somehow. What these circumstances are may be worth investigating. Of course, it may turn out this is not very fruitful, even philosophical. But we'll only know if we have an open mind about where thought can take us.

 
At 12:15 PM, Anonymous John G. said...

"Because I say so"? That's your response? What feature of our moral lives does that call attention to?

Getting back to Larry David: Can we agree that he's a polarizing figure? People really do seem to love him or hate him. Why? Is it, as you suggest, that he doesn't follow rules and his demands are unreasonable, and this somehow defines people? His profanity? His skepticism? His New York animus?

 
At 12:30 PM, Anonymous John G. said...

And if "Because I said so" is role-playing, with Nescio as the doctor, it's still an example not of philosophy but of comedy.

 
At 12:53 PM, Blogger nescio said...

Most interesting humor (from Aristophanes onward) is generally offensive. (Of course, not all offensive humor needs to be interesting.) Some interesting humor 'works' not by offending our sensibility, but by exposing the implications of or empty confusion behind our conventions. Larry David's humor seems to be a mixture of these. I disagree with you: David does follow rules. (If he didn't, it would be hard to recognize and identify him as a fairly stable character. He is not bewildering to the viewers of his show.) In fact, in the examples I mention in my original post, he tends to invoke the wrong kind of rules (by invoking a misplaced cost-benefit analysis) or misapply and follow too rigidly the appropriate (given context) rules. I would welcome further reflections on why he is so polarizing.

Incidentally, in my response I do reject the "mere temptation" of saying "because I said so!"

 
At 8:25 AM, Anonymous John G. said...

Here are a few possible reasons for David’s polarization:

He’s not the most traditional comic. David is very confrontational, and many people are turned off by it (especially when the confrontations are laced with profanity). (When “Curb” is not very funny, it’s usually because confrontations pile up on the same subject with little development.)

Physically, David is not central casting’s idea of a funnyman. He is a tall, intimidating man, which some people find scary. He’s not Jerry Seinfeld or Ray Romano, or even Chaplin, Tati, Woody Allen, or Mel Brooks. (It’s particularly interesting to watch “Seinfeld” having seen “Curb,” because what you hear are Larry David lines coming out of the mouth of Jerry Seinfeld, which softens them considerably.)

David is a successful Hollywood writer/producer, with a big house and a beautiful wife. “What’s he got to whine about?” As opposed to, say, George Costanza.

 
At 10:12 AM, Blogger nescio said...

So because David does not appear as nor has the trappings of the physical or economic/status underdog he violates some norm or expectation we have of comedians. That he is confrontational is one of the sources of his humur, in part, because he articulates what some us think (sometimes) when confronted by similar situations or conventions. He reminds us that we do not always really prefer fair play; that we accept silly rules; that we trap ourselves with our expectations. Perhaps, because he does not suffer any serious consequences for violations of, say, fair play (he is protected by our decency, the law, our commitment to free speech, etc) this irritates. We feel envy at his success? (You did not mention Lenny Bruce who was made to suffer.) Donald Trump's show, for example, takes our envy and makes us laugh at the humiliation of his overachieving contestants; Larry David makes us realize (because we identify with either his victims or his analysis of the insanity of our norms) that we may be the source of our own smallness? I am not sure...

 

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