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The philosophy of…Alexei Sayle

I might start doing a regular feature looking at people’s life-philosophy. This week, it’s Alexei Sayle, pioneer of alternative comedy, former member of the Communist Party, and one of the stars of the Comic Strip. Here he tells me about his fondness for Stoic philosophy, and why Alcoholics Anonymous is his ideal model of a philosophical community.

How did you come across Stoicism?

I think it was initially through Tom Wolfe’s Man In Full, where one of the characters gets into Stoic philosophy when they’re bankrupted and thrown in prison. I’m also a devotee of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, both of which were inspired by Stoicism. In a way, Stoicism is just common sense – there’s a lot of it in the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous as well.

What’s the most useful idea in Stoicism?

I think it’s the idea of control, the idea that we should focus on what we can control without going mad over what we don’t control. Capitalism fosters the illusion that you’re in charge, that if you buy enough stuff you’ll be happy. It depends on fostering a state of permanent dissatisfaction in us, so we buy more stuff. Stoicism is contrary to that. And capitalism also gives us the illusion of control – that if we just get enough money, we’ll be able to control everything and everyone around us. Stoicism is contrary to that too. It’s based on acceptance of the limits of our control – like the Serenity Prayer in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Have you found Stoic ideas useful in your own life? For example, your comedy persona is quite angry. Do you have…er…anger issues?

I try very hard not to lose my temper. You have to let go of self-pity, which is what anger is, basically. Why is my latte not hot enough, why is my train late. Fucking hell, what difference does it make? People get angry because of a sense of entitlement. But I’m not exactly a role model – my comedy now is about how wrong I often am, and that I’m not someone to be admired or revered.

The ancient Greeks thought of philosophers almost as licensed truth-tellers – they had a mission to ‘tell truth to power’ (or parrhesia, as it was called in Greek). Like Diogenes the Cynic, for example, telling Alexander the Great to stop standing in his light. Do you think that social role is now fulfilled by stand-up comedians?

Diogenes the Cynic, the stand-up (or lie-down) philosopher

Yeah, at their best, they’re licensed truth-tellers. They’re a bit like court jesters in that sense, they were licensed truth-tellers too.

Like Russell Brand, for example. Sometimes he gets away with it, and sometimes he gets a punch in the face from the king.

Yes, he’s attempting to speak truth to power, which is a noble endeavor. That’s why comedians can’t get into politics. Like Eddie Izzard running for mayor of London. If you get into power, then you lose the freedom to castigate everybody. I got a letter recently saying Ken Loach was setting up a new socialist party. I’m broadly sympathetic to it, but I can’t be part of it.

So you were raised in Marxist philosophy, both your parents were members of the Communist Party. Do you think Marxism and Stoicism are opposing tendencies – Stoicism is about inner revolution and outer acceptance, while Marxism is about focusing your energies outwards, changing the institutions of society?

Well, people have tried to ally psychology and Marxism over the years, so that you have both inner and outer revolutions. I wonder if there is some synthesis you could build. The problem is that systems inevitably go wrong, and psychopaths take them over. The problem with Marxism-Leninism is that the Bolsheviks, as an organisation, were perfectly suited to being taken over by a psychopath.

I think in some ways Alcoholics Anonymous is the perfect organisation. Most organisations are based on the two premises that mankind are noble and leaders are heroic. AA is based on the premises that everyone is nuts and there shouldn’t be any leader.

On this question of political systems – do you think the state could play a role in educating people in Stoic wisdom? Through free CBT for example (as is happening already through the NHS), or by teaching a bit of Stoicism in schools? 

Yes, you could give it a go. It’s worth remembering, human beings have an infinite capacity to fuck things up. If you tried to launch it in every school, you’d probably get opportunists calling themselves Stoics and trying to make money off it. You’d get schisms. It might be better to let people discover it for themselves. It’s like AA – people are doing it for themselves, for free. But I don’t know, you could try teaching it in schools, yeah.

Thanks a lot Alexei. We should do a London Philosophy Club event on philosophy and comedy one day!

Definitely. I’m a philosopher by marriage – my wife studied philosophy at Birkbeck.

You can get involved in Stoic Week in the last week of November. Find out more here.

What is the relationship between philosophy and comedy?

Philosophy and comedy share certain characteristics. At the most basic level, both philosophers and comedians ask the question, why? Why do we do things this way and not a different way?

Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example, is a series of ethical debates, typically involving a conventional view of morality, and Larry’s more idiosyncratic view of correct behaviour. Usually, both sides have some legitimacy to their view point, and the comedy arises from the Talmudic argument, and the social dissonance between Larry and the rest of the world. Here’s Larry involved in another ethical debate:

Both philosophy and comedy serve the Socratic function of making us question our unconscious habits, making the habitual strange and ridiculous, saying the unsayable, challenging conventions, challenging power.

If Diogenes were alive today, he'd be a stand-up comic

I think of Diogenes the Cynic – how he punctured his society’s civilised pretensions. Diogenes today would be a stand-up comic, not an academic philosopher. Indeed, he hated philosophy’s movement towards institutionalisation, and would go and heckle at Plato’s academy, pulling out chickens and other stunts to get laughs.

His modern equivalent is Dave Chappelle – check out his Cynic song, sung from a dustbin, about the benefits of giving up the rat-race and saying ‘fuck it':

And before him, it was George Carlin, musing on the pointless anxiety of a life full of ‘stuff’ (this monologue is fucking genius):

Perhaps the difference between the philosopher and the comedian, today, is that while comedians and philosophers start off asking the same questions, they end up at a different place, because comedians quickly find the process too funny, or ridiculous, and throw their hands up in the air and make some bathetic remark. They take refuge in the absurd, while the stony-faced philosopher presses grimly on.

Woody Allen (a philosophy major) is the clearest instance of this ‘waving the bathetic flag’ – his films are full of instances where he raises profound philosophical questions about life and death, briefly confronts them, and then escapes them with a bathetic moment. It’s his basic comic manoeuvre. For example, the line from Hannah and Her Sisters – ‘How the hell do I know why there were Nazis, I don’t even know how this can-opener works.’ Or some of Allen’s early one-liners: ‘Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.’

Perhaps it’s not an escape into bathos, not a consolation, but rather a recognition that even the process of trying to philosophise about existence is itself ridiculous and absurd. So the comedian has a self-awareness that the philosopher lacks, perhaps.

Comedians, like philosophers, also love to ridicule the superstitions and irrationalities of religion – Life of Brian is the best example, more powerful and persuasive in its critique than any Sam Harris polemic, I’d suggest. One of the reasons the Skeptic movement is so vibrant is that it’s as full of comedians (Ricky Gervais, Robin Ince, Stephen Fry…) as it is of scientists and philosophers. Here, for example, is rabid atheist Doug Stanhope:

But then there are also more Platonic comedians, like the mystic Russell Brand, or Bill Hicks, who suggest there is some higher reality beyond this ridiculous world:

Perhaps the main difference between philosophers and comedians, is that there is no such thing as an academic comedian. Stand-up philosophy, in particular, involves a giving of yourself, a sharing of yourself, a public exposure, not required or even allowed by the formal strictures of the academy.

Again, I think of Diogenes going along to Plato’s formal lectures, standing up, and pulling out a chicken. That heckling from the back is comedy’s riposte to philosophy – stop taking yourself and your word-games so seriously, and stop hiding away from the messy reality of life. Here, on that note, is Jonathan Miller of Beyond the Fringe, riffing on Russell:

Here is Stephen Fry making a similar joke. Within the joke, he’s asking the question – do we revere philosophers less in Anglo-Saxon countries than on the continent, simply because we can’t take them, or ourselves, sufficiently seriously? We can’t help laughing at Russell, or De Botton, or David Hume stuck in a bog…If so, I think that’s probably quite a good thing. As Fry suggests, it may be one of the reasons we avoided the extremes of fascism and communism in Anglo-Saxon countries – because every time some pompous git like Alain Badiou started mouthing off about Maoism, we laughed at them.

Anyway, another philosophical comedy clip, this from Not the Nine O’Clock News, with Rowan Atkinson and Mel Smith doing some wonderful stuff on the human / animal relationship:

And, finally, from the most philosophical of comedians, Monty Python, here is their ‘argument clinic’ sketch: