Monday, August 27, 2007

On Borat, Crushes, and the Easy Way to Look Really, Really Smart

Let's start by taking a stab at the first three questions this go 'round.

R. Porter asks,

"Why do people think Sacha Cohen is funny and/or talented?"
I think that Gwydion is exactly right in his comment that what Cohen does best is something extremely difficult. Most comedy is based around jokes. A joke works in two steps, first, there's a set-up that sets the linguistic frame around a situation, forcing your mind into a specific way of seeing the world. Then comes the punchline that utilizes a different frame that makes you realize the way you had been understanding the meaning of the set-up was wrong. The humor is in the moment when your mind is trying to reconcile the competing ways of seeing the world. Most good comedians are successful because they are good at isolating your mind so that they can lead you through the joke. A bad joke-teller telegraphs the punchline, so you see it coming and thus don't get the switch. The majority of comedy is therefore like a scientific experiment in which external factors are controlled for, screened off.

What Sacha Baron Cohen does (at his best) is something quite different. He creates comedy in an uncontrolled environment. The Ali G and Borat interviews are live, meaning that Cohen is trying to be funny without having complete command over the set up. He relies on background on his guests as Ali G and on deeply entrenched social biases as Borat, so he's not just fishing; but he is working without a net and this gives an extra sense of energy to the work, not unlike that with improv comedians.

But there's one more element there in that you get the set-up and Cohen's punchline to laugh at, but you also get to laugh at the reaction of the target, the people being punked who have no idea it is a put-on. Here you have two operative factors. One is the "Candid Camera" sense of watching people who are vulnerable and just by watching you get to be on the inside of the inside joke and see people without their facade, reacting as you ordinarily wouldn't get to see. But what adds the extra edge to Cohen's work is that he ties it up with a part of social beliefs, biases, arrogance, and hatred, that we generally keep hidden from view. That's where the shock is. He's talking about things we know better than to talk about and doing it in a way that gets people to show their real feelings, not their social face.

His standard work -- the Ali G movie, his role in Talledega Nights -- eh, whatever, passable humor, good delivery, but nothing to write home about. The live stuff, though, is fascinating work. Can some of it be not so funny? Sure, but he's working without a net and that's risky comedy.

Gwydion asks,
All of the somewhat cliched feelings we experience when we're falling in love -- the ones that are actually sort of nauseating, like the way your heart skips a beat when you see the person you're crushing on, and they way you can get dizzy with emotion when thinking about her, the way you stop eating because your stomach is full of butterflies -- why in the world were they selected for evolutionarily?

I mean, new love is almost (but not quite) like a sickness -- it takes over your body and sets all sorts of chemicals roiling in your brain, distracting you from living the basic day-to-day life that's necessary for survival. So how could that be GOOD for fitness? Is it more than just the need to encourage pair-bonding and the raising of children?
Speculation here, but my guess is that it's evolutionary leftovers. Evolution works by integrating two competing mechanisms -- natural selection (survival of the individual) and sexual selection (propagation of genetic information, survival of the line). These compete in that the things that makes one an attractive mate are not always the things that make on most likely to survive (think bright plumage on birds -- easier for predators to spot, but, boy, a hit with the lady birds).

Procreation is also expensive in terms of the amount of energy it takes away from the individual that could be dedicated to finding food or shelter ensuring individual survival. As a result, there needs to be a strong urge towards reproduction if it is going to happen for the species. That's why going into heat is an effective strategy -- the urge takes priority over other biological functions for a time, usually right after there prime feeding season and before hibernation or period of low activity.

Humans are unusual among complex sexually reproducing creatures in that we no longer have a defined reproductive cycle tied to the seasons, human females ovulate throughout the year instead of going into heat at some specified time. My guess is that what we have when we swoon for the object of our crush is the leftovers from earlier incarnations when we did have a rut. It is now contextualized instead of triggered by the calendar, but still plays the same role. It makes you ready, willing, and able to do things that may not be in your best interest in terms of individual survival in order to acquire the attention of your love interest.

Claude asks,
"When you do it in class, do you answer all the questions from the top of your head, be they about auto or quantum mechanics?"
All of them? No. I do answer a lot of them, though. Many of them are Jeopardy questions. The thing about Jeopardy is that they never ask questions that would be hard for someone familiar with the field; it just requires you to be familiar with a lot of fields. If you study a topic that is a Jeopardy category, you can generally immediately list off the five things they'll ask about. Same with these questions -- if you are well-read, you will generally be able to answer random questions from thoughtful students.

But it does three other important things for me pedagogically. First, it shows that I am open to students asking any question and it does help break the ice and get really good discussions going in class, something that can make or break a philosophy class. Second, it does the Sacha Baron Cohen thing and takes the class beyond my control which gives it an edge keeping me and them awake. Third, and most importantly, it gives students a chance to stump me. Most young teachers have the mistaken idea that you get credibility in the classroom by appearing omniscient. You need to have answers to everything or else you look untrustworthy, non-authoritative. But one of the best lessons I was ever taught about teaching came from Barbara Horan, my undergrad advisor, who once told me that nothing will gain you more credibility in the classroom than saying to a student the three little words, "I don't know." It shows the students that they are capable of asking intellectually interesting questions, that they are capable of engaging the material at a high level, and if you come back the next time with the answer (and this is crucial) you show the class that you take them seriously as co-investigators in the living field that the class is studying.

So, no, I don't have all the answers, but that is actually the point. The fun thing is finding the answers to the ones I don't know -- something facilitated by the fact that I am a college instructor which means that whatever the question, I have a friend and/or colleague who has a Ph.D. in the field and can explain it to me. Then the next time someone asks the questions (and they usually come back), I can answer it on the spot and look really, really smart.