John Cleese & Jonathan Miller Turn Profs Talking About Wittgenstein Into a Classic Comedy Routine (1977)

Every­one inter­est­ed in phi­los­o­phy must occa­sion­al­ly face the ques­tion of how, exact­ly, to define phi­los­o­phy itself. You can always label as phi­los­o­phy what­ev­er philoso­phers do — but what, exact­ly, do philoso­phers do? Here the Eng­lish come­di­ans John Cleese of Mon­ty Python and Jonathan Miller of Beyond the Fringe offer an inter­pre­ta­tion of the life of mod­ern philoso­phers in the form of a five-minute sketch set in “a senior com­mon room some­where in Oxford (or Cam­bridge).”

There, Cleese and Miller’s philoso­phers have a wide-rang­ing talk about Lud­wig Wittgen­stein, sens­es of the word “yes,” whether an “unfetched slab” can be said to exist, and the very role of the philoso­pher in this “het­ero­ge­neous, con­fus­ing, and con­fused jum­ble of polit­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic rela­tions we call soci­ety.” They come to the ten­ta­tive con­clu­sion that, just as oth­ers dri­ve bus­es or chop down trees, philoso­phers “play lan­guage games” — or per­haps “games at lan­guage” — “in order to find out what game it is that we are play­ing.”

As inten­tion­al­ly ridicu­lous as that expla­na­tion may sound, it would­n’t come across as espe­cial­ly out­landish in many phi­los­o­phy-depart­ment com­mon rooms today. Cleese and Miller, no strangers to play­ing their own kinds of lan­guage games, get laughs not so much from mock­ing the non­sen­si­cal com­plex­i­ties of phi­los­o­phy — and indeed, most of their lines make per­fect sense on one lev­el or anoth­er — as they do from so vivid­ly express­ing the dis­tinc­tive man­ner of the “Oxbridge Philoso­pher” char­ac­ters they por­tray. It has every­thing to do with man­ner, both ver­bal and phys­i­cal, tak­en to as absurd an extreme as their lines of think­ing.

Cleese and Miller’s ver­sion of the Oxbridge Philoso­pher sketch here comes from the 1977 Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al ben­e­fit show and tele­vi­sion spe­cial An Evening With­out Sir Bernard Miles (also known as The Mer­maid Frol­ics), but oth­ers exist. It goes at least as far back as Beyond the Fringe’s days pio­neer­ing their huge­ly influ­en­tial brand of British satire on the stage in the 1960s; their ear­li­er per­for­mance just above fea­tures Miller and fel­low troupe mem­ber Alan Ben­nett. It can still make us laugh today, but we might well won­der whether any­one in the his­to­ry of human­i­ty has ever real­ly sound­ed like this — in which case, we should watch footage of real-life Oxford philoso­phers back in those days and judge for our­selves.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mon­ty Python Sings “The Philosopher’s Song,” Reveal­ing the Drink­ing Habits of Great Euro­pean Thinkers

Mon­ty Python’s Philosopher’s Foot­ball Match: The Epic Show­down Between the Greeks & Ger­mans (1972)

John Cleese Touts the Val­ue of Phi­los­o­phy in 22 Pub­lic Ser­vice Announce­ments for the Amer­i­can Philo­soph­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion

Athe­ism: A Rough His­to­ry of Dis­be­lief, with Jonathan Miller

The Mod­ern-Day Philoso­phers Pod­cast: Where Come­di­ans Like Carl Rein­er & Artie Lange Dis­cuss Schopen­hauer & Mai­monides

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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