Absurdity & Comedy (Brooke Daley)

Thomas Nagel is a prominent philosopher who explores why we feel like life is absurd in the essay The Absurd. Nagel has several points in his essay, however only two will be discussed. Firstly, that something is only absurd when it is contrasted with something serious or significant[1]. Secondly, humans can only experience feeling like life is absurd due to our self-consciousness and search for meaning[2]. While Nagel does not apply any of his analysis to comedy, these two points can be examined in reference to the television series Rick and Morty (2013-present).

Society puts great importance on intelligence and intellectual capability. This societal significance of intelligence creates a feeling of absurdity for Jerry. Jerry is self-conscious of his lack of intelligence especially compared to Rick. Rick is a genius and able to create a robot during breakfast, while Jerry wants to use crayons for a science fair project. Society’s emphasis on intelligence and the difference between Rick and Jerry’s causes Jerry to feel absurd. This situation creates absurdity for the characters, but humour for the audience. We can all relate to Jerry’s feelings of absurdity, but laugh at what Jerry does due to these feelings.

The second point discussed in Nagel’s essay is the idea that only humans can experience absurdity because of our self-consciousness and pursuit of meaning. The robot that Rick creates has a self-conscious and desires to know its purpose. It asks Rick what its purpose is and Rick responds with, “You pass butter”. The robot feels like its life is absurd because its purpose was to pass the butter to Rick. The robot represents how people feel like their lives are absurd and have no higher purpose. The punch line comes when the robot signs, “Oh my God” and Rick responses with “Welcome to the club pal”.

Rick and Morty explores the idea of feeling like life is absurd and without purpose. Though Nagel’s analysis does not reference comedy, absurdity can create humour. This is evident in Rick and Morty and how sometimes we can all feel like our only purpose is to pass the butter.

[1] Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd”, The Journal of Philosophy Vol. 68, No. 20 (1971), p.722

[2] Ibid, 725.

4 comments

  1. Jerry seems unaware of his desire for purpose and his wife has to spell it out to make this clear. However, the robot is very self-aware and declares anguish when its sole purpose is vey mundane. Is it possible that in this scene Nagel’s philosophy on ‘the absurd’ has been shifted to fit a humorous context?

  2. I agree that the example you have chosen does illustrate what Nagel calls the absurd. It’s interesting that we find this funny; is the absurd inherently funny – that is, is the idea that we can find meaning in our lives funny – or is it only funny when it is pointed out to us in a specific context? Are we laughing at the robot because it has no higher purpose, or are we laughing at the fact that it, like us, thinks there should be one?

  3. For a television show all about absurdities, it is interesting that we chose the same episode of ‘Rick and Morty’ but a completely different scene to discuss in our post. Your analysis of the show itself is very good and you explain Nagel’s argument neatly within your discussion. There’s a lot to talk about Nagel’s arguments within this episode so if you had more time you could’ve broadened your argument more to discuss more of the absurdities within the episode.

  4. I think a lot of the comedy in this scene comes from the fact that robots/machines should be incapable of existentialism. We create them to carry out specific tasks, so the unexpectedness of a robot questioning its purpose is a surprising subversion of expectations, which is itself a key part of absurdity.

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