Austin Powers Plays with the Absurd

Thomas Nagel discusses the absurd in ‘The Journal of Philosophy’ and presents philosophical discussion on the reasoning behind the absurdity of human life. He explains that ‘Most people feel on occasion that life is absurd, and some feel it vividly and continually’ [1]. His discussion focuses on the human experience and why things feel absurd and does not venture into the relationship between the absurd and comedy. However, it is undeniable that his writing provides a platform for understanding why some things are funny.

A cartoon poking fun at the concept of being absurd vs. an absurdist.

‘In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality’ [2]. Nagel gives the example of when ‘… a notorious criminal is made president of a major philanthropic foundation’. [3] This situation is absurd because of the juxtaposition between two elements: the elected president is morally opposite to the foundation that he is running. Although Nagel does not dissect why this situation is comedic, it is evident that the incongruence evokes a humourous effect. 

A picture of President Donald Trump, an extension of Nagel’s presidential example of ‘absurdity’.

The theory of incongruence is about flipping expectations on their head and presenting two things that do not normally go together; things that are illogical, things that are absurd. The clip from Austin Powers in Goldmember (Jay Roach, New Line Cinema, 2002) [4] is an example of an absurd situation in which the actions occurring are incongruous with the setting. Austin Powers is in a clinical environment and has been asked to urinate into a cup and to then prepare to be physically examined for medical purposes. Despite the context, the tone becomes humorous because Austin Powers uses his ‘mini me’ companion to try and trick the doctor. The rediculousness that the viewer sees contrasts the seriousness of the doctor’s tone and this creates a sense of absurdity that makes us laugh.

 

Sources

[1] Nagel, Thomas. ‘The Absurd,’ The Journal of Philosophy (68:20 (1971),  716.

[2] Ibid, 718.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://youtu.be/onkZzEAi_2U

 

3 comments

  1. You break down Nagel’s central argument very well and explain why it might be explain why absurdities can be humorous. ‘Austin Powers’ is a great example of absurdist comedy and links very nicely with Nagel’s central argument. Another clip from the film would’ve been useful (or even a screenshot) to add more visuals to your cinematic argument.

  2. How does the sailor’s reaction adhere to the three reactions to the absurd that Nagel outlined? Or is it made comical by the fact the sailor does not know how to adhere to these and is left to suffer witnessing the absurd defy reality.

  3. It’s a good outline of Nagel’s view of absurdity. However, the jumping from example to example makes your overall point unclear. I get how your juxtaposing the ridiculousness of Austin on top of Mini-me with the doctor, but that doesn’t complete the comparison that Nagel put forward. The doctor’s professionalism isn’t the joke, it is him mistaking Mini-me for a penis and freaking out over it. The moment is absurd but not in the way of a moral clash of interests.

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