Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 9.2

I noticed today’s A.I. was not posted, so I’m going to assume someone (COUGH A COUGH) has a hangover. I’ll toss one out just to keep the love going:

Who is the greatest skeptical comedian of all time?

You are encouraged to back up your answer with quotes and video links.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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92 Comments

  1. Sam, we all know that females are too frail to be both skpetical and funny! Their delicate psyches would simply implode from the strain!

    ;-)

    (For any of you who may not catch on, I’m totally kidding here..)

    But for the question, I’ll be jumping on the Carlin bandwagon.

  2. Also, I think Stephen Colbert is a closet Skeptic. While its true that he has had such divergent people on his show as Michael Shermer and Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the one hand, and Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra on the other, during the interviews, his love of science and disdain for woo comes through.

  3. Sam Ogden, I can think of women (I hate the word “female”) comedians that I like, but I can’t think of any I’d consider a skeptic.

    ‘Course, I’ll probably think of like, 5 on my way home in 2 hours. That’s how it works.

  4. Are any big comedians CONSISTENTLY skeptical? As some have already pointed out, Hicks and Black do great bits on, for example, Creationists, but apparently fall short in other areas (not as bas as Bill Maher’s “Big Pharma” nuttiness, but still…).

    To me, skepticism is less about “not believing in” certain things than in how one thinks about things. And I’m totally cheating here, because he wasn’t really a “comedian”, as such, but I think the funniest person who consistently showed an appreciation for and understanding of science and critical thinking was Douglas Adams. Not quite what you were looking for, I suppose, but we can only chant, “CarlinHicksBlackIzzard” so many times.

  5. Sorry to say it folks, but Lewis Black is definitely not a skeptic. In his newest book, “Me of Little Faith”, he comes out strongly against organized religion, but he specifically mentions his experiences and beliefs in glowing gurus, psychics (one is a friend of his), horoscopes, and a few other things I’m not remembering right now. He IS looking at things somewhat skeptically, but he seems to be confusing coincidence with proof far too often.

    But…I feel that he could be turned to our cause, if given the right information. :)

  6. Carlin immediately comes to mind.

    Penn & Teller aren’t strictly comedians, but they might qualify on some counts (comedy is certainly a part of their act.)

    Kathy Griffin? Sort of skeptical, at least on the religious front.

    Most days Bill Maher is quite funny. Most days.

  7. jynnan_tonnyx, I think Carlin and Izzard are most certainly consistantly skeptical. Both like to examine things fully from a very skeptical viewpoint.

    I agree with you about Douglas Adams, though! And I think “comedian” can and does include him; he was very much a comedian in almost all his works. “Stand-up comedian” is just a subfolder of “comedian” in my opinion.

    I was thinking of Kathy Griffin, too, JP. I don’t know enough about her stance on anything but celebs and religion, though, to say for sure.

  8. Women skeptic comedians: Kathy Griffin. Julia Sweeney. Not sure how people rank them.

    ——–

    “All time” is a long time. Assuming that humorists are comedians, how about Mark Twain? A lot of Lenny Bruce’s stuff sounds pretty dated today, but Twain is still fresh over a century later. That’s a pretty good run.

  9. jyvnaan makes a great point about how comics often fall short for us skeptics but hey, we’re lucky that they’re in the right area for a lot of things. It’s a shame Joe Rogan comes out with the moon landing crap when I’ve seen him skewer the concept of creationism and Noah’s Ark. And yeah, Bill Hicks not only had his JFK skit but he was into TM, alternative medcine and all sorts of stuff. He went to see palm readers and psychics and was very serious about AA when he got sober. When he was diagnosed with cancer his favourite book was A Course in Miracles.
    I still love him though!

    Can I through out a British comic called Robin Ince who does a brilliant bit on creationism. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3015753963746035923&ei=e569SMDCKIKQjQLjrNChCQ&q=robin+ince&vt=lf

    Also Mr Patton Oswalt actually declares on one of his CDs that he’s 100% science. In addition, doesn’t Todd Barry have that BS meter all skeptics have? Something tells me he doesn’t do homeopathy….

    RH

  10. I have to agree with the others that many comedians who seem to parse as “skeptic” are really just “iconoclastic”. They love to slaughter sacred cows and serve them up with steak sauce and some fava beans, but not every comedian who has a rant against organized religion is necessarily a “skeptic”.

    I love Bill Hicks, I think of him as a prophet and a revolutionary. I love to believe that the God he speaks of is the “God” of Spinosa or Einstein, but I’m not 100% sure:

    Christianity has a built-in defense system: anything that questions a belief, no matter how logical the argument is, is the work of Satan by the very fact that it makes you question a belief. It’s a very interesting defense mechanism and the only way to get by it — and believe me, I was raised Southern Baptist — is to take massive amounts of mushrooms, sit in a field, and just go, “Show me.” — Bill Hicks

    Consistently skeptic? I’d say Carlin. His bullshit-detector was always going full-tilt, and it had an “eliminate” button. Possibly Izzard, maybe Lenny Bruce. But definitely Carlin.

  11. Doesn’t Izzard count as partly female? :-P

    Love, love, LOVE him. Not just as a comedian, but as an actor, too.

    Gosh, how COULD we forget the great Douglas Adams. The zoomed out version of my pic has a towel slung over my shoulder in irreverent remembrance.

  12. Can’t believe I’m only the second person mentioning Ricky Gervais, although I love Eddie Izzard too. I doubt anyone else has so many hours of content mocking stories about ghosts, paranormal events and such, and generally being skeptical of baloney, like Gervais does with his Xfm radio shows and the newer podcasts.

  13. I totally, passionately, whole-heartedly and vehemently second the Robin Ince mention up there, particularly for his creationism rant.

    And on the subject of underrated British comedians barely heard of outside the UK, Marcus Brigstocke is a genius, and hearing this rant go out on primetime radio made me prouder to live in this country than almost anything that year.

    I’ve just spent a while scouring YouTube to find something that might prove Rebecca wrong, but I got nothin’. Though I did find this lego animation of cake or death.

  14. Edward Current? Robin Ince? Marcus Brigstocke?

    Arrggghhh! I’m being sucked into a vortex of subjective opinion.

    We’ve turned the corner from the “greatest skeptical comedian of all time” to actors that are funny and maybe skeptical, to comedians who say things that aren’t really that funny but sound skeptical, which is not far from comedians who know what the word skeptic means, and of course that’s just a stone’s throw from a dude who simply once held a microphone and said religion sucks.

  15. I can’t believe no one’s mentioned David Cross. He’s what you might call a militant atheist. And makes no bones about it:

    “And the Pope is infallible, we’re taught that, Pope can’t make a mistake, so I don’t know why the Catholic church just doesn’t take that motherfucker to Vegas. ‘All right, put all the Catholic churches money on 17 black.’ [casino sound] ’32 red, I’m sorry.’ ‘No, I don’t think you heard, he said 17 black! Thank you! Let’s go to Bellagio!’ That way they could pay off those debts they owe.”

  16. Izzard, Izzard, Izzard. His rendition of “O God Our Help In Ages Past” was what turned me into a full-fledged fan.

    Also, if we’re counting authors, does anybody know anything about Terry Pratchett’s skeptic credentials? The fact that he’s collaborated with Neil Gaiman would make me wonder, even if I’d never read anything he’d written, but I can’t think of anything in his Discworld books that would make me think otherwise. He writes gods, but they’re very tangible, very human (only bigger and more capricious), and not in the least bit woo-ish.

    “…the gods had a habit of going round to atheists’ houses and smashing their windows.”

    Not much woo there … ;)

  17. One not mentioned so far would be the excellent Dave Allen, sadly no longer alive. Brought up in Ireland at a time when it was practically a legal requirement to be Catholic, he kept a strongly critical line on religion, especially Catholicism.

    A few clips of his routines/sketches on religion:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxo81Ok9Urk
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kLTbvjqF6Y
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhIaOFbrEtI&feature=related

    And his routines and sketches not on religion are also pretty damn good too, some of my favourites being these:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uouDt_LQTy0&feature=related
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivHcGZ0Pkao
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNRZl_fuquY

    And I do like what he wanted put on his tombstone: “Don’t mourn for me now, don’t mourn for me never – I’m going to do nothing for ever and ever.”

  18. Sam makes a fine point about the difference between “greatest ever” and “that person yelling about how god sucks is pretty funny.”

    For “greatest ever” I’m inclined to go with Voltaire. Granted, he’s a satirist and not strictly a comedian, but he’s wickedly hilarious. His skeptical credentials are top notch and he stands the test of time. Carlin might, but then again his comedy might also be lost to the shifting sands of pop culture.

  19. Penn & Teller aren’t strictly comedians, but they might qualify on some counts (comedy is certainly a part of their act.)

    Absolutely. In fact, the first time I ever saw them perform was on the MTV “Half-Hour Comedy Hour” back in the ’80s.

    I’ll throw Paula Poundstone into the ring as a female comedian who strikes me as at least more skeptical than the average person. Of course, I’m sure someone will follow up by pointing out that she supports alternative medicine or something.

  20. Indeed, of the modern comics Izzard is the most consistently skeptical and potentially transcends his time (at least, I think so, although I am but one voice among many.)

    But like Carlin, Izzard is still in the realm of “might be.” Then again, I have a hard time with judging the relative long term merit of anything in pop culture. Who knows, in 200 years they may be hailing the comic genius of Bob Saget.

  21. I think what MetalOperaChick is saying is that you can only be too cynical if you’re no longer alive. I mean, when you’re dead, everything is peachy. Not necessarily “good,” but nothing bad is going to happen to you after that, so what good is there being cynical? His cynicism hasn’t changed, just the vantage point of the cynic. He really shouldn’t have any more complaints at this point.

  22. Seems like people are confusing irreverent/irreligious with skeptical.

    Hicks was into all sorts of weird things, not counting conspiracies (which some can be true “Gulf of Tonkin” and some batshit insane “9/11 Troofers”)

    Carlin was really cynical, and I remember reading he was anti-vax (can’t site the source, so I’m not 100% sure)

    Lewis Black said on Larry Kind he believes in a god.

    The guys from South Park are really skeptical, but I think they, or at least Trey Parker is, into Deism.

    Izzard doesn’t really fit the bill because comedians are suppose to be funny.

    Jeanne Garofalo is an atheist, and sometimes funny, but she supports detox centers run by Scientologists, But, she’s from Jersey, so I’ll turn a blind eye to that.

    Silverman dated Jimmy Kimel, so she must lack some reasoning skills.

    So, for me, it’s P&T (but they are libertarians, so that might disqualify them) and Patton Oswalt.

  23. Arrggghhh! I’m being sucked into a vortex of subjective opinion.

    Oh no! Who would ever have thought that a discussion about comedy could result in such a thing?

    Heh, sorry – actually, you’re entirely right, and I do hold my hand up to being part of the digression onto irreligious or irreverent ranters, rather than real skeptics. Everyone else has already been (rightly) mentioning Carlin, Penn & Teller, and Eddie Izzard, though.

  24. guys from Monthy Python were going after all things “looney” from way back, although they surely lose a few points just for being British.

    Just saw John Cleese the other day making some new podcasts. Here’s one as a scientist explaining the belief in god: http://funkwarehouse.com/jcpods/john_cleese_podcast_32.mp4

    (He’s also on Twitter.com/JohnCleese which gets a few bonus points from me, although that does not necessarily have anything to do with skepticism or being funny).

  25. Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Penn & Teller, Douglas Adams (if not the entire Monty Python group – how could they not be suspects after the Holy Grail?) I’ve read a few of Penn & Teller’s print works and, yes, I think they qualify as comedians.

    I seriously suspect both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett of being skeptics after reading (and re-reading) Good Omens!

  26. I would vote for either Sarah Silverman or maybe Gilda Radner.
    I’ve seen Paula Poundstone live and she is about as irreverant as you can get but as previously said, that might simply be an attempt to be “iconoclastic”. (geez, I love that word..can I use it at work tomorrow?)

  27. I think we need to watch the tendency to conflate skeptic with atheist, as I am noticing that when many mention a skeptical comic, they tend to point out that the comic tends to only be skeptical of religion. There were several discussions at Dragon*Con dealing with this, it is possible to be a skeptic and religious or at least believe in some sort of a god, Matt Stone and Trey Parker are two good examples, as well as Martin Gardner and Hal Bidlack. Also, in the Penn Says on George Carlin it was mentioned that near the end he may have started to move towards some sort of spiritualism or god belief as a result of being in AA. Now back to the regularly scheduled thread.

  28. I didn’t realize I could nominate comidic writers until I was Douglas Adams. I now officially change my vote to Adams. I am not sufficiently conversant with Samuel Clemmens to rate him. Beyond Huck Finn I just haven’t read him.

  29. I was going to suggest Stephen Fry (The Hippopotamus is my favourite skeptical novel of all time), but having read the discussion I have to second Andrew’s suggestion of Dave Allen – a truly great stand-up (well mostly sit-down) comedian who never let his disdain for religion get in the way of his mockery of it.

  30. Do we know that Carlin was actually a skeptic? I know he was an atheist (although now that I think about it, I really just heard him bitch about Christianity and Catholicism — maybe he was a closet Buddhist). But I’m leery about using the two terms interchangeably.

    But then, I know little about the guy’s personal life.

  31. Flib, it’s good to see someone mentioned Adam Carolla. I don’t know for sure if he’s a “skeptic” or not, but I remember listening to Loveline when I was a teenager and being blown away by his anti-theistic rants. He’s probably one of the first people that exposed me to atheism (and definitely the reason I got into radio). As for my personal favorites, I like Penn, Hicks, David Cross, and Trey and Matt from South Park.

    Wasn’t one of Carlin’s routines something along the lines of “If man evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys around?” That always bugged me. But yeah, he’s awesome.

  32. I think Terry Pratchett can be safely counted as a skeptic: a lot of the Discworld series was about highlighting the absurdity of conventional Tolkein-style fantasy. I recall him saying at one SF Group meeting “You can’t just scale up ordinary creatures like frogs into big monsters: a ten-foot batrachian just wouldn’t be like that…”

  33. Early Carlin was great, but he just got grumpy and annoying in the end.

    I used to think that Bill Maher was skeptical, but he went all strange in the last couple of years as well.

    I vote for George Hrab. While he’s not really a comedian, he’s really funny and greatly skeptical. Check him out on the geologic podcast (sorry I don’t know how to link)

  34. I’ll vote for Bill Hicks as well, if for no other reason than his reaction when confronted by a pack of angry rednecks in the parking lot after a gig where he’d been less than kind to christianity:

    “We’re Christians an’ we din lahk what yoo juss sayed buoy!”

    Hicks: Then forgive me… And they did… all over the parking lot.

  35. I feel like I need to stick up for Joe Rogan here for one reason. While he does go for the ‘moon landing crap’, I heard him debate Astronomer Phil Plait about them, when he gets new information he listens. He had a bunch of reasons that he thought we didn’t land, and he listened when Plait had responses for them. That sounds like the definition of a skeptic to me.

  36. Bitwise (Post 71): “I’m also not sure about House. The whole thing is about evidence yet he tends to follow his gut and take illogical chances too often.”

    Don’t confuse Hugh Laurie’s personal opinions with whatever the American writers of “House” come up for his character. That’s like saying Morgan Freeman believes he’s God because he played the character in two movies.

    The character of Greg House is definitely an Atheist an Skeptic but the writers time and time again make sure “he learns his lesson” about being skeptical. I’d watch “A bit of Fry and Laurie” to get a better idea of the actors opinions.

  37. I heard him debate Astronomer Phil Plait about them, when he gets new information he listens.

    ———–

    Except that on the second day of that debate, he brought up the same stuff again, same Van Allen Belt stuff, etc, as if Phil had never set him straight. It was wild.

    If I can bring in Voltaire, I can sure as hell bring in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

  38. Fantastic question!

    Must admit, I registered for this site just so I could second the vote for Tim Minchin.

    We’re waiting to see if he has the longevity and international appeal of Eddie Izzard, but even if he doesn’t, it will all have been worth it just to hear him sing this one (cited above as well):

    If You Open Your Mind Too Much, Your Brain Will Fall Out (or, Take My Wife!)

  39. I’ll go for Stewart Lee. He’s really rather good.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4n-UGQcG3Jw&feature=related

    Also, as one of the writers and the director of Jerry Springer-The Opera, he made a documentary exploring blasphemy and it’s use in comedy. It’s a great watch.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jn2NMzb0OXU&feature=related

    (Alan Moore makes an appearance…..that’s always a good thing)

    (p.s. This is my first post, hello everyone!)

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