TED2002

Emily Levine: A theory of everything

Filmed:

Philosopher-comedian Emily Levine talks (hilariously) about science, math, society and the way everything connects. She's a brilliant trickster, poking holes in our fixed ideas and bringing hidden truths to light. Settle in and let her ping your brain.

- Philosopher-comic
Humorist, writer and trickster Emily Levine riffs on science and the human condition. Full bio

I am going to talk about myself,
00:12
which I rarely do, because I --
00:15
well for one thing, I prefer to talk about things I know nothing about.
00:18
And secondly, I'm a recovering narcissist.
00:23
(Laughter)
00:28
I didn't know I was a narcissist actually.
00:30
I thought narcissism meant you loved yourself.
00:32
And then someone told me there is a flip side to it.
00:35
So it's actually drearier than self-love;
00:37
it's unrequited self-love.
00:39
(Laughter)
00:42
I don't feel I can afford a relapse.
00:46
But I want to, though, explain
00:49
how I came to design my own particular brand of comedy
00:52
because I've been through so many different forms of it.
00:55
I started with improvisation,
00:57
in a particular form of improvisation called theater games,
00:59
which had one rule,
01:03
which I always thought was a great rule for an ethic for a society.
01:05
And the rule was, you couldn't deny the other person's reality,
01:08
you could only build on it.
01:12
And of course we live in a society that's all about
01:14
contradicting other peoples' reality.
01:17
It's all about contradiction,
01:19
which I think is why I'm so sensitive to contradiction in general.
01:21
I see it everywhere.
01:24
Like polls. You know, it's always curious to me
01:26
that in public opinion polls
01:29
the percentage of Americans who don't know the answer to any given question
01:31
is always two percent.
01:35
75 percent of Americans
01:37
think Alaska is part of Canada.
01:40
But only two percent don't know the effect
01:42
that the debacle in Argentina will have on the IMF's monetary policy --
01:45
(Laughter)
01:50
seems a contradiction.
01:51
Or this ad that I read in the New York Times:
01:54
"Wearing a fine watch speaks loudly of your rank in society.
01:57
Buying it from us screams good taste."
02:01
(Laughter)
02:04
Or this that I found in a magazine called California Lawyer,
02:06
in an article that is surely meant for the lawyers at Enron.
02:09
"Surviving the Slammer: Do's and Don'ts."
02:13
(Laughter)
02:17
"Don't use big words."
02:18
(Laughter)
02:20
"Learn the lingua franca."
02:21
(Laughter)
02:24
Yeah. "Lingua this, Frankie."
02:31
(Laughter)
02:33
And I suppose it's a contradiction that I
02:36
talk about science when I don't know math.
02:39
You know, because -- and by the way to I was so grateful to Dean Kamen
02:43
for pointing out that one of the reasons,
02:46
that there are cultural reasons
02:48
that women and minorities don't enter the fields of science and technology --
02:50
because for instance, the reason I don't do math is,
02:54
I was taught to do math and read at the same time.
02:57
So you're six years old, you're reading Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,
03:01
and it becomes rapidly obvious
03:04
that there are only two kinds of men in the world:
03:06
dwarves and Prince Charmings.
03:08
And the odds are seven to one against your finding the prince.
03:10
(Laughter)
03:13
That's why little girls don't do math. It's too depressing.
03:16
(Laughter)
03:19
Of course, by talking about science
03:25
I also may, as I did the other night,
03:27
incur the violent wrath of some scientists
03:29
who were very upset with me.
03:33
I used the word postmodern as if it were OK.
03:36
And they got very upset.
03:41
One of them, to his credit, I think really just wanted to engage me
03:44
in a serious argument.
03:47
But I don't engage in serious arguments.
03:49
I don't approve of them
03:52
because arguments, of course, are all about contradiction,
03:54
and they're shaped by the values that I have questions with.
03:57
I have questions with the values of Newtonian science,
03:59
like rationality. You're supposed to be rational in an argument.
04:03
Well rationality is constructed
04:07
by what Christie Hefner was talking about today,
04:09
that mind-body split, you know?
04:12
The head is good, body bad.
04:14
Head is ego, body id.
04:17
When we say "I," -- as when Rene Descartes said,
04:19
"I think therefore I am," --
04:21
we mean the head.
04:24
And as David Lee Roth sang in "Just a Gigolo,"
04:26
"I ain't got no body."
04:29
That's how you get rationality.
04:32
And that's why so much of humor
04:36
is the body asserting itself against the head.
04:38
That's why you have toilet humor and sexual humor.
04:42
That's why you have the Raspyni Brothers
04:45
whacking Richard in the genital area.
04:47
And we're laughing doubly then
04:51
because he's the body, but it's also --
04:53
Voice offstage: Richard.
04:56
Emily Levine: Richard. What did I say?
04:57
(Laughter)
04:59
Richard. Yes but it's also the head,
05:00
the head of the conference.
05:02
That's the other way that humor --
05:05
like Art Buchwald takes shots at the heads of state.
05:07
It doesn't make quite as much money as body humor I'm sure --
05:11
(Laughter)
05:14
but nevertheless, what makes us treasure you and adore you.
05:16
There's also a contradiction in rationality in this country though,
05:19
which is, as much as we revere the head,
05:23
we are very anti-intellectual.
05:26
I know this because I read in the New York Times,
05:28
the Ayn Rand foundation took out a full-page ad
05:32
after September 11,
05:35
in which they said, "The problem is not Iraq or Iran,
05:37
the problem in this country, facing this country
05:41
is the university professors and their spawn."
05:45
(Laughter)
05:48
So I went back and re-read "The Fountainhead."
05:56
(Laughter)
05:58
I don't know how many of you have read it.
06:00
And I'm not an expert on sadomasochism.
06:02
(Laughter)
06:06
But let me just read you a couple of random passages from page 217.
06:07
"The act of a master
06:12
taking painful contemptuous possession of her,
06:14
was the kind of rapture she wanted.
06:17
When they lay together in bed it was,
06:19
as it had to be, as the nature of the act demanded,
06:22
an act of violence.
06:25
It was an act of clenched teeth and hatred. It was the unendurable.
06:28
Not a caress, but a wave of pain.
06:32
The agony as an act of passion."
06:35
So you can imagine my surprise
06:38
on reading in The New Yorker
06:40
that Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve,
06:43
claims Ayn Rand as his intellectual mentor.
06:46
(Laughter)
06:49
It's like finding out your nanny is a dominatrix.
06:52
(Laughter)
06:55
Bad enough we had to see J. Edgar Hoover in a dress.
06:57
Now we have to picture Alan Greenspan
07:01
in a black leather corset, with a butt tattoo that says,
07:03
"Whip inflation now."
07:05
(Laughter)
07:07
And Ayn Rand of course, Ayn Rand
07:15
is famous for a philosophy called Objectivism,
07:17
which reflects another value of Newtonian physics,
07:19
which is objectivity.
07:22
Objectivity basically is constructed
07:24
in that same S&M way.
07:27
It's the subject subjugating the object.
07:30
That's how you assert yourself.
07:33
You make yourself the active voice.
07:35
And the object is the passive no-voice.
07:37
I was so fascinated by that Oxygen commercial.
07:40
I don't know if you know this but --
07:43
maybe it's different now, or maybe you were making a statement --
07:47
but in many hospital nurseries across the country,
07:50
until very recently anyway, according to a book by Jessica Benjamin,
07:53
the signs over the little boys cribs read,
07:57
"I'm a boy,"
08:00
and the signs over the little girls cribs read,
08:02
"It's a girl." Yeah.
08:04
So the passivity was culturally
08:07
projected onto the little girls.
08:11
And this still goes on as I think I told you last year.
08:13
There's a poll that proves --
08:16
there was a poll that was given by Time magazine,
08:18
in which only men were asked, "Have you ever had sex
08:22
with a woman you actively disliked?"
08:25
And well, yeah.
08:29
Well, 58 percent said yes,
08:31
which I think is overinflated though
08:33
because so many men if you just say,
08:35
"Have you ever had sex ... " "Yes!"
08:37
They don't even wait for the rest of it.
08:39
(Laughter)
08:41
And of course two percent did not know whether they'd had --
08:44
(Laughter)
08:47
That's the first callback,
08:50
of my attempted quadruple.
08:52
(Laughter)
08:54
So this subject-object thing,
08:57
is part of something I'm very interested in
09:00
because this is why, frankly, I believe in political correctness.
09:03
I do. I think it can go too far.
09:09
I think Ringling Brothers may have gone too far
09:11
with an ad they took out in the New York Times Magazine.
09:14
"We have a lifelong emotional and financial
09:16
commitment to our Asian Elephant partners."
09:19
(Laughter)
09:23
Maybe too far. But you know --
09:25
I don't think that
09:27
a person of color making fun of white people
09:32
is the same thing as a white person making fun of people of color.
09:34
Or women making fun of men is the same as men making fun of women.
09:37
Or poor people making fun of rich people, the same as rich people.
09:41
I think you can make fun of the have but not the have-nots,
09:43
which is why you don't see me making fun of
09:46
Kenneth Lay and his charming wife.
09:49
(Laughter)
09:52
What's funny about being down to four houses?
09:53
(Laughter)
09:56
And I really learned this lesson
09:58
during the sex scandals of the Clinton administration or,
10:01
Or as I call them, the good ol' days.
10:05
(Laughter)
10:07
When people I knew, you know, people who considered themselves liberal,
10:10
and everything else,
10:13
were making fun of Jennifer Flowers and Paula Jones.
10:16
Basically, they were making fun of them for being
10:19
trailer trash or white trash.
10:23
It seems, I suppose, a harmless prejudice
10:26
and that you're not really hurting anybody.
10:29
Until you read, as I did, an ad in the Los Angeles Times.
10:31
"For sale: White trash compactor."
10:36
(Laughter)
10:40
So this whole subject-object thing
10:48
has relevance to humor in this way.
10:51
I read a book by a woman named Amy Richlin,
10:55
who is the chair of the Classics department at USC.
10:59
And the book is called "The Garden of Priapus."
11:02
And she says that Roman humor
11:04
mirrors the construction of Roman society.
11:08
So that Roman society was very top/bottom,
11:12
as ours is to some degree.
11:15
And so was humor.
11:17
There always had to be the butt of a joke.
11:19
So it was always the satirist,
11:21
like Juvenal or Martial,
11:24
represented the audience,
11:27
and he was going to make fun of the outsider,
11:30
the person who didn't share that subject status.
11:33
And in stand-up of course,
11:37
the stand-up comedian is supposed to dominate the audience.
11:40
A lot of heckling is the tension
11:44
of trying to make sure that the
11:47
comedian is going to be able to dominate,
11:50
and overcome the heckler.
11:53
And I got good at that when I was in stand up.
11:57
But I always hated it because they were
11:59
dictating the terms of the interaction,
12:01
in the same way that engaging in a serious argument
12:04
determines the content, to some degree,
12:07
of what you're talking about.
12:10
And I was looking for a form
12:12
that didn't have that.
12:15
And so I wanted something that was more interactive.
12:17
I know that word is so debased now
12:24
by the use of it by Internet marketers.
12:28
I really miss the old telemarketers now, I'll tell you that.
12:32
(Laughter)
12:36
I do, because at least there you stood a chance. You know?
12:37
I used to actually hang up on them.
12:39
But then I read in "Dear Abby" that that was rude.
12:43
So the next time that one called
12:45
I let him get halfway through his spiel and then I said,
12:48
"You sound sexy."
12:50
(Laughter)
12:52
He hung up on me!
12:56
(Laughter)
12:58
But the interactivity allows the audience
13:06
to shape what you're going to do as much as
13:09
you shape their experience of the world.
13:12
And that's really what I'm looking for.
13:16
And I was sort of, as I was starting to analyze
13:18
what exactly it is that I do,
13:21
I read a book called "Trickster Makes This World," by Lewis Hyde.
13:23
And it was like being psychoanalyzed.
13:28
I mean he had laid it all out.
13:30
And then coming to this conference,
13:32
I realized that most everybody here
13:34
shared those same qualities
13:37
because really what trickster is
13:39
is an agent of change.
13:41
Trickster is a change agent.
13:43
And the qualities that I'm about to describe
13:45
are the qualities that make it possible
13:47
to make change happen.
13:50
And one of these is boundary crossing.
13:52
I think this is what so, in fact, infuriated the scientists.
13:56
But I like to cross boundaries.
13:59
I like to, as I said, talk about things I know nothing about.
14:01
(Phone Ringing)
14:05
I hope that's my agent,
14:07
because you aren't paying me anything.
14:10
(Laughter)
14:12
And I think it's good to talk about things I know nothing about
14:14
because I bring a fresh viewpoint to it, you know?
14:17
I'm able to see the contradiction
14:19
that you may not be able to see.
14:21
Like for instance a mime once --
14:23
or a meme as he called himself.
14:25
He was a very selfish meme.
14:27
And he said that I had to show more respect
14:31
because it took up to 18 years
14:35
to learn how to do mime properly.
14:37
And I said, "Well, that's how you know only stupid people go into it."
14:40
(Laughter)
14:44
It only takes two years to learn how to talk.
14:45
(Laughter)
14:48
(Applause)
14:52
And you know people, this is the problem with
14:54
quote, objectivity, unquote.
14:57
When you're only surrounded by people
14:59
who speak the same vocabulary as you,
15:01
or share the same set of assumptions as you,
15:03
you start to think that that's reality.
15:06
Like economists, you know, their definition of rational,
15:09
that we all act out of our own economic self-interest.
15:12
Well, look at Michael Hawley,
15:16
or look at Dean Kamen,
15:18
or look at my grandmother.
15:20
My grandmother always acted in other people's interests,
15:22
whether they wanted her to or not.
15:25
(Laughter)
15:27
If they had had an Olympics in martyrdom,
15:29
my grandmother would have lost on purpose.
15:32
(Laughter)
15:34
"No, you take the prize.
15:41
You're young. I'm old. Who's going to see it?
15:43
Where am I going? I'm going to die soon."
15:45
(Laughter)
15:47
So that's one -- this boundary crossing,
15:50
this go-between which --
15:53
Fritz Lanting, is that his name,
15:55
actually said that he was a go-between.
15:57
That's an actual quality of the trickster.
15:59
And another is, non-oppositional strategies.
16:01
And this is instead of contradiction.
16:05
Where you deny the other person's reality,
16:08
you have paradox
16:11
where you allow more than one reality to coexist,
16:13
I think there's another philosophical construction.
16:16
I'm not sure what it's called.
16:20
But my example of it is a sign that I saw in a jewelry store.
16:23
It said, "Ears pierced while you wait."
16:26
(Laughter)
16:30
There the alternative just boggles the imagination.
16:34
(Laughter)
16:37
"Oh no. Thanks though, I'll leave them here. Thanks very much.
16:39
I have some errands to run. So I'll be back to pick them up
16:42
around five, if that's OK with you.
16:45
Huh? Huh? What? Can't hear you."
16:48
(Laughter)
16:50
And another attribute of the trickster
16:56
is smart luck.
16:58
That accidents, that Louis Kahn, who talked about accidents,
17:01
this is another quality of the trickster.
17:05
The trickster has a mind that is prepared for the unprepared.
17:07
That, and I will say this to the scientists,
17:12
that the trickster has the ability to hold
17:16
his ideas lightly
17:20
so that he can let room in for new ideas
17:22
or to see the contradictions or the hidden problems
17:26
with his ideas.
17:29
I had no joke for that.
17:31
I just wanted to put the scientists in their place.
17:33
(Laughter)
17:36
But here's how I think I like to make change,
17:41
and that is in making connections.
17:45
This is what I tend to see
17:47
almost more than contradictions.
17:49
Like the, what do you call those toes of the gecko?
17:51
You know, the toes of the gecko,
17:55
curling and uncurling like the fingers of Michael Moschen.
17:57
I love connections.
18:01
Like I'll read that one of the two attributes
18:03
of matter in the Newtonian universe --
18:05
there are two attributes of matter in the Newtonian universe --
18:08
one is space occupancy. Matter takes up space.
18:11
I guess the more you matter the more space you take up,
18:14
which explains the whole SUV phenomenon.
18:17
(Laughter)
18:19
And the other one though is impenetrability.
18:22
Well, in ancient Rome, impenetrability
18:25
was the criterion of masculinity.
18:28
Masculinity depended on you
18:31
being the active penetrator.
18:33
And then, in economics, there's an active producer
18:36
and a passive consumer,
18:40
which explains why business always has to
18:42
penetrate new markets.
18:44
Well yeah, I mean why we forced China
18:47
to open her markets.
18:49
And didn't that feel good?
18:52
(Laughter)
18:54
And now we're being penetrated.
18:57
You know the biotech companies are actually going inside us
18:59
and planting their little flags on our genes.
19:02
You know we're being penetrated.
19:05
And I suspect, by someone who actively dislikes us.
19:07
(Laughter)
19:10
That's the second of the quadruple.
19:14
Yes of course you got that. Thank you very much.
19:17
I still have a way to go.
19:19
(Laughter)
19:21
And what I hope to do, when I make these connections,
19:25
is short circuit people's thinking.
19:28
You know, make you not follow your usual
19:32
train of association,
19:35
but make you rewire.
19:37
It literally -- when people say about the shock of recognition,
19:40
it's literally re-cognition, rewiring how you think --
19:43
I had a joke to go with this and I forgot it.
19:53
I'm so sorry. I'm getting like
19:56
the woman in that joke about --
19:59
have you heard this joke about the woman driving with her mother?
20:01
And the mother is elderly.
20:04
And the mother goes right through a red light.
20:06
And the daughter doesn't want to say anything.
20:08
She doesn't want to be like, "You're too old to drive."
20:11
And the mother goes through a second red light.
20:14
And the daughter says, as tactfully as possible,
20:17
"Mom, are you aware that you just went through two red lights?"
20:20
And the mother says, "Oh! Am I driving?"
20:24
(Laughter)
20:27
And that's the shock of recognition
20:33
at the shock of recognition.
20:35
That completes the quadruple.
20:37
(Laughter)
20:40
I just want to say two more things.
20:42
One is, another characteristic of trickster
20:46
is that the trickster has to
20:50
walk this fine line.
20:52
He has to have poise.
20:54
And you know the biggest hurdle for me,
20:56
in doing what I do,
20:59
is constructing my performance
21:01
so that it's prepared and unprepared.
21:03
Finding the balance between those things
21:06
is always dangerous
21:09
because you might tip off too much in the direction of unprepared.
21:11
But being too prepared doesn't leave room
21:14
for the accidents to happen.
21:17
I was thinking about what Moshe Safdie
21:19
said yesterday about beauty
21:24
because in his book, Hyde says that
21:26
sometimes trickster can tip over into beauty.
21:30
But to do that you have to
21:35
lose all the other qualities
21:38
because once you're into beauty
21:40
you're into a finished thing.
21:42
You're into something that
21:44
occupies space and inhabits time.
21:46
It's an actual thing.
21:48
And it is always extraordinary to see a thing of beauty.
21:50
But if you don't do that,
21:55
if you allow for the accident to keep on happening,
21:57
you have the possibility of getting on a wavelength.
22:01
I like to think of what I do as a probability wave.
22:04
When you go into beauty the probability wave
22:11
collapses into one possibility.
22:13
And I like to explore all the possibilities
22:16
in the hope that you'll be on the wavelength of your audience.
22:19
And the one final quality I want to say about trickster is
22:24
that he doesn't have a home.
22:27
He's always on the road.
22:29
I want to say to you Richard, in closing,
22:31
that in TED you've created a home.
22:35
And thank you for inviting me into it.
22:41
Thank you very much.
22:43
(Applause)
22:45

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Emily Levine - Philosopher-comic
Humorist, writer and trickster Emily Levine riffs on science and the human condition.

Why you should listen

Humorist Emily Levine works a heady vein of humor, cerebral and thoughtful as well as very, very amusing. Oh, she's got plenty of jokes. But her work, at its core, makes serious connections -- between hard science and pop culture, between what we say and what we secretly assume ... She plumbs the hidden oppositions, the untouchable not-quite-truths of the modern mind.

Her background in improv theater, with its requirement to always say "yes" to the other actor's reality, has helped shape her worldview. Always suspicious of sharp either/or distinctions, she proposes "the quantum logic of and/and" -- a thoroughly postmodern, scientifically informed take on life that allows for complicated states of being. Like the one we're in right now.