Miracle On 34th Street

Todd Hanson is the original head writer for The Onion, where he has worked since 1990.

As Christmas nears, people everywhere (they’ve done studies on this) find themselves in the grip of that bedeviling contradiction of the holiday season: the knowledge that while they are supposed to be happier than ever, they are in fact the most depressed they get all year. Ancient, timeless conundrums about the purpose of life, about how to treat ourselves and each other, about what to do and how and why—questions that run to the heart of the human condition—are supposed to be comfortingly answered by the heartwarming spirit of the holidays. But in fact, though we don’t like to admit this, they’re more pressing on people’s minds than ever.

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It’s a fundamental paradox.

Which brings us to Does Santa Exist? A Philosophical Investigation by the writer, scholar, and professional funnyman Eric Kaplan, a book about paradox that is itself a paradox: staggeringly erudite yet totally disarming, exceedingly complex yet rigorously commonsensical. It’s the sort of book that is exactly what the world needs more of but that doesn’t come along often enough.

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Full disclosure: I’ve known Eric for a long time. We met more than a decade ago, and since that time we’ve developed that rare sort of close friendship shared by two people who’ve never lived in the same city and can count the times they’ve hung out in each other’s actual physical presence on both hands and maybe one foot.

It is fitting that a book about paradox should be written by a man like Eric, who is a walking set of paradoxes himself. He’s a writer and co-executive producer on The Big Bang Theory, a show that most comedy snobs like myself would consider the embodiment of the mainstream and therefore lame, yet he’s also worked with people on the opposite end of the comedy-snob-coolness spectrum: Tony Millionaire, Adult Swim, Matt Groening. He’s Jewish enough that I’ve seen him wearing a yarmulke. (I’ve become close to a hell of a lot of Jews in my time, but Kaplan is one of only two people I’ve known that actually wore one, the other was a rabbi so radically progressive that his yarmulke might as well have had a Misfits logo on it.) But at the same time he knows more about Buddhism and hardcore logic than anyone you’re likely to meet. He knows more about Christianity than me, and I’m the son of a Lutheran minister, for Christ’s sake. He’s a first-rate intellect who studied philosophy at Harvard, but he speaks with a quiet, unpretentious simplicity that is childlike in the best sense of that word.

These sorts of contradictions, however, do not bother him; they are in fact one of his favorite things about life. Which is why the experience of reading Does Santa Exist? is such a strange and wonderful thing, and the book itself such an odd, rare bird to find sitting in one’s pear tree.

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Its topic is those things that are both real and unreal at the same time—and that are centrally, crucially relevant to us as human beings precisely because they are both real and imaginary at the same time. If that sounds bizarre, it is: This is a bizarre book, and fans looking just for familiar “Bazinga” zingers will be surprised by just how weird it is. But that does not mean they will not find in its pages something beyond their expectations to treasure into the New Year and beyond.

You might also say that its topic is religious faith, or maybe secular doubt, or even what 20th-century British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called “transitional space,” the core of his central idea of imagination and play, which he saw as the basis of human psychological growth. Kaplan does not mention Winnicott, that’s me saying that, and I’m sure there are several hundred other ways to say it as well, depending on which model or metaphor you might choose. Another way of saying it would be that its topic is joy.

And it is a joy to read, not only because it is so original and unexpected that it’s almost uncategorizable, but because so many comedians find joy to be an almost unapproachable subject. As one of our finest comic minds, Patton Oswalt, once joked, nobody ever walked onstage and got laughs by beaming from ear to ear and saying, “You know what’s awesome? Snuggling.” Comedy, though we don’t always think of it this way, is usually based in things we don’t like: sorrow, anxiety, defensiveness, hostility, derision, ridicule. Laughter is a startle reaction, a response to surprise, unexpected contradiction, sometimes even fear and loathing. The fact is that the insides of the heads of most people in comedy are often very dark. That they get laughter out of this darkness is another paradox.

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Kaplan is no stranger to this sort of darkness, but he approaches the question of life’s unresolved contradictions from a very different direction. In Does Santa Exist? he starts by asking how human beings should resolve life’s contradictions, and then examines different approaches that humans use to do so, to find out if they provide satisfactory answers. He begins this process with a seemingly simple anecdote: He tells the story of a parent at his child’s school who’s afraid that Kaplan’s son will reveal that Santa isn’t real.

Kaplan is bothered by this, because he feels the other parent is putting their child’s relationship with someone who doesn’t exist—Santa— over the relationship with someone who does. Is this legit, he asks himself, or isn’t it? He can think of good arguments both ways. And he uses this as a jumping-off point to the most fundamental confusions of the human race and proceeds to try to answer the question of life’s paradoxes from there.

The first approach he tries is the abstract, formal, capital-L Logic that philosophers and scientists use to attempt to explain and define reality from an intellectual perspective. This section of the book contains a lot of mentions of names like Wittgenstein, Tarski, and Russell. (But it’s also funny.) Not satisfied with these answers, Kaplan examines the same question of paradox from the opposite perspective, the mystical/religious tradition of Buddhist monks, Talmudic scholars, Zen koans, and the mythic, metaphysical, and supernatural. Here we get into areas involving things like The Tree Of The Sephirot and the multi-headed deity Avalokiteshvara. (But it’s also funny.) Again, he concludes that this approach has failed to resolve these paradoxes. Lastly, he examines an approach that splits the difference between the first two: the contradiction-embracing capacity known as a sense of humor.

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As a person who’s spent a quarter-century writing and/or thinking about comedy, I’ve always had a vague, unexplainable sense that comedy and satire were not just trivial and diverting entertainments, but legitimate methods of arriving at actual capital-T Truths. I’d read Tolstoy’s “The Death Of Ivan Ilyich” and said to myself, “My God, this is a literary masterpiece about death, yes, but this is a work of satire! Am I the only one who thinks this is satire?” Wary of the thought that I was maybe just reading too much into something I happened to do, I was always doubtful whether this was valid. Yet I kept seeing it everywhere—it is, for example, no secret that the 21st century has found our society in the strange position of actually having certain comedy programs on television that provide a truer version of “truth” than the one on the TV news—so finding the idea validated with such erudition and depth, for a person like me who struggles with the question of whether their existence has any meaning anyway, well, that felt kind of like a Christmas miracle right there.

Now, that’s me. I’m sure someone else’s takeaway from Kaplan’s brilliant, singular study would be very different. But that is, I think, the point. I don’t agree with everything in the book; for example, I have a very different take than Kaplan on a famous Richard Feynman story, and while I was tickled pink to see that he’d included an explication of one of my favorite stand-up one-liners of all time—it’s one of Sarah Silverman’s—I would have approached it differently. Kaplan doesn’t stop at comedy, though, and by the end of the book he’s actually answered the book’s title question. But what is truly interesting about this book is not its conclusions, but the fact that Kaplan isn’t all that interested in conclusions as such. He’s far more interested in people finding meaning, for themselves, in their own existence, than he is telling anybody what that meaning should be.

The world needs more of that attitude. In this cynical age, we could all use a little bit of that—especially on the coldest and darkest night of the year. I’ve spent a lifetime being a dismissive wiseass about that sort of thing, but I’m working on it. Oh, and by the way, Merry Christmas.

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