Finding Logic in Comedy

A Think Like a Coder Story
In “How to Think Like a Coder: Without Even Trying!”, author Jim Christian introduces the basics of logic (a common concept found throughout computer science, mathematics and literature) to readers of all ages. Here he describes how he found inspiration for the topic, through one of his favourite comedians – Steve Martin.
The purpose of “How to Think Like a Coder” is to make sure that all subjects relating to computer science are approachable and relatable. When I was thinking about how to introduce logic to my readers, I remembered an anecdote from Steve Martin’s autobiography, “Born Standing Up”. Steve Martin has been entertaining the world since the 1970’s as a comedian, actor, writer and musician – he was always a firm favourite in my household from old Saturday Night Live reruns to The Muppets and more. His discovery really resonated with me when I read it all those years ago. In his autobiography, “Born Standing Up”, he laments his early lack of ability to write comedy:

In logic class, I opened my textbook—the last place I was expecting to find comic inspiration—and was startled to find that Lewis Carroll, the supremely witty author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was also a logician. He wrote logic textbooks and included argument forms based on the syllogism, normally presented in logic books this way: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. _________________________________ Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
But Carroll’s were more convoluted, and they struck me as funny in a new way:
  1. Babies are illogical.
  2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile.
  3. Illogical persons are despised. _________________________________ Therefore, babies cannot manage crocodiles.
And:
  1. No interesting poems are unpopular among people of real taste.
  2. No modern poetry is free from affectation.
  3. All your poems are on the subject of soap bubbles.
  4. No affected poetry is popular among people of taste.
  5. Only a modern poem would be on the subject of soap bubbles. _________________________________ Therefore, all your poems are uninteresting.
These word games bothered and intrigued me. Appearing to be silly nonsense, on examination they were absolutely logical—yet they were still funny. The comedy doors opened wide, and Lewis Carroll’s clever fancies from the nineteenth century expanded my notion of what comedy could be.
I began closing my show by announcing, “I’m not going home tonight; I’m going to Bananaland, a place where only two things are true, only two things: One, all chairs are green; and two, no chairs are green.” Not at Lewis Carroll’s level, but the line worked for my contemporaries, and I loved implying that the one thing I believed in was a contradiction.
Lewis Caroll is known all over the world as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. It should come as no surprise to readers that Caroll was an accomplished logician, when you read passages like this:
If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see? Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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  1. Text from Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
  2. Steve Martin circa 1977 By Jim Summaria (WP:Contact us – Licensing) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  3. Alice par John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  4. Lewis Carrol Self Portrait circa 1856 By Reginald Southey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons